Drag queens are coming to a TV near you.
Growing up, I would have been shocked to watch a same sex couple in a Lifetime or Hallmark movie hold hands while confidently walking into a bar. As a gay man, I know firsthand that the '90s and early aughts weren't rife with inclusive storytelling that made me feel represented, much less celebrated. LGBTQ+ characters weren't regularly written into family-friendly plots and not many directors would have allowed two men to kiss let alone enjoy each other's company during a night out. There are exceptions like The Family Stone, but collective inclusivity wasn't the norm.
Luckily, that's all changing. 2020 may be remembered for so much social unrest and a deadly virus, but we're finally getting some good news. This year, a tiny but significant avalanche of holiday films with LGBTQ+ leads are transforming the TV landscape, reimagining what it means to honor all kinds of families—and encouraging audiences, no matter how conservative, to practice acceptance.
Both Lifetime and Hallmark are making history by respectively airing The Christmas Setup and The Christmas House, their first holiday movies with gay leading couples. Thanks to Paramount Network and Hulu, Dashing in December and Happiest Season are further amplifying the voices of this historically underrepresented community. And if you're wondering, yes, joyous, campy and much-needed drag bar scenes are peppered throughout this lineup.
Though different, these four films neatly strike the balance between exploring the challenges of being LGBTQ+ while reminding us that relishing in the spirit of the holidays has nothing to do with sexual orientation, gender identity, or, as Mary Steenburgen's Happiest Season character archaically (but intentionally) put it, your "lifestyle choice."
Let's begin with Steenburgen's said Hulu film. Starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, Happiest Season brilliantly sheds a light on what it's like to come out. Home for the holidays, Abby's plans to propose to her girlfriend are foiled when she realizes that, uh, Harper's parents have no idea she's a lesbian. The solution? Pretend to be roommates because that's totally believable and not at all passé. The wonderfully entertaining cast also includes Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Victor Garber and Schitt's Creek creator Dan Levy, who plays Abby's sidekick John, the one person that encourages her to practice patience with Harper's journey toward self-acceptance.
"I did not grow up getting to see a lot of those stories in movies or on television," Levy recently told E! News. "What's actually most transformative is the love and support that surrounds these people." In fact, it's Levy's John who delivers one of the most heartwarming monologues of the season as Abby struggles with Harper's inability to share her truth.
"Everybody's story is different," John tells Abby in the film. "There's your version and my version and everything in between. But the one thing everybody's story has in common is that one moment right before you say those words when your heart is racing and you don't know what's coming next. That moment's really terrifying and then once you say those words you can't unsay them. A chapter has ended and a new one's begun and you have to be ready for that. You can't do it for anyone else."
And he's right. There is no universal coming out story, no way that's better than another.
Despite the emotional exchange being one heck of a tear-jerker, Happiest Season will definitely have you laughing out loud elsewhere. Speaking about a scene in which Abby is forced to perform impromptu karaoke at a drag bar, Stewart told E! that she was "genuinely embarrassed" by the moment while filming, joking that she'd "rather die" than have anyone surprise her with a mic to the face. And you know what? Same.
Of course, this batch of LGBTQ+ holiday films also shines a light on the plight of same sex couples hoping to start a family. In Hallmark's The Christmas House, Mean Girls alum Jonathan Bennett and Brad Harder play Brandon and Jake, a couple worried about whether or not their adoption journey will be met with a happy ending. You can likely guess how the film wraps, which is part of what makes watching it so delightful. It's a movie that contains the magic and expected sap of a Hallmark classic, yet it has the potential to spark so many necessary conversations inside living rooms across the country.
The same can be said of The Christmas Setup on Lifetime, in which real-life married couple Blake Lee and Ben Lewis take on the roles of Patrick and Hugo, two opposites who fall in love thanks to a little matchmaking courtesy of Hugo's mom Kate, played by The Nanny's Fran Drescher, an "incredible LGBTQ+ ally" in Lewis' words.
"I know there's a lot of potentially still-closeted queer kids who are gonna watch this movie with their family and gauge their reactions to see how they might respond to them coming out," Lewis told E!. "Our hope is really for those kids. If they see that their parents are embracing this movie, that will be a positive indication that they will be accepted and loved."
The greater message is simple: Love is love…is love is love. As Lewis added, "A lot of families that don't have or maybe don't know they have LGBTQ+ people in their family will just be like, ‘Oh, right. It's just a love story."
For Lee, part of the pleasure of participating in this historic moment was starring opposite his husband. "It was thrilling and really fun to play different people and flirt with each other," he said, "experience first kisses again and the butterflies in your stomach when you first run into that person you have a crush on." Cute, right?
Those first-love jitters were also evident in the chemistry between Mamma Mia!'s Juan Pablo Di Pace and Peter Porte, the stars of Paramount Network's Dashing in December. Set in a winter wonderland-like Colorado ranch, the film is also a comforting love story, one made better with the help of Andie MacDowell, who plays Porte's mom. (Yes, the aesthetics might remind you of Brokeback Mountain).
"We're part of a little bit of a revolution," Di Pace told E!, recognizing the film as one of the first with gay leads. "It's quite realistic in terms of that first meeting between two humans—regardless of them being gay or straight. The gay thing also doesn't come with any self-loathing. It doesn't come with any, ‘Oh my god, there's an illness, or someone's dying.'"
A Hallmark favorite (Rome in Love, A Gift For Christmas), Porte saw Dashing in December as an opportunity to step outside of his comfort zone, explaining he typically plays the male love interest to a "beautiful blonde girl from the city who returns home." But fortunately not this time around. "When I heard and read the script," he joked, "I got very excited because I recognized that I would finally get to play that blonde girl after all these years!"
Regardless of whether these movies are considered good, bad or worthy of critical acclaim, it's the way they'll make people feel that matters.
"Holiday movies are often intended to be enjoyed together by the whole family and audiences are applauding this new pattern of inclusion after LGBTQ+ people and families were left out of these films for far too long," GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told E!. "It wasn't just GLAAD and LGBTQ+ people who have long called for more diverse stories in holiday programming, but parents with LGBTQ+ children who have wanted to see families like their own reflected. This year's exciting and overdue uptick in holiday films with LGBTQ+ stories will gift countless families with heartfelt messages of acceptance and should become a tradition for years to come."
Sure, placed side by side, the films are indeed flawed. All four same sex lead couples are played by cisgender actors, and three out of four are centered around men, leaving behind the stories of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, or anyone who identifies as bisexual. Still, to see these storied networks take baby steps toward inclusivity remains so poignant.
Next, "I want to see [Pose's] MJ Rodriguez star in a holiday movie, you know what I mean?" Lewis said. "If the traditional audience of Lifetime holiday movies tunes in and embraces it, that's really powerful proof that there is a desire for representation and it needs to go further and deeper."
At the end of the day, the holidays are about putting a smile on someone else's face—no matter how different they may be. "Everyone deserves this sort of escapism," Lewis said. "Historically, life isn't easy for queer people and to be able to turn on the TV, especially at the holidays, and see queer people winning is so important."
Happiest Season premieres Nov. 25 on Hulu. The Christmas House re-airs on Nov. 26 on Hallmark. The Christmas Setup premieres Dec. 12 on Lifetime. Dashing in December premieres Dec. 13 on Paramount Network.
—With Reporting by Alli Rosenbloom and Spencer Lubitz