Pop culture has always been ahead of the game when it comes to opening the hearts and minds of society. Long before the majority of the U.S. supported marriage equality, believed LGBTQ rights were human rights and accepted that we were born this way, the LGBTQ community was being acknowledged in movies, music, TV shows, books and more.
We have gathered the ABC’s of LGBTQ pop culture moments from over the last quarter century on this page to remind you of a few of those times that made us feel like we were being seen.
Adam Rippon became the first openly gay man to compete for the U.S. in the Winter Olympics in 2018. Rippon went on to win a bronze medal as part of the U.S. male figure skating team in PyeongChang, making him the first openly gay U.S. athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics.
Brokeback Mountain, a same-sex love story between two male cowboys, is released by a major motion picture studio in 2005 and becomes a game changer in LGBTQ cinema. The film is nominated for nine Academy Awards—including Best Picture—winning three. Unfortunately, it loses the top prize to the film “Crash.”
Laverne Cox brings transgender issues into the mainstream with her role as Sophia in the hit Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black” in July 2013. Cox is nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance, making her the first openly trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy.
Jack and Ethan become the first televised same-sex kiss between two men on U.S. TV in the season three finale of “Dawson’s Creek” in 2000. The guy-on-guy action left many advertisers and TV censors panicked, but had fans cheering as it was one of the series’ highest-rated episodes.
Ellen DeGeneres made headlines around the world when she came out as a lesbian, in real life and on her network sitcom, in April 1997. “The Puppy Episode,” which saw DeGeneres’ character (also named Ellen) come out, was watched by 42 million people and won two Emmy Awards. DeGeneres would go on to host one of the most successful daytime talk shows of the 2000s and is one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood.
R&B artist Frank Ocean writes in an open letter posted to his Tumblr page in 2012 that his first true love was a man. Members of the hip hop industry mostly responded positively to Ocean’s declaration of love. While Ocean has not specifically labeled himself bisexual, he has stated that he has loved both men and women in the past.
The musical TV series “Glee” premieres on FOX in 2009. The show, which focuses on a high school glee club in Ohio, becomes an instant hit and makes openly gay series creator Ryan Murphy a household name. Murphy goes on to create some of the most talked about TV shows of the last 10 years, including “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” “Feud” and “Pose.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell writes and stars in a rock musical Off-Broadway (1998) and then in a film version (2001) of “Hedwig.” The musical follows a transgender rockstar who travels the country performing and looking for the ex-lover who stole her lyrics.
Ikea runs an ad on TV showing two men shopping for furniture together in 1994. It is the first TV commercial to feature a gay couple. Over the next 25 years, ads selling everything from soup and medicine to cars and banking services will feature same-sex couples doing the same day-to-day shopping that straight couples do.
Jonathan Larson writes the musical “RENT,” which opens on Broadway in 1996, changing the face of Broadway, musicals and how we see people living with AIDS. “RENT” becomes a cultural phenomenon, earning four Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy among its honors. Unfortunately, Larson doesn’t get to see any of its success as he unexpectedly dies at the age of 35 on Jan. 25, 1996, the day “RENT” began its Off-Broadway preview.
King, Billie Jean
One of the greatest to ever play the game of tennis, Billie Jean King is honored with the Smithsonian’s “Greatest Americans” medal in 2018. She is one of only five Americans to receive this honor to date and the only LGBTQ person.
Lady Gaga made it clear that it’s okay for members of the LGBTQ community to be themselves from the day she broke into the pop music scene with “The Fame” in 2008, but her hit single “Born This Way” became an LGBTQ anthem in 2011 and secured her spot in the equality history books.
“Moonlight” wins the Best Picture Oscar at the 89th annual Academy Awards in Feb. 2017. “Moonlight” was announced the victor after presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway incorrectly name “La La Land” the winner. “Moonlight” becomes the first LGBTQ-themed movie and the first film with an all black cast to win The Academy’s top prize.
Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris comes out as gay in 2006. Harris, best known up to that point as playing the titular character in the TV series “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” begins playing the straight, womanizing Barney Stinson on the hit sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” Harris becomes one of Hollywood’s “go-to” emcees for award season, hosting the Tony Awards four times, the Emmy Awards twice and the Academy Awards once.
President Barack Obama becomes the first sitting president to support marriage equality when, in a 2012 interview with ABC News, he says “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Three years later, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Obama has The White House lit up in rainbow colors.
Ryan Murphy’s drama series about the ballroom culture scene in 1980’s New York City, “Pose” premieres on FX in June 2018. The series features the largest transgender cast for any scripted TV show in history. “Pose” is a critical and commercial hit, earning several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” premieres on cable TV network Bravo in July 2003. The reality show introduces a team of gay men known as the “Fab Five”—chef Ted Allen, hairstylist Kyan Douglas, interior designer Thom Filicia, fashionista Carson Kressley and pop culture expert Jai Rodriguez—to straight guys “in need of a makeover.” The show is an instant hit and runs for five seasons. The series gets a reboot from Netflix in 2018 with an all-new Fab Five.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
Legendary drag queen RuPaul launches “Drag Race,” a reality competition series on the LGBTQ network Logo, in 2009. The show features RuPaul and a panel of judges selecting America’s next drag superstar. The show becomes a pop culture sensation and brings drag from LGBTQ bars to mainstream America, making the queens that appear on the show full-fledged royalty.
The paid cable channel Showtime sets itself apart from competitors HBO and Cinemax by giving audiences two of the first LGBTQ dramas on TV with “Queer as Folk” (QaF) in 2000 and “The L Word” in 2004. “QaF”—which runs for five seasons—looks at the lives of five gay men and a lesbian couple in Pittsburgh. “The L Word”—which runs for six seasons—follows a group of lesbian friends living in West Hollywood. Both shows develop dedicated fan bases.
“Transparent,” a dramedy series about a family coming to terms with their father coming out as transgender, debuts on Amazon Prime in 2014. Series creator Jill Soloway, who identifies as nonbinary and gender non-conforming, created the show after being inspired by their parent who came out as trans. The series ran for four seasons.
Universal Pictures releases “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” in 1995, starring mainstream Hollywood stars Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo as drag queens. The movie opened no. 1 at the U.S. box office.
Van Ness, Jonathan
Jonathan Van Ness, Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown and Bobby Berk are named the new Fab Five as Netflix reboots “Queer Eye” (dropping “For The Straight Guy” from the title) in 2018 for a new generation. The series moves out of the New York setting of the original and takes the makeovers to Atlanta and Kansas City.
Will & Grace
“Will & Grace” premieres on NBC in Sept. 1998, bringing LGBTQ characters, lives and storylines into primetime. The show is credited for educating Americans on LGBTQ issues and is said to be responsible for opening doors to more LGBTQ-themed programming in the 2000s. The show runs for eight seasons, winning 18 Emmy Awards, and is rebooted with the original cast for three more seasons starting in 2017.
X, Lil Nas
Lil Nas X and his song “Old Town Road” take the radio by storm in 2019. The remix of the part country-part rap song featuring Billy Ray Cyrus tops the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks. In June 2019, Lil Nas X comes out as gay on Twitter and, in doing so, becomes the first artist to do so while having a no. 1 hit song.
The word “yas,” which is actually much older than 25 years, makes its way into mainstream pop culture in the 2010s thanks to shows like “Drag Race,” “Broad City” and “Pose.” Yas—either by itself or grouped with words like “kween” or “bish”—become the chants of queens as their subjects clack their fans.
Pedro Zamora is one of the first openly gay men with AIDS to be portrayed in popular media. Zamora brought international attention to HIV/AIDS as well as LGBTQ issues and prejudices through his appearance on MTV’s reality television series, “The Real World: San Francisco” in 1994. Zamora dies on Nov. 11, 1994, hours after the final episode of “The Real World: San Francisco” airs on MTV.