As far as pop culture is concerned, 2016 was really dang queer. This year, the LGBTQ+ community flourished and fought back, was torn down and built itself back up again. It suffered the loss of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, three LGBTQ+ cultural icons, while also facing horrific tragedy in Orlando.
Although not all of what happened was positive, each instance helped illuminate something important about queer experiences in 2016.
Let’s get it straight — well, um, maybe not straight — and break down some of the moments that mattered.
Queer women win — finally
This year highlighted the talent and strength of queer women in many ways.
At the Emmys, Sarah Paulson, Kate McKinnon and “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway all took home trophies for their respective work on television.
McKinnon’s win was historic, as she became the first openly lesbian “Saturday Night Live” cast member to win for her work on the show. Paulson, who has been nominated six times over the past four years, also won her first Emmy. And Soloway was rewarded for her authentic storytelling on “Transparent,” a show based in part on her life.
We saw Laverne Cox take center stage as a Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox’s (not great) “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” She was also cast in CBS’s “Doubt,” making history as the first trans actor to play a series regular who is also trans.
Heading to an even bigger stage, Ellen DeGeneres received a Medal of Freedom from President Obama for her contributions to both comedy and queer culture.
“It’s easy to forget now … just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago,” Obama said to the crowded room. She was the only queer person on the stage of recipients.
Even outside of entertainment, queer women soared: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown became the first openly queer person to win that title; the Huffington Post placed a queer woman of color as its editor in chief; and activist Sarah McBride was the first trans person to speak at the Democratic National Convention.
Queer people on television? A decidedly mixed bag.
While queer women won in reality, queer people on television were not as consistently successful.
There are more LGBTQ+ characters on television than ever before, according to a GLAAD report last month, and they came from all different parts of the community.
We saw more lesbians and gay men, of course, but there were also more transgender and bisexual characters. A number of characters didn’t feel the need to label themselves, speaking to the fluidity of both sexuality and gender identity.
Take “How to Get Away With Murder’s” Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, for example: She has had relationships with both men and women on the show, but has never felt a need to label herself as bisexual or otherwise. And although some critique the ambiguity of not labeling oneself, it’s befitting of a larger trend. From 1990 to 2014, the number of men who’ve had sex at least once with another man jumped from 4.5 percent to 8.2 percent. The number of women jumped even further, from 3.6 percent to 8.7 percent.
Queer storylines also became more raw — and, in parts, less pandering this year.
The “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror” refreshingly showed a queer relationship as both complex and beautiful: Their love wasn’t a plot twist; it was the plot. The second season of “American Crime,” centered around a sexual assault case involving two men, successfully shirked unfair tropes of gay male sexuality. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” remained one of television’s most unapologetically queer shows. And “Transparent,” Soloway’s brainchild, continued to spotlight different parts of the queer experience, including living as a trans woman, attraction, sexual expression and queer love.
But not all shows should be commended for their work in 2016.
“Bury Your Gays,” the all-too-common TV trope of killing queer characters — typically after moments of success or happiness for them — continued for little discernible reason.
In total, more than 25 queer female characters were killed on television screens this year, and fans were not pleased.
“The 100” is perhaps the most egregious example. The show killed off a character just after she consummated her relationship with another woman. Many felt betrayed by the killing, and thought it seemed senseless, so they began their own revolt.
“Moonlight” proves the importance of authentic storytelling
Not only is “Moonlight” one of the top films of the year — Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday gave it four stars and placed it at the top of her list ranking the best movies of 2016 — but it’s also one of the most important. It is beautifully shot, brilliantly acted and thoughtfully told — and that storytelling comes from a very special place.
The film is based on “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” a coming-of-age tale from playwright Tarell McCraney that was later built into a screenplay by director/writer Barry Jenkins.
Both men are black and have a background similar to that of the lead character, Chiron. McCraney is also a gay man. Together, McCraney and Jenkins tell a story that they can relate to.
It’s why “Moonlight” is such a successful film: There is authenticity in its blackness, class struggle and depictions of masculinity and queerness. And notably, none of these are siphoned off into separate stories. We don’t see Chiron deal with just one of these identities at a time — he grapples with them all throughout various stages of his life.
This is intersectionality at its finest.
The “white gay male” problem
For all the good that “Moonlight” did to showcase intersectionality and inclusion, there were moments this year that spoke to the dangers of not embracing difference.
Earlier this year, #GayMediaSoWhite started trending on social media to call out the lack of diversity in queer-specific publications. Magazines such as OUT and Attitude tend to put attractive white men — gay or straight — in the spotlight at the cost of queer women, the trans community and people of color.
This “white male gaze” was proven by data collected by Fusion, which found that straight, white, cisgender men were on more magazine covers (40 percent) than any queer person of a different race or ethnicity (9 percent).
In September, Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay Breitbart writer who was banned from Twitter for his racially charged hate speech, had a lengthy profile in OUT. Yiannopoulos wasn’t pressed on his controversial opinions; he was painted (literally) as a clown who doesn’t care with what you think of him.
The backlash was swift as many called the piece tone deaf and said it normalized his remarks.
In November, actor Jack Falahee came out as straight after remaining intentionally ambiguous about his sexuality. He plays a gay character on “How to Get Away With Murder” and, as critics have pointed out, fed into that image to drum up a queer fan base. It was gay-baiting disguised as allyship.
It comes down to privilege. As white, cisgender, gay men, they may only be struggling with one part of their identity while not understanding that others may be dealing with different kinds of discrimination.
Lack of representation and appropriation of queer culture are still ongoing issues, but critics’ willingness to call out problems when they see them are imperative to change.