1993: The "Harley and Ivy" episode of "Batman: The Animated Series"
The history of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy's relationship is weird because, to this day, I don't know who made them queer first—the audience or the writers. What I do know is that I was only 12 years old when I first saw this episode, and even though it was years before these two characters would be depicted in a confirmed, canonical romantic relationship with one another—and four years before I'd really have a conversation with pretty much anyone about what a "lesbian" even was—I knew. I remember the very distinct feeling of wanting these two women to be girlfriends. Somehow even then, I, and apparently a whole generation of young girls who liked girls, knew something was up. Harley and Ivy were my first "ship," and they remain my "One True Pair."
1997: The Puppy Episode of "Ellen"
There's really no understating this one, is there? This was it for me, for a lot of us. Prior to Ellen's coming out, the concept of people being gay was a faint, distant dream. A crack made by a friend in class, a coded behavior by a character in a cartoon movie, a whisper from relatives when we drove past a specific house in our neighborhood. Ellen changed all of that. Ellen coming out is when being gay came to suburban Ohio. I'd had a vague notion of what being transgender was at that point, too, but I'd struggled to reconcile my attraction to women with my own sense of being one. Seeing a gay woman on my TV screen made me understand how that could work.
1999: Willow Comes Out as Gay on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
More than any other character's coming out, Willow's really pierced me. While I enjoyed Ellen, she was an adult with a life and responsibility that I'd not come close to imagining. On top of that, Ellen wasn't quite butch but she was masculine-of-center, something I wasn't. Willow was like me; Willow was the kind of girl who, while watching Buffy as a closeted trans girl in high school, I imagined myself to be: geeky, fairly femme, tight with a very small group of friends but otherwise a social outcast. Willow's relationship with Tara was the first time I truly imagined that I could both live as a woman and love another woman.
2013: Sophia Burset as a Trans Woman on "Orange is the New Black"
I came out as transgender in 2009, but hadn't yet decided to transition. My entire life had been filled with examples of the sadness of being a trans woman. Transition was only something you did as a last resort. But Sophia, played by the amazing Laverne Cox, arrived in my life around the same time as punk rocker Laura Jane Grace, and together they gave me examples of tough-as-nails trans women who were living as themselves because they just darn well knew they wanted to.
'She was just another woman sentenced to Litchfield prison.'
What I especially loved about Sophia in that first season was that her transness wasn't directly related to why she was in jail. It may have been the thing that led her to commit her crime, but at the end of the day, she was just another woman sentenced to Litchfield prison and her personal history was just that—history. I'm sure I would have eventually transitioned without having met Sophia Burset, but it may have taken me quite a bit longer.