Like a lot of cartoon-loving ’90s kids, I found immense joy in my weekly TV show lineup. Weekdays were for Digimon, Rugrats, Hey Arnold, and The Powerpuff Girls whereas my weekends were reserved for Toonami’s loaded anime schedule of Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing. They were a beautiful escape from reality where I discovered so much of myself within different characters. However, as a queer kid, what I didn’t find was positive LGBTQ+ representation.
At the time, there was more queer media than any other decade. Madonna was featuring voguing, the ballroom dance tradition of Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ folks, in her music video. Queer characters were in other TV shows and movies. And RuPaul was busy being the supermodel of the world, instead of being a media mogul.
Warner Bros. Animation/Netflix/Cartoon Network
As I started to navigate my own queerness, TV seemed to be a gateway to better understanding myself. But queer and trans representation in cartoons didn’t seem to be readily accessible. Even if those characters were present, they were typically coded as queer (like Team Rocket’s James from Pokémon), a villain (The Powerpuff Girls’ HIM or any Disney villain), or had their queerness erased (Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune in the US adaptation of Sailor Moon).
Today, cartoons are highlighting LGBTQ+ characters in all facets: their coming out stories, relationships, families, and more. Whether they’re super-powered or incredibly ordinary, these characters make LGBTQ+ audiences feel seen with queer and trans narratives.
Steven Universe features a universe where the extraterrestrial Crystal Gems and their beloved Steven go on adventures and save the day from evil forces, while simultaneously exploring gender, sexuality, identity, and relationships in healthy ways. Adventure Time’s Marceline and Princess Bubblegum navigate the complexities of their queer relationship.
The Bravest Knight highlights gay parents through Prince Andrew and Sir Cedric as they raise their daughter, Nia. Young Justice features Aqualad/Kaldur’ahm dating whoever he wants to while leading a team of superheroes. This type of representation would’ve made my own journey from a queer kid to a queer adult much easier.
These shows aren’t alone in their positive LGBTQ+ representation. Kipo and the Wonderbeasts, She-Ra: Princesses of Power, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Gravity Falls, and more feature complex queer and trans characters as heroes, villains, warriors, rulers, family, partners, and friends.
To see trans characters celebrated in Danger and Eggs, for queer characters to be featured in complex roles in She-Ra: Princesses of Power, and to have “coming out” be a casual part of a conversation in The Hollow all give LGBTQ+ kids opportunities to feel normal existing as themselves. When they watch characters like themselves living powerfully in their truth, it instills the courage and desire within them to do the same.
As a queer adult, I also feel empowered to be myself when I see so many types of LGBTQ+ characters navigating nuanced storylines, relationships, and challenges. Even my own childhood shows are resurfacing and unearthing queer and trans narratives in the likes of Mr. Ratburn in Arthur, Korra and Asami in Avatar: Legend of Korra, and Rachel Bighead in Rocko’s Modern Life.
Yes, LGBTQ+ kids in the ’90s found heroes in coded characters that are still talked about today. But it’s not enough to find meaning through implicit details. Queer and trans identities need to be out loud and proud. A non-binary child deserves to see a non-binary character, like Stevonnie, flourish in Steven Universe. Queer teens should have examples of healthy queer relationships, like with Benson and Troy in Kipo and the Wonderbeasts. Youth questioning their gender identity need to see characters, like Desiree in Too Loud, do the same. It may mean everything to them to have that one storyline onscreen.
This not only shapes the perception of LGBTQ+ people in the eyes of viewers who identify within those groups. It does the same thing with heterosexual viewers, a necessary exposure considering we are still in a world where LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than heterosexual youth. At least one person in this group between the ages of 13–24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the US and 86.3% of them experience discrimination simply for existing.
Cartoons can be a part of media that normalizes queer and trans experiences and allows for non-LGBTQ+ folks to see the diversity and beauty of people within this vast spectrum. It can play an early role in mitigating biases towards these communities and create another generation of proud LGBTQ+ kids and supportive allies.
Positive representation is powerful. Like cartoons of yesterday, cartoons of today can influence the next generation of LGBTQ+ kids. They don’t have to search for bits and pieces of themselves in coded characters nor superimpose their identity on a character who may or may not reflect them. Instead, more cartoons will continue to highlight the beauty, strength, and joy of being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. This gives me hope for the queer and trans kids of today.