What TV Gets Right About Coming Out

“When I was a kid, I would get these headaches, and I went to the doctor, and they said that I needed glasses. I get the glasses, and I put them on, and I’m in the car on the way home, and suddenly I yell. Because the big green blobs that I had been staring at my whole life, they weren’t big green blobs. They were leaves on trees. And I didn’t even know I was missing the leaves. I didn’t even know that leaves existed, and then…leaves! You, [Callie Torres] are glasses.”

-Dr. Erica Hahn, “Grey’s Anatomy”

One of the pivotal, defining moments in the life of a gay or bi individual is coming out. It is a universally shared experience that is almost, though not entirely, unique to our community—everyone has her own coming out process.  Whatever the steps taken to get there, this process normally reaches its apex in a coming out moment (or most commonly, multiple moments) to family or loved ones. It is most often highly emotionally charged and nerve wracking, and the experience can be either cathartic or traumatic depending on its reception.

“I am EXTREMELY gay!”

For TV show writers, the coming out storyline is more than attractive for gay characters. It is an emotionally fraught odyssey for a character that builds over time, crystallizing in a single dramatic moment that explodes in a big bang of emotions. This moment is a catalytic even that irreversibly changes the life trajectory of the character, opening up new storylines such as the first same-sex partner.

For liberal, socially conscious shows, writers can also use the reactions of the other characters to a character’s coming out to subtly influence societal perceptions and acceptance of the sexual spectrum. In short, it’s easy to see why coming out storylines have appeared again and again on screen since the early to mid-2000s. And luckily for the lesbian and gay community, they are normally pretty good.

Since the 2000s, how the actual “coming out moment” itself has been portrayed on television has changed, in part reflecting society’s changing attitudes about homosexuality. While gay characters continue to feel emotional angst over both their newfound identity and their fear of social rejection, the characters around them have been more sympathetic and receptive to their coming out. Both of these reactions are realistic.

In “South of Nowhere” (2005-2008) for example, Paula Carlin physically drags Ashley Davies out of the house after finding her in bed with her daughter Spencer. When Spencer asks, “Why can’t you just accept that this is who I am?” Her mother replies, “Because who you are is not acceptable!” Spencer’s father and one of her brothers support Spencer and Ashley’s relationship, but her other brother, mother, and grandmother are initially hostile. The fictional Carlin family’s divide in the mid-2000s, in addition to accurately representing how a family can have split reactions to a member’s coming out, was symbolic of American society’s ambivalence about homosexuality during the dawn of gay marriage.

Fast forward over a decade to when Alex Danvers comes out to her sister on “Supergirl” (2015-). Kara Danvers apologizes “For not creating an environment where you felt that you could talk about this with me… I know that this is not the same at all, but I do know how it feels to keep a part of yourself shut off, to keep it inside. And I know how lonely that can make you feel.” Not only is Kara 100% on board, but Alex’s mother Eliza and coworkers, too, are supportive.

"Are you telling me you're gay, too?"
“Are you telling me you’re gay, too?”

Although the overwhelming acceptance and support Alex receives from her family and peer group does not mirror the experiences of many gay individuals, who continue to face homophobia in their families and among friends and are sometimes still kicked out of their homes, it is becoming increasingly more common for Millennials and Generation Z in America.

Nor is the difference between coming out in the early 2000s and 2016 lost on the writers of “Supergirl”: in a “coming out about coming out” moment, Alex’s girlfriend Maggie Sawyer details how she was involuntarily outed at age 14 and kicked out by her father, forcing her to live with relatives for three years…in what would have been the mid-2000s.