LGBTQ Stars on the First Time They Saw Themselves Represented on Screen (Exclusive)

Pride 2020: Jake Borelli, Laverne Cox, Brian Michael Smith
Getty Images

Laverne Cox, Jake Borelli, Brian Michael Smith and more recall the impact and importance of being represented on film or TV.

In 2020, two documentaries, Disclosure and Visible: Out on Television, examined a history of on-screen representation for the LGBTQ community and what that meant for not only those involved in those portrayals but for those watching them. For a long time, film and TV has been an opportunity to expand visibility, albeit with plenty of missteps along the way, and for people watching to find or see themselves in a way that never have before.

“It’s easy to turn on your television now and go, ‘Almost every show has an LGBTQ character,’ and just assume that that’s a natural thing,” Wilson Cruz previously told ET. “But, you know, that didn’t just happen. It happened because a lot of people risked a lot in order to tell those stories.”

Today, the power and impact of visibility has not changed, with more and more groundbreaking shows -- from Orange Is the New Black to Love, Victor -- continuing to push storytelling forward with authentic representation and inclusivity in front of and behind the scenes. 

Disclosure executive producer and star Laverne Cox, Grey’s Anatomy actor Jake Borelli, 9-1-1: Lone Star’s Brian Michael Smith and many more recall to ET the first time they saw themselves represented on screen and what that meant to them. Here’s what they had to say: 

Laverne Cox
Executive Producer, Disclosure

“I grew up on mainly daytime talk shows. I remember Caroline Cossey was the first trans woman who was a celebrity. She is a model and she was in a James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. She's the first openly trans person to be on the cover of Playboy magazine in 1991. And she did the talk show circuit after she was outed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. She was so poised and elegant. I remember seeing her on TV and I didn't quite fully identify with her. She was white, she didn't click with me fully. I don't think I ever fully felt represented on television until I saw Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money in 2007 after I’d already transitioned. There was nothing in the media that helped me to see myself at the time I transitioned 22 years ago in 1998. So it was meeting real-life trans people after moving to New York City, meeting real-life trans people where I saw myself. I didn't see myself reflected in the media honestly until 2007.”  

Jake Borelli
Actor, Grey’s Anatomy

“When I was in my early teens, I would stay up super late -- we're talking, like, 3 to 4 a.m. -- to watch reruns of Degrassi: The Next Generation, because it was the first time I saw other gay teens my age represented on TV. It was incredible to see storylines that I could vaguely relate to, but in hindsight, the fact that I had to stay up so late to sneak in a few episodes caused me to believe these storylines were somehow wrong and it corroborated these fears I had that being gay was taboo and needed to be something reserved for the late-night TV crowd. It was both liberating and lonely.” 

Brian Michael Smith
Actor, 9-1-1: Lone Star

Orange Is the New Black was a game changer for me; Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset was the first trans series regular character I’d seen. She was Black and she was a multi-dimensional person. A parent, a hairstylist, she had friendships, relationships. I felt like the way the show depicted her backstory was handled so powerfully. That was the first time I really knew and believed that it would be possible to play an authentic trans character in a regular role. Not too long after OITB debuted, I was at NewFest and I saw Black Is Blue, a short film by Cheryl Dunye about a Black trans man trying to make it in Oakland. It was the first time I could recall seeing a Black trans man on screen and this was in 2015. So it was like a revelation for me. Not only was the character trans but so was the actor, Kingston Faraday, and the whole story was about him. My mind was blown and I knew after watching it that I wasn’t going to let any of those old thoughts about what I will and won’t be able to play stop me from seeking the stories that I want to tell and the characters that I want to play. It’s a short but it’s worth a watch because it provides a realistic look at the housing insecurity many LGBT people face and the under-explored issue within the LGBT of losing community when one comes out as trans or decides to transition.”

Brandon Kyle Goodman
Actor, Modern Love

True Blood’s Lafayette, played by the brilliant Nelsan Ellis. I have a very low tolerance for blood, jump scares, and monsters, but for Lafayette, I put all that aside. It was the first time I remember seeing a Black queer character so full, so funny, so strong, and not an accessory. He wasn't there to deliver a punchline or fix someone's makeup. He embraced his masculinity and femininity with an ease I aspired for. He lived unapologetically at the intersection of blackness and queerness without being a trope. His storyline wasn't rooted in an oppression-based narrative of coming out or fighting racial injustice. He got to fight monsters and commune with vampires! He was and continues to be an important touchstone in my relationship to media both as a consumer and an artist. I wish there were more opportunities to see and play characters like Lafayette, but because of his existence, I know what I'm fighting towards.”

Host, We’re Here

“The first time that I truly saw myself on screen was in a Black gay series called Noah’s Arc created by Patrik-Ian Polk. Seeing Black queer characters that were funny, complicated and multilayered people was a complete representation of my friends and I. For me, this was a real validation of my life, sexuality and the way I loved.”

Nicole Maines
Actor, Supergirl

“When I was little, I was always playing dress up. Dress up for me was the time where -- even when my parents weren't on board -- it was a time where I could wear clothes and portray characters that I identify with and saw myself in. For me, the characters that I saw myself in were The Little Mermaid, Wendy from Peter Pan. Dorothy was also a big hit for me... And a character that I really, really identified with growing up, strangely was Storm from X-Men because, I was like, ‘Her hair was so amazing. Her costume was so dramatic. She had the best powers and she was just so commanding and statuesque.’ I was like, ‘Oh, work b*tch!’ That for a young trans kid who wanted to be all of those things, seeing her on the original X-Men animated series and watching her fly around and shoot lightning at people in a cape, in that hair, just being fabulous, I was like, ‘Oooooh, I want to be everything that you are. You are a goddess to me!’” 

Wilson Cruz
Executive Producer, Visible: Out on Television

“The first time I saw myself represented on TV, was -- as obnoxious as this sounds -- was the first time I saw MYSELF on TV! Growing up, there were zero people I could look to for representation. I longed and searched for someone to speak to my experience as gay boy of color, so that I could know that I, too, mattered... that my lived experience was one that was worthy of expression and that I wasn’t alone. I never got that, but I did get to be that for someone else and that is something that I’ll be PROUD of for the rest of my life.”

Michael James Scott
Actor, Aladdin (Broadway)

“On screen, I will never forget seeing the movie Mannequin and the actor Meshach Taylor as Hollywood Montrose. It was a moment in time when I saw this fabulous Black man playing a character who was not afraid of being himself. At the time, I just remember enjoying the performance, but what I now know was the importance of the impact it had on my hope of one day being able to walk in my truth as fabulous as I want to be!”

Matt Bomer
Actor, Doom Patrol

“I have to be honest, I think I really looked at this stage first and to writers, like Larry Kramer and Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner, people who were writing gay characters who had dimension and depth and weren't just some sort of set dressing or even a stereotype. They had real dimension and pathos to them. So I think the stage was where I first found that. Of course, I knew of actors like Montgomery Clift, who were gay and loved their work, but there just wasn't really any access to that in an open way in film that I was allowed to see as a kid growing up.”

Nikki Levy
Creator, Don't Tell My Mother!

“The first time I saw myself (a feminine lesbian) was watching Rent at the Shubert Theater in Chicago in 1997. I was studying at Northwestern University, and I had just come out as ‘liking girls’ to my two best friends, Brian and Steven, who were also coming out. Brian's boss surprised us with front-row tickets to Rent, the famed Broadway show that had just come to Chicago from New York City. I heard it contained (whispers) gay themes. As a newly-out kid, I wanted gay ANYTHING. From the moment the curtain went up, every cell in my little queer body started shooting rainbows. Joanne and Maureen had a brief kiss at the end of ‘La Vie Boheme,’ but it was their sexy, seductive push and pull in the iconic duet ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ that put me over the edge. That love, that longing, those sexy dance moves. God, I was such a baby dyke! The next week, I took my student loan money and bought another ticket to the show. Joanne and Maureen, I'll love you forever.”

Telly Leung
Actor, Aladdin (Broadway)

“I actually can’t remember. I grew up in a traditional Chinese home. I’m bilingual, and I remember my parents watching Chinese sitcoms from Hong Kong. They would rent them from a video store in Chinatown. But, to be completely honest, I saw very few people who looked like me on TV or on a screen when I was a little kid.”

Rahne Jones
Actor, The Politician

“The first time I saw myself on screen was when I saw Lena Waithe as Denise in Master of None. It was the first time I saw a Black lesbian on TV who wasn't femme and I was floored! In that moment, I thought there could be space for me in Hollywood, which is something I never felt was possible.” 

Scott Turner Schofield
Actor, Studio City

“I play Max in Studio City on Amazon Prime. When I found out that I am the first out transgender man to be nominated for an acting Emmy (in either Daytime or Primetime), I was shocked, because it is 2020 -- how has this not happened by now? The recognition is a huge honor, but most exciting, it means that things are continuing to change for trans actors in Hollywood. I literally never saw another person like me on screen, when I was growing up. Right after I came out as trans, Hilary Swank won an Oscar for playing the trans man Brandon Teena in the film Boys Don’t Cry. So I didn’t see myself, because Swank is a woman, and I knew I was not a woman. And then, the first time I ever witness the story of a person like me at the movies, he gets raped and murdered. I hoped that wouldn’t be my story. But that's what fueled me to make an acting career for myself. I knew that if I wanted to see stories about people like me, I was going to have to help make them. First, I made one-man shows -- because I couldn’t get cast as a transgender person in anybody else’s plays, back then. In 2015, I had my TV breakthrough, and I was the first transgender actor in Daytime TV, on The Bold and the Beautiful. Since then I’ve starred in films and guest starred in other series. My own film about being a trans man -- Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps -- premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, and we’re looking for a place for it, so that anyone like I was can see a deep and authentic story about it.”

Paula Pell
Creator, Mapleworth Murders

“The first gay women I remember on screen is the movie Personal Best. It was about two track stars that fell in love and even though it was at a time where everything was closeted in my own life with my first girlfriend, they portrayed their young love as sweet and natural and I couldn’t believe it. I watched it many times and even though like all gay stories then, it didn’t have a happy ending for them, it felt affirming and hopeful to me. We watched it recently and it was still so good.” 

Sherry Cola
Actor, Good Trouble

“I remember being obsessed with the TV show South of Nowhere when I was in high school. It's about a small-town girl who moves to L.A. and meets this girl who makes her question her sexuality. IT WAS RELATABLE AF. I would watch it nervously because I felt so seen, and I didn't know how to handle these feelings. At that point, I wasn't fully comfortable in my bisexual skin because I didn't know how to define it. I was ‘intrigued’ by girls and always had these ‘zero to a hundred’ friendships, which I now realize were total crushes. Because I saw that storyline on the screen, I knew I wasn't the only person in the world going through some type of sexual identity crisis. It was cool seeing these stories, but it wasn't even on a mainstream channel. That's why it's unbelievably necessary to continue showing this on screen, so that young queer girls never feel like they're going through something alone!”


--Additional reporting by Larry Dechant, Nischelle Turner and Philiana Ng