Up until very recently, it was incredibly rare to see openly gay characters in films and on television. Even if you did see a gay character somewhere, they were usually dying or suffering. It’s easy to see why so many gay viewers found themselves drawn to strong, funny female characters, who got to live the lives they wanted to live and not suffer as much for it.
- Samantha Jones (Sex and the City)
- Ursula the Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid)
- Paulette (Legally Blonde)
- Catwoman (Batman)
- Xena (Xena, Warrior Princess)
- Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia (The Golden Girls)
- Mama Morton (Chicago)
- Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa)
- Fran Fine (The Nanny)
- Karen Walker (Will & Grace)
Women have historically been disenfranchised and have needed to fight to gain power in society. This is something very relatable for LGBTQ people, and without actual queer characters to root for, women became the de facto stars of the gay community. Thanks to their fierce humor, great strength, determination to own their sexuality, and in some cases, some incredibly obvious queer coding, these 10 female characters resonated with LGBTQ viewers and became gay icons.
Samantha Jones (Sex and the City)
“I am harsh. I’m also demanding, stubborn, self-sufficient, and always right. In bed, at the office, and everywhere else.” With lines like this, it’s no surprise that Samantha from Sex and the City was a hit with the gay community. She was sex-positive decades before the phrase was even widely known. She was also fashionable, funny, and a tad bit self-absorbed. But her true power came from her self-reliance and strength. She used men the way many men used women.
Unlike many female characters at the time, she didn’t “need” a man … she just wanted to feel good. And maybe that’s why the gay community at the time liked her so much. In a way, her character had more traits normally associated with men, making her more relatable. But as a woman, she didn’t come off as threatening to gay people the way most straight men likely would have at the time, making the community gravitate toward her.
Ursula the Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid)
Ursula isn’t just a gay icon, she’s one of the most likable Disney villains ever. But the gay community was especially drawn to her. With her sass and her wit, and the way she seems to literally sashay around her sea cave, it’s almost as if Ursula could be a drag character herself — and in fact, she is. Ursula’s trademark look and attitude were inspired by Divine, a drag queen who rose to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s by starring in John Waters movies like Pink Flamingos and Hairspray.
Her hair, her makeup, and her voluptuous, shaking hips — those all came from Divine. Naturally, the gay community was drawn to Ursula thanks to her combination of confidence, intelligence, and attitude. To this day, she remains not only a Disney favorite, but also a popular figure in the gay community.
Paulette (Legally Blonde)
Every gay person loves Paulette because she’s so damn relatable. While many of us want to be Samantha from Sex and the City, we often feel like Paulette from Legally Blonde, hopelessly lusting over a hot guy who we think is totally out of our league and beating ourselves up at every little mistake we make.
On top of that, Paulette’s outfits and makeup are over the top and border on tacky and kitschy, which only further endears her to gay viewers. With her big hair, jean vest, and shirt with a sparkly tiger on it, Paulette draws your eyes to her, often overshadowing lead star Reese Witherspoon. She felt like a larger-than-life presence, and that’s something that LGBTQ people found irresistible. Plus, she was played by gay icon Jennifer Coolidge, so what’s not to love?
A sultry vixen in tight black leather, Catwoman already has considerable campy charms and sexual prowess, but add to that the fact that Catwoman was portrayed by gay icons like Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt, and you have an icon adored by the entire LGBTQ community. Kitt even said in an interview with the Windy City Times that the gay community saved her career, stating, “When I was in trouble with the government and Lady Bird Johnson, it was the gay guys who kept my name alive because they kept looking for my records and they were imitating me. To them, it was as if Eartha Kitt was always there. I’m very grateful for that. I feel very close to the gay crowd because we know what it feels like to be rejected.”
Bob Kane, the creator of Catwoman, said the idea for the character came to him because he “felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable.” Being horribly misunderstood by straight men is an experience that both women and the LGBTQ community understand perfectly, so even from her very conception, Catwoman was (unknowingly) a symbol of queerness. She was stylish, unafraid, and scared men in a way they didn’t quite understand. If you’re gay, you totally get that.
Xena (Xena, Warrior Princess)
Xena from Xena, Warrior Princess is such a popular lesbian icon that many people often mistakenly think the actress who played her, Lucy Lawless, is a lesbian herself. Lawless has openly stated that even though she’s straight, she’s proud to be a lesbian icon. And while Xena was never officially a lesbian, Lawless did go on to play an openly bisexual character in Spartacus later in her career.
Many viewers point to Xena’s relationship with her “traveling partner,” Gabrielle, as being overtly homoerotic, with the two constantly sharing looks and reciting lines that are totally sexual innuendos. Regardless of whether Xena actually is a lesbian or not, the fact that she was a strong, beautiful, courageous woman — who wasn’t afraid to be intimate with another woman — made the queer community fall in love with her. And it’s even more assuring knowing that the actress behind the character has proudly embraced her queer fans.
Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia (The Golden Girls)
The Golden Girls was naturally a hit with the gay community. Older women were seldom given prominent roles on television, especially roles that portrayed them as still having active lives. This once again led to a moment where LGBTQ people related to a different group in a similar situation. Gay characters were seldom seen on television in the ’80s, unless it was a news program covering the AIDS crisis, so they understood the feeling of being pushed aside and heavily related to this group of older women.
The show was also super queer-friendly throughout its run and even featured numerous gay characters, including one powerful storyline where Blanche discovers her brother is gay and is getting married. The women’s age in the Golden Girls could also play a part in their popularity among gay people, especially at that time. With so many gay men at the time having mothers who didn’t accept them, watching Rose, Dorothy, Sophia, and Blanche embrace the community helped give many of them a sense of maternal love they weren’t feeling at home.
Mama Morton (Chicago)
Though Chicago‘s Mama Morton, the warden of the Cook County Jail, is never explicitly stated to be a lesbian, many audiences began interpreting that she was over the years. At one point, she even sings, “Spice it up for mama, she’ll get hot for you.” The 2002 film adaption really brought out the role’s homoeroticism when Queen Latifah played the role, and in a few scenes, she even touches some of the inmates in a way that suggests the favors she exchanges might be sexual.
Throughout Chicago‘s long run on Broadway, the role has been played by tons of gay icons, like Bebe Neuwirth, Jennifer Holiday, drag queen Jinkx Monsoon, and even Wendy Williams. Regardless of whether Mama Morton is actually a lesbian or not, she certainly gives off massive queer energy that has made her a fan favorite and a gay icon.
Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa)
Throwing shade is often associated with the queer community, and Ina Garten (aka The Barefoot Contessa) is the shadiest queen this side of the Hamptons. The Contessa often casually points out how poor we all are, delivering lines like, “Just a simple Pullman loaf, but a good bakery loaf … not like (scrunches her nose) that stuff from the grocery store.”
Garten is also constantly inviting all her gay besties over for brunch (they usually arrive wearing Vineyard Vines and holding a colorful flower arrangement), and the final scene of each episode usually involves them all spilling the tea while sipping cocktails and nibbling on Ina’s simple 12-pan, five-pot, 45-ingredient recipes. How easy is that? But let’s all be real here, we totally wish we were one of her gay besties. She’s a living legend and a total icon that the gay community can’t get enough of.
Fran Fine (The Nanny)
In The Nanny, Fran Fine (Fran Drescher) is a cosmetic salesperson from Queens who suddenly finds herself nannying for a posh family on the Upper East Side. Fran is a gay icon because she is the embodiment of queerness. She suddenly finds herself in a world where she’s totally out of place. Amid a rigid society, she wears colorful outfits, isn’t afraid to be loud, and is always herself. She marches to the beat of her own drum because there’s no other way she knows how to live.
Naturally, her attitude and confidence made her an instant role model for gay people everywhere. Throughout the show’s run in the ’90s, both The Nanny and Fran Drescher gained a huge gay following. Drescher’s character is so popular in the gay community that in season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Courtney Act even impersonated her in the Snatch Game episode.
Karen Walker (Will & Grace)
Karen Walker from Will & Grace is one of the most notable gay icons of the modern era. Not only was she friends with her gay bestie, Jack, but she was wholeheartedly welcoming and accepting of the gay community. When the show premiered in 1998, that was a huge deal. Gay characters had seldom been seen in starring roles before that point. the same is true of straight characters who weren’t just tolerant, but actually loving friends to gay men.
Karen Walker (and the actress who played her, Megan Mullally) were suddenly the best friends of gays around the world who tuned in every week. Many gay men had never had a supportive friend like Karen, so her relationship with Will and Jack was an important moment in turning the cultural tide about how the LGBTQ community was accepted in mainstream society.
The show has such prominence in history that scripts and props are being archived at the National Museum of American History. Since her time on the show, Mullally has remained a faithful ally to the community, and both she and her husband, Nick Offerman, continue to be vocal supporters of equality.