'The Fosters' Takes a Groundbreaking Step Forward for Gay Teens on TV

'The Fosters' Takes a Groundbreaking Step Forward for Gay Teens on TV
ABC Family
ABC Family

Jude Foster kissed a boy Monday night, and it was positively groundbreaking. The character on ABC Family's The Fosters and his friend Connor Stevens are 13. Their kiss — but more importantly, their story — is the latest in a series of impressive steps forward for gay teens on television.

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After a friendship spanning The Fosters' first two seasons, Jude and Connor's relationship has taken a romantic bent in recent episodes. After kissing in a tent on a camping trip — off-screen — the two have been exploring their attraction with a smile here, a brush of hands there. We've seen similar plots before: One boy reads feelings into their relationship, and the other freaks out in response. But seeing mutual attraction play out in this fashion, especially among characters so young and not assured of their sexuality, is distinctive. It's a positive example for teen viewers that feels organic to the characters. It is yet another marker of tremendous progress for LGBTQ representation on TV.

Said progress has been slow at times, however. It was just 13 years ago that we saw the first kiss between two gay teen characters on TV: Jack and his boyfriend, David, on Dawson's Creek. Between now and then — and even before that step — both daytime and primetime TV saw a host of gay teens making their contributions to the long road ahead. Though Jude and Connor's kiss is thrilling, it's vital to remember those characters that helped pave the way.

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The first steps were small. The first queer teen character on primetime TV premiered in 1994 on a show as unprecedented as he was: My So-Called Life's Rickie Vasquez. A bisexual 15-year-old played by Wilson Cruz, Rickie was the best friend of series lead Angela Chase (a very young Claire Danes), but wasn't just an accessory for her. Like all the characters on the mid-'90s show, he had a difficult life with serious problems. He was kicked out of his home and found mentorship with his gay English teacher. He never had any explicitly romantic plots; that would have to wait for Jack McPhee to join Dawson's Creek in 1998.

Though Jack stuck around the Creek for the rest of its run, getting his first kiss in season three, the show's ratings were never spectacular. Worse even, Rickie's show was cancelled after only one season. So visibility of gay teens grew slightly in the '90s thanks to network TV. But even more progress was being made in an unexpected place: daytime TV.

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Soaps made some leaps and bounds. Ryan Phillippe kicked off his career on One Life to Live playing gay character Billy Douglas in 1993, two years before Rickie debuted on My So-Called Life. He came out in response to rumors that he was molested by a reverend in town — not exactly the ideal first step, but an important one.

In 2007, fifteen years after Billy, daytime TV saw its first gay kiss between two characters: Luke and Noah on As the World Turns. "Nuke," as the couple was called by fans, weren't just the first gay teens to kiss, but the first gay couple on any soap. They inspired fan devotion, quickly racking up views for the YouTube clip of their first kiss and amassing angry responses when it took months for the characters to kiss again. They finally did. Other characters made waves in the early 2000s, including lesbian Jessie Sammler on Once and Again (played by none less than Evan Rachel Wood) and Will Horton on Days of Our Lives, who was the first gay teen to eventually get married on daytime TV.

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Primetime TV caught up in the mid-aughts — particularly with three specific characters. Andrew Van de Kamp was part of the campy world of Desperate Housewives, but his story of coming to terms with his sexuality, and with his own bad behavior, was played gracefully. Andrew wasn't an angel — he worked as an escort, got high and slept with his mother's boyfriend — but it was a time for characters who weren't always saints.

On Ugly Betty, Justin Suarez followed in Rickie Vasquez's footsteps as a queer Latino character coming to terms with his sexuality. Mark Indelicato played Betty's adolescent cousin as charmingly invested in fashion and culture, but never over-sexualized the character. When Justin came out and had his first kiss in later seasons, it was quiet and lovely. 

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Glee's Kurt Hummel could never be called many things, but "quiet" would not be among them. Played by Chris Colfer, Kurt was a loud-and-proud example of the early-2010s #ItGetsBetter movement. Viewers watched him come out, crush, get crushed and fall in and out of love. His arc wasn't subtle, but it resonated with audiences. There were and are other gay teens on Glee, including his longtime love interest Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), but Kurt is the standard-bearer.

Young adult-aimed networks have taken the lead in recent years. Though some were older teens, like college-aged Calvin on ABC Family's Greek, there have been a wide variety of high school gays and lesbians on networks like The CW and MTV. Pretty Little Liars's Emily. 90210's Teddy Montgomery. The Secret Life of the American Teenager's Griffin. Gossip Girl's Eric van der Woodsen. The Carrie Diaries' Walt. Faking It's Amy and Shane. Teen Wolf's Danny and Ethan. Each of these characters has and had a small role in increasing visibility of gay teens on TV, and their collective impact is great. 

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For young people in their preeminent days of sexual development, it's imperative to see these different types of LGBTQ characters: Lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, queer people of all kinds; visibility is how progress is made. Visibility is how, to borrow a phrase, it gets better.

Now, Jude and Connor have taken another step down that path. Luckily, they're less alone than they once would have been — as Rickie, Jack and Billy once were. Yet as some shows with gay characters fall away (as Glee departs, so do half a dozen LGBTQ characters), TV needs more queer role models of all kinds and ages. Tremendous progress has been made in the past two decades, but the goal is to get to the point where the history of gay teens on TV is so rich, it can't be summed up with a few YouTube clips and IMDb credits. Only then — only when Jude and Connor's kiss is just an ordinary day on TV — will progress truly be complete.