Billy Porter and 6 More LGBTQ Stars Share First Memories of Onscreen Queerness

8:15 AM 6/14/2019

by Alexander Modiano

Billy Eichner, MJ Rodriguez and more share the early moments of representation that struck a nerve and helped form their developing identities.

Even the fiercest of today's LGBTQ icons were once confused queer kids. For Pride Month, Billy Porter, MJ Rodriguez, Billy Eichner, Ryan O’Connell, Kiersey Clemons, Shangela and Josh Thomas recount to The Hollywood Reporter the early moments of LGBTQ representation that struck a nerve with their young selves and helped form their developing LGBTQ identities.

For a young member of the LGBTQ community, navigating adolescence can be a long, lonely and confusing path. Even the smallest glimpse of queerness onscreen can prove to be life-changing for queer kids who long for anything to help them understand themselves. Before coming out — when LGBTQ identity struggles are almost entirely internalized — television screens and movie theaters are able to act as transformative portals of experience to life outside of the closet.

In the landscape of today’s film industry, which can host a gay teen romantic comedy like Love, Simon in mainstream theaters and celebrate a trans-led drama like Pose on cable, it’s easy to forget that positive LGBTQ representation is a largely modern-day phenomenon. When GLAAD’s "Where We Are on TV" report first launched in 2005, LGBTQ characters made up less than 2 percent of the characters on television. For the 2018-19 season, the report saw that number rise to a record 8.8 percent. However, for many of those responsible for creating the dynamic and diverse slate of LGBTQ stories on screen today, seeing any part of themselves reflected on screen growing up was a rare impactful event.

Whether it was sneaking in a late-night glimpse of a same-sex kiss or being able to relate to a visibly queer character on film, the moments of LGBTQ representation that stick with queer people say a lot about how they formed their own identities — and for some, it seems the most important images were the ones that were missing from the screen.

This Pride Month, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with seven members of LGBTQ Hollywood, who opened up about the moments of queerness on screen that helped shape their identities. Read on to see what they had to say.

  • Billy Porter

    Billy Porter
    Billy Porter
    Jim Spellman/WireImage

    "Well, the one thing that I saw and the only thing that I can remember is Making Love. It was 1982 and I don't remember much. All I remember is that it was Harry Hamlin, Kate Jackson and Michael Ontkean. It wasn't pleasant.

    "All of the images that had anything to do with LGBTQ when I was younger were all about secrecy, shame, violence and sickness. It was always something that was negative. Or it would be a kind of archetypal clown, like a Paul Lynd or Charles Nelson Reilly on one of these game shows, who were out but not out.

    "It was all shrouded in a sort of secrecy and shame. That's all I really remember about that time. When I was sort of coming-of-age in show business, there was no place, especially with black people. You really never saw someone who was a person of color doing that really. I don't remember any at all. The only images I saw were white people.”

    Billy Porter is an actor who currently stars as Pray Tell on FX's Pose.

  • Billy Eichner

    Billy Eichner
    Billy Eichner
    Walter McBride/FilmMagic

    "I remember I was always really excited about being gay, even as a kid. I think a lot of that came out of the imagery I saw in pop culture. I always thought being gay looked like it was the cool thing to be. I always just thought that the gay guys looked like they were having the best time and that they were funny and creative and smart. I was really happy to see ourselves represented.

    "But almost every representation of us that you saw at that time and even years after, you know, equated us with AIDS and with dying young and with the danger of being a sexually active gay person.

    "My parents were always really supportive luckily. One vivid memory I had was they took me to see Madonna's documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare — opening weekend because I had to see it immediately. In that movie, two of her dancers make out at the Gay Pride Parade. That was the first kiss onscreen between two men that I had ever seen. It was a powerful moment to be sitting there with my parents watching that. It's not like that led to some frank discussion about being gay. I obviously wasn't out of the closet yet, but just the fact that I could see that scene and see our community represented on the big screen in a movie theater. And that my parents could sit there watching that with me and not have a negative response to it let me know that it was going to be OK. That really speaks to the power of pop culture and visibility.

    "However, my feelings at the time were complicated. For me, it was obviously a very celebratory moment seeing these two men onscreen kiss. At the same time, I remember in that same scene they take a moment of silence at the Gay Pride Parade to remember men who had died of AIDS — that was basically the height of the AIDS epidemic.

    "In one way, it was very encouraging and inspiring, but at the same time growing up, I did equate the idea of being gay with the idea of possibly getting AIDS because that's what was being shoved down our throat at that time. I grew up in the '80s and the early '90s — the height of the AIDS epidemic — in New York City, where so many gay men were wiped out at that time and young gay people."

    Billy Eichner is an actor and comedian who will voice Timon in Disney's upcoming remake of The Lion King.

  • MJ Rodriguez

    Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

    "When I was around the age of 11, I started watching Will & Grace. That was the first time I actually saw queer stories and people who were allies on national television, but there obviously weren't any trans women on that show — of any diaspora.

    "The other show that really reached out to me was Noah's Arc. I watched it on repeat almost every single time I got a chance to. Not only was this a highlight of African American queer culture, but there were a lot of trans women that were featured on that show. While a lot of them did not have leading roles, they were still faces onscreen that I could recognize and relate to.

    "There was one episode, where the character Alex was doing a drag show. I remember all of them getting up in drag and singing 'Loving Is Really My Game.' I remember Alex having a complete breakdown before he went on. It was the most hilarious breakdown, but it was also an eye-opening moment of someone going out and exploring their queerness. I just thought it was beautiful that he actually just dove into that. His friends were supportive, obviously, and they went up there with him to grow."

    MJ Rodriguez is an actress who currently stars as Blanca on FX's Pose.

  • Kiersey Clemons

    Kiersey Clemons
    Kiersey Clemons
    Phillip Faraone/WireImage

    "It's funny because I think everyone’s first experience with seeing anyone gay onscreen was always the typical flamboyant gay guy — like on Friends. When did I see something that made me go, 'Oooh'?

    "It's funny because it was The Color Purple.  I, for some reason, wasn't allowed to watch a lot of stuff growing up. If it was going to make me sad or someone was dying in a Disney movie, we would end the movie before that or skip over that part.

    "I remember specifically my aunt had The Color Purple on VHS. I remember seeing it in the box and being like, 'What is this? I hear about this. What is The Color Purple?' And I sneaky-watched it. I was 10 and I sneaky-watched The Color Purple. It’s such a funny sneaky-watch.

    "Seeing two black women kiss blew my mind. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen. It was definitely the first time that I had ever seen that. The Color Purple was my first introduction to understanding a lot of things about being black, but especially black queerness. I was 10 and I got chills all over my body from seeing Celie and Shug kiss in The Color Purple. That was my shit."

    Kiersey Clemons is an actress who will play Darling in Disney's upcoming Lady and the Tramp remake.

  • Ryan O'Connell

    Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix

    "Age 8. Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life. I didn't know I was gay but I felt a kinship with this character that I couldn't articulate.

    "But if we're being BRUTALLY HONEST HERE BABE, I've never really seen anyone quite like myself onscreen (gay, disabled, good luck with your projects) so that's been the driving force behind my work, to make sure that identities like mine don't get erased and that they are created by the people who've actually lived these experiences."

    Ryan O'Connell is a writer and actor who created and stars in Netflix's Special.

  • Shangela

    Mike Marsland/WireImage

    "When I grew up in Perris, Texas, I did nothing but go to school and sit in front of a television at the end of the day! I remember seeing the film To Wong Foo [Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar] for the first time. I never saw in a theater, but when it first came on video copy, I got a blockbuster copy of To Wong Foo.

    "It was my first time really seeing drag queens in a fun movie that celebrated drag. It showcased that people who are different or who society does not understand can still have a positive impact on the people around them — even in a place where there was no one else like them. That's how I felt being in Perris, Texas. There were a lot of times where I would look around and think I was the only person like me — probably in the whole world. Seeing them and their positive images onscreen was so impactful. I thought, 'God, I hope everyone sees this film.'

    "There are so many hilarious moments in the film, but even in my drag career, I felt like Ms. Chi-Chi Rodriguez because she started out rough around the edges and she pulled it together with the help of her sisters. I feel like that's a big part of my journey as well in drag.

    "I also remember the line where Stockard Channing says to Patrick Swayze in drag, Ms. Vida, 'I don't think of you as a man. I don't think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel.' He looked  back at her and goes, 'I think that's healthy.' I just thought that was so cool that this straight lady from random middle-America-small-country town saw these drag queens and embraced them for the positive impact they had on her life. I thought that was just so kind and sweet and loving and I wanted to be like that."

    Shangela is an actor and drag performer known for her appearances on RuPaul's Drag Race and in last year's A Star is Born.

  • Josh Thomas

    Josh Thomas
    Josh Thomas
    Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

    "Definitely, the most present early memory for me is the sex scene in the first episode of the British Queer as Folk where one actor was rimming another actor — which I guess was an extreme thing to show on TV. I remember every single frame of the scene. They were all sweaty. It definitely was one of the first things I saw and thought, 'Well, maybe I'm into boys.' It was just really compelling television and so pretty.

    "I guess I would have been around 12 when I saw it and it was still another seven years and so before I came out. I don't know I got my hands on it. I just remember sitting on the floor and this boy's head poked up from this other boy's butt and I thought, 'What is going on here and how do I get involved?'

    "I tried to sort of re-create it on Please Like Me. I was talking to our director and I was like, 'Look at this sex scene. I want the scene to be like this.' And we sorta gave it a go, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't right. You can't copy Queer as Folk from Britain in the '90s and hopefully, get the same magic. Also, you know, it's like my face instead of those really dreamy Queer as Folk boys. That kind of ruins it a little bit.

    "It also made me realize that gay sex scenes are really important. You don't get to see that much gay intimacy on TV, like genuine sincere intimacy. That was something that I really want to show in Please Like Me and in my new show, Everything's Gonna Be Okay, because you don't get to see it that much. You can watch porn, which sometimes they try and make it romantic, but usually the jizz gets in the way. Where else do you really get to see it? It's not like you get couples at school to look at. Well, I certainly didn't."

    Josh Thomas is an Australian comedian known for creating and starring in Please Like Me. He is currently shooting his new project, Everything's Gonna Be Okay, for Freeform.