American Horror Story: How Ryan Murphy gave strength to LGBTQ America through one of the most entertaining shows on television
by Brian Moniz
Since 2011, American Horror Story has been entertaining audiences of all kinds from all over the world with some of the most creative, fun, and horrific storylines in television history. Each of the 9 seasons has their own creative storyline, an abundance of unique characters, and enough blood, guts, and scares to give even the most hardcore horror lovers a fun, frightful experience. Despite all of these elements listed above, there is one huge reason why American Horror Story is one of the best shows on television today: it has consistently been one of the most LGBTQ-friendly shows in recent history, giving more roles to LGBTQ actors than most other shows on TV.
What makes AHS so great is that it is clearly a show for everyone who has ever felt left out, rejected, or called a “freak” or a “loser”. Creator Ryan Murphy, an openly gay man himself, has done an excellent job of taking ideas and themes that have been stigmatized and taboo and uses them in a way that makes them fun, celebrated, and something to be proud of rather than ashamed. Here is a breakdown of each of the 9 seasons of AHS and how they include LGBTQ culture, characters, and actors in their own way.
Murder House (2011):
Murder House tells the story of a family of 3 moving into a beautiful Victorian home in Los Angeles in 2011 and slowly discovering that the house is haunted by anyone who ever died there. Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott star as Vivien and Ben Harmon, two parents on the edge of divorce, and Taissa Farmiga plays their daughter, Violet — a brat who reinforces every negative stereotype of a teenager who thinks they already know everything about life. Jessica Lange steals the show as Constance Langdon, the nosy neighbor who drops in on the family unexpectedly and seems to be oddly unafraid of the spirits in the Murder House.
Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears co-star as Chad and Patrick, the always-bickering gay couple who used to own the home before they were both killed. Their relationship is a rocky one, with Chad (Quinto) being so desperate to save his boyfriend that he purchases a full-body latex sex suit to spice up their failing love-life. Rather than appreciate Chad’s efforts to salvage their relationship, Patrick laughs off and dismisses the gesture, leaving Chad to cry that he always wanted to have a baby with Patrick. On Halloween Day, a killer dressed in the latex suit murders both Chad and Patrick, dooming both of their souls to remain forever locked inside the Murder House.
Asylum takes place in 1964 at a mental institution called Briarcliff Manor. Sarah Paulson stars as Lana Winters, a hungry journalist who wants to do an expose on Briarcliff after hearing rumors of the poor treatment to the patients by the staff, led by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). Sister Jude discovers that Winters is not only doing an expose, but that she is also a lesbian in a relationship with Wendy Peyser (Clea DuVall), an elementary school teacher. Upon discovering that Winters wants to shut down Briarcliff, Sister Jude visits Peyser and blackmails her, threatening to expose her lesbian relationship to the school district and get her fired if she does not surrender her permission to commit Winters to the asylum herself to cure her homosexuality. After she does, a mysterious killer known as Bloody Face breaks into Peyser’s home and attacks her.
Throughout the show, Dr. Oliver Thredson (played by openly gay actor Zachary Quinto) uses electro-shock therapy to “cure” Winters of her homosexuality. Of course, “gay conversion” is a pseudo-cure to a non-problem, but that’s what Murphy wanted to shine a light on during the show. How gays and lesbians were thought of as humans possessed by demons and evil spirits and the idea of being gay was something that could be cured through man-made re-wiring of something normal that occurs in nature. Electro-shock therapy and other methods of gay-conversion therapy drove LGBTQ people crazy and only added to their confusions and lack of mental stability, which sadly is something that is still being practiced today. Yes, it occurs less often and in smaller and smaller areas of the country, but the fact that it still happens at all is the real horror.
Now we get to arguably the most popular fan-favorite season of the series — Coven. Coven follows the lives of witches that are the descendants of the women who survived the Salem Witch Trials and now live undercover in New Orleans, Louisiana at Miss Robichaux’s Academy for gifted women. What makes this season so fun is how campy and overly dramatic every character is. The roles are more like caricatures than they are characters, with each one’s name sounding more like the names of drag queens than people: Queenie, Madison Montgomery, Cordelia Foxx, Myrtle Snow, Fiona Goode, and Misty Day. Each witch has their own special power, from being clairvoyant, having the ability to raise the dead, making men fall in love with them, telekinesis, mind reading, and one even being a human voodoo doll.
Speaking of voodoo, there is also a voodoo group in New Orleans constantly in conflict with the witch coven. Led by high voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), and backed by the power of hell’s gatekeeper Papa Legba, the voodoo witches and the coven witches attack each other throughout the series before eventually forming a treaty upon realizing an organized underground group of rich witch hunters are trying to kill them all. The witches are predominantly white (except Queenie, who is drafted by Laveau herself in one episode), while the voodoo witches are black; the plot weaves their stories together to showcase the theme that no matter your race, people will always hate and attack you for being different, so embrace those who are just like you no matter how they look. We all have a common enemy (homophobes) and they want us to hate each other more than they hate us.
While there is no prominent LGBTQ character in the season (unless you count warlock Quentin Fleming, played by Leslie Jones), the overall theme is loosely connected to gay culture: being ostracized and hated by society for just being exactly who you are. The witches didn’t ask to have magical powers or look the way they do, but they were brought into a world that already hates them before giving them a chance. They must live incognito and hide their powers from society in fear of being cast out and harmed. We in the LGBTQ community can’t help but identify with them and see ourselves in their struggles.
What makes Coven so entertaining is how brutish and stupid the male characters are. They come off as the ultimate symbol of toxic masculinity. They underestimate the power (no pun intended) of the witches, downplay the intelligence of all the women around them who are clearly smarter than they are, and fall victim to their own stupidity. Throughout the season, there is not a single male character who can take on any of the female characters. When a murderer in the series known as the Axeman breaks into the girls boarding school and charges at them with axes in hand, Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) says, “Why did you walk into the wrong house!?” before all the women use their powers to literally tear him apart.
Like the 1996 film The Craft, AHS: Coven gained a large cult following because it consists of so many different characters of different shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and powers who we can relate to. Many of them were bullied and ridiculed but found a place among safe zones surrounded by people who are just like them. Many of us have wished that we had the magical powers to carry out revenge on people who bullied or harmed us. It’s a natural, animalistic instinct that we have to want to protect ourselves and its nearly impossible to forget those who hurt us. By the end of Coven, Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), the leader of the coven at Miss Robichaux’s Academy, comes out of the shadows and goes on national television to publicly welcome any young girl who feels special or is looking for a place to belong to join the Academy in New Orleans, reminding us all that it’s awesome to be different.
Freak Show (2014–2015):
American Horror Story: Freak Show was the highest-rated season in the series when it came to ratings, smashing previous season’s records with over 6 million viewers for its premier and maintaining steady ratings throughout all episodes, probably because Coven earned the show so many new fans. It showcases the story of one of the last remaining freak shows in America and their family-like organization and dealing with the outside world that hates them. Like Coven, Freak Show allows its viewers to identify well with its characters because of the ridicule we have all faced for being “different”. Jessica Lange gives one of her juiciest performances as Elsa Mars, the ringleader of the freak show, who acts more like an abusive overbearing mother than she does a circus frontwoman. There are many strong performances by some great A-list actors, such as Kathy Bates as the bearded lady, Sarah Paulson as the conjoined twins, and Angela Bassett as the woman with both male and female parts and three breasts.
Freak Show also consists of a couple homosexual sub-plots between the freak show strong man Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis) and his secret gay lover Andy (gay heartthrob Matt Bomer), an evil gay conman who goes by the name Stanley (gay actor Denis O’Hare) trying to kill off the freaks and sell them as memorabilia to museums and art shows, and features a cameo appearance from gay actor Neil Patrick Harris as Chester Creb who can saw people in half.
Hotel is the first season without Jessica Lange as its lead star and instead cast Lady Gaga in her first major television role ever. Gaga plays Elizabeth Johnson, a.k.a. The Countess, the immortal bloodsucking owner of the evil Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles, where, like the Murder House, if you die there you are trapped inside forever. Elizabeth and her lover Donovan (Matt Bomer), walk the streets of L.A. looking for swingers to bring back to their hotel room for sex parties and to feed on. Lady Gaga thrives in her role as the Countess, preying on anyone naïve enough to get close to her and sucking them dry; delivering one of the most memorable and entertaining performances in American Horror Story history.
Angela Bassett co-stars as Ramona Royale, a bisexual blaxploitation movie star from the 1970’s who falls in love with Elizabeth and is turned immortal by her during their decade-long relationship as lovers. Openly gay actor Cheyenne Jackson plays Will Drake, a world-famous, closeted bisexual, fashion designer who brings a fashion show to the Hotel Cortez, bringing with him male model Tristan Duffy (Finn Wittrock), a bisexual drug addict who falls in love with the hotel’s transgender bartender Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare). Sarah Paulson gives her darkest performance as Sally McKenna, the bleached-blonde, chain-smoking, hypodermic drug addict resident of the hotel who uses her “Addiction Demon” to sexually punish those who suffer from addiction.
For her performance in AHS: Hotel, Lady Gaga won her first Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film.
My personal favorite season, AHS: Roanoke is the season that is a TV show within a TV show. Many of the A-list stars return for roles while a few new faces are added. The show starts off with Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. purchasing a new home in Roanoke, North Carolina, settling in, and soon discovering many strange creatures and noises that go bump in the night. Angela Bassett plays Lee Harris, whose daughter goes missing in the home when she visits her brother (Gooding Jr.), and sets into motion the story that unfolds into one horrific event after another.
Leslie Jordan stars as the pint-sized psychic who the trio hire to speak to the souls of the dead wandering around the farmhouse to find Lee’s daughter, delivering a deliciously campy performance reminiscent of the tiny psychic woman from the first Poltergeist film. The farmland is haunted by a ghost colony led by the Butcher, played by Kathy Bates in her best role yet. She milks her character for all she is worth in every frame while on screen, cursing trespassers with her thick British accent before carving them up left and right, earning her nickname in the most violent fashion.
The best episode begins with a narration from famous historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin, as she provides in-depth history to the tale of Edward Philippe Mott (Evan Peters) and his secret gay relationship with his black servant, Guinness (Henderson Wade). Mott was a filthy rich art collector who bought anything and everything worth value in the state of Pennsylvania. After acquiring many statues and paintings, he took his lover, his art, and his servants to the farmhouse in Roanoke to live in peace away from society and thieves. He loved his art more than he loved any human, including Guinness. There are a few beautiful scenes where Mott and Guinness show off their love in their home, their bathtub, and their bedroom, but their love is cut short when the Butcher and her minions attack the farmhouse, and the rest is gory history.
The single most laughable moment in American Horror Story history:
Leslie Jones as the clairvoyant leaves the Roanoke farm on an uber being driven by a handsome man. As they are driving away, Jordan asks the driver, “Tell me young man, have you ever heard of “Gay for Pay”? A little girl runs in front of the car, causing the driver to slam the breaks. To which Jordan says, “IT WAS JUST A QUESTION!”
Like AHS: Coven, the campiness in Roanoke is through the roof, and you can tell every actor across the board has so much fun playing their over-the-top characters.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 election and became President, Ryan Murphy found his inspiration for the next season of American Horror Story, this one themed Cult.
It begins with Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), a die-hard Trump supporter, watching TV as the news reports Trump winning the electoral college and will become America’s next president. Upon learning this information, he runs the streets of Brookfield Heights, Michigan, terrorizing Mexicans in the street and badgering his little sister, who was a Hillary supporter. Kai grows to accept that America is changing, and with that he runs for city council, promising to clean up the streets of his town, with plans to later run for Senator, and then President. In order to convince his future constituents that he is the solution to the non-problem of the extremely high violence he claims is happening, Kai forms a cult with his fellow die-hard Trump supporters who stalk and murder people in the dark of night.
While every season of American Horror Story has LGBTQ actors and characters, Cult has the most LGBTQ actors and more LGBTQ characters by far. Sarah Paulson and Alison Pill star as lesbian couple Ally and Ivy Mayfair-Richards, whose marriage is tested after Trump wins the election. Billy Eichner co-stars as Harrison Wilton, a gay man who marries his female best friend (Leslie Grossman) for tax purposes and lives a pitiful life in a thankless job cleaning male fluid off the locker room floor at the gym where he works. Chaz Bono stars in his first role post-gender reassignment surgery as Gary Longstreet, a fellow Trump supporter and most loyal ally to Kai Anderson and his death cult. Bono actually delivers a stellar performance and is almost unrecognizable in his ultra-redneck role, a role that could have easily been overacted and campy but instead was toned down just enough to be quite creepy because of its believability. Colton Haynes stars as the gay detective who falls for Kai Anderson and assists in his covering up of murders, but (in my opinion), it is Frances Conroy as Bebe Babbitt and Lena Dunham as Valerie Solanas who steal the season with their backstory of lesbian love, sex, and female domination of the world through their female cult in the 1960’s which they called the Society for Cutting Up Men, or S.C.U.M.
In 1968, Solanas shot Andy Warhol in an attempt to start a revolution to get the world to notice women as being just as strong, smart, and important as men. She and her cult went on a murder spree throughout northern California, killing couples at make-out spots and on picnics, starting what was known then as the Zodiac killing sprees. Bebe Babbitt explains through a flashback that S.C.U.M. was actually the Zodiac killer. The season ends when Sarah Paulson breaks Kai Anderson and delivers a timely one-liner, “You were wrong, there is something more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man: A nasty woman!”
After the success of past seasons Murder House, Coven, and Hotel, Ryan Murphy combined those three seasons together, bringing back every fan-favorite character and mixing them with many clever now ones, to create the eighth season: Apocalypse.
Apocalypse is about a young man named Michael Langdon, the son of Satan and the anti-Christ who will end the world and all life as we know it unless the coven of witches, led by Cordelia, can stop him. The show is given a fresh new life from newcomers to the series like Billy Porter (star of the hit show Pose), Joan Collins, and Cody Fern, along with the return of fan favorites Queenie, Misty Day, Nan, Madison Montgomery, Myrtle Snow, Constance Langdon, Marie Laveau, Papa Legba, and others. Even the Rubber Man from Murder House makes a return cameo appearance in one very awkward kink scene. Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates also have minor roles as Miss Venable and Miss Mead, two lesbian lovers who hide their sexual encounters to the rest of the survivors in the underground bunker.
American Horror Story: 1984 is a throwback to every campy slasher flick from the 1980’s from Friday the 13th to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The show is your cliché plot about a group of teenager camp counselors who visit a summer camp and…surprise, surprise…an escaped maniac known as Mr. Jingles shows up and starts slicing and dicing stupid people left and right. There are countless allusions to other classic horror films that the show does pay respect to, but the two most noticeable features of 1984 are the two new cast members, world famous gay Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy, and transgender rights advocate and television star Angelica Ross, both enjoying their first roles with AHS.
Ross was my favorite actress in the show because when everyone else panics, she lights a cigarette and stands against a wall watching the other terrified idiots scream and run around. She is cool to a fault and keeps her character oddly mysterious. Kenworthy does an adequate job as Chet, the meat-head jock whose sole purpose in being on the show is to show off his muscles and act as eye candy to the women (and us gay men!).
While no one is bound to win an Emmy for their roles here, it does further prove that creator Ryan Murphy is still opening doors and providing jobs to actors in the LGBTQ community, and allows them to prove that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender actors can deliver performances just as well and memorable as straight actors that dominate the television world.
Before American Horror Story, I personally never even knew who Sarah Paulson, Billy Porter, Angelica Ross, Billy Eichner, Alison Pill, Denis O’Hare, Leslie Jordan or Cheyenne Jackson were, and I think many people who casually watch movies or television never knew some of these actors either. Yes, they have all been in other movies and TV shows, and you may have said to yourself, “I know I’ve seen them somewhere else before”, but American Horror Story gave these LGBTQ actors a playground to show off their range and talent and help propel them into the A-list of Hollywood.
Older stars like Kathy Bates, Joan Collins, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, and a few others have enjoyed a second wind to their careers because of AHS, and Murphy gave them the chance to show that older women still have a lot of gas in the tank and can deliver some of the most fun, creative, and original performances on television today. Watch any season of American Horror Story and its plainly obvious to recognize that not only is Ryan Murphy proudly pro-LGBTQ, but also a hardcore feminist.
Ryan Murphy has successfully taken ideas that have been considered too risqué for mainstream cable TV shows over the last several decades, like gay/lesbian sex, gay/lesbian adoption, gay-conversion therapy, female chauvinism, toxic male masculinity, female rage and angst, and made them appear more normal and accepted in daily life because that’s what the real world looks like. He puts a spotlight on normal things that occur in life that are sometimes not addressed and can lead to horrific outcomes. Granted, this is a fictional show with far-fetched characters and ideas, but the point is still relevant that much of these subjects are not too far off from what can happen when one person or a group is bullied, marginalized, ignored or persecuted for too long.
In American Horror Story, LGBTQ characters are no longer just the “token gay character” or “transgender because the entire show is about being transgender”. He eliminates the “shock” of seeing a trans actor in a mainstream role and allows the rest of hetero-normal America to adjust and accept that this is the new normal. Black trans actors/actresses can be the stars in lead roles, lesbians having children is not something that shocks people, gays in elaborate costumes or clothing doesn’t cause you to stare anymore, and all of us, every gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, and yes, even straight person, has a little magic inside of us.
On a personal note, I want to thank Ryan Murphy for creating my favorite show of the last ten years, in which he has written some of the most fun, unique, and colorful characters in TV history and has allowed so many actors/actresses in the LGBTQ community to show off their skills. Whether it’s a ghost, demon, nun, priest, witch, warlock, sideshow freak, evil butcher, cult leader, vampire, voodoo priestess, serial killer, psychic, cannibal, or even the anti-Christ, Ryan Murphy never fails to keep the world interesting, and shows us what we are capable of when we harness the skills, talents, and magic inside us for good, or unfortunately, evil.
About the Author:
Brian Moniz is from San Jose, Calif. He studied filmmaking and writing at San Jose State University from 2010–2013 and got his bachelor’s degree in Radio-TV-Film. Throughout his high school and college years, he worked as a music and movie journalist and critic. Having only recently come out of the closet himself in 2014, Brian enjoys writing about LGBTQ issues. His only regret when it comes to his sexuality is that he didn’t come out sooner.