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Lana Winters in American Horror Story
Lana Winters in American Horror Story: Asylum

The sprawling queer legacy of American Horror Story

Following the 100th episode of Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology series, we take a look back at the ground-breaking series’ representation of the LGBTQ+ community with fans and castmembers

‘Halloween Part One’, season one episode four of American Horror Story, opened with a ghost story of a love gone sour. We see highly-strung homemaker Chad, elbow deep in Marie Antoinette-themed pumpkins, accusing his partner Patrick of infidelity. It seems the stress of home renovations and family planning having tested the boundaries of their open relationship.

“I was the first time I'd seen a gay couple on TV,” says Tyler, 22, an avid AHS watcher from Tennessee, USA, who was 14 when the episode aired. “I was only out to a couple of my friends at that point because I was afraid of being judged or harassed. Seeing those characters felt like a blessing.”

It’s unlikely that, at such a tender age, Tyler understood just how groundbreaking his first glimpse at a queer relationship was. Neither Chad (Zachary Quinto) nor Patrick (Teddy Sears), were a ‘straight-acting gay’ nor a ‘closeted jock’. Their love wasn’t a shameful secret, the basis for a coming out story, or any of the other usual tropes that have propelled LGBT+ representation on screen. Instead, a generation of young queer people were gifted with characters who were complex and flawed, whose relationship didn’t fit into the confines of hetronormativity and whose sexuality was proudly on display. By any definition, American Horror Story made them normal.

Xiaomara, 23 from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was 16 when the show returned for its second season, Asylum, with a new setting and a new cast of characters. Sarah Paulson, who had impressed in the first season as the enigmatic medium Billie Dean Howard, took a leading role as Lana Winters, a determined young journalist whose name often appears on lists of the greatest lesbian TV characters of all time.

“I used to watch it with my parents,” says Xiomara. “With Lana, the show gave me the courage and the strength to say, ‘Hey, that's me. I've been this way since I can remember and there's no cure. Love me or hate me, I'm proud and I love myself.’”

Like Chad and Patrick, Lana was a three-dimensional queer character with a realistic story and an unsalacious love life. But where the first season of the anthology series, Murder House, sought to normalise the men’s identites, Asylum singled Lana’s out for the purposes of education.

Xiomara was among those left aghast at scenes in which church clergy force Lana to undergo electroshock therapy in an attempt to “cure” her of her sexuality, a brutal retelling of a dark chapter in LGBTQ+ history.

At the time Paulson, who dates women but doesn't label her sexuality, admitted to finding the scenes difficult, but said that she felt a responsibility to tell the story. “This is something that women and gay people have had to endure at some time in our culture,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “There are still people who believe they can take the gay away and who have tried some version of this therapy even today,” she said. “But it was not easy for me to go home at night and just shake it off.”

It’s quite possible that Murphy reflected on this, and the third season, titled Coven, offered some respite in the franchise. A gothic, glamorous tale about tribal politics and persecutions with groups of witches, Coven is steeped in pop culture, and steered the series in camp sensibility which proved endlessly quotable (Emma Roberts saying “surprise bitch” truly is the gay gift that keeps giving) and full of iconic, occult-inspired looks.

Coven was followed a year later by Freak Show, which brought a notable addition to the cast with transgender actor Erika Ervin. Known to fans by her stage name Amazon Eve (also the name of her character on the show), Erika blazed a trail for trans actors and for women who don’t fit into societal norms (at 6’8”, Erika once held the Guinness world record for world’s tallest model).

"American Horror Story, for me, meant realising a dream come true,” she tells me. “I was already a series regular on another TV show prior to it, but Freak Show was my breakout. It made me realise it’s ok to be different. I struggle with body image because whether we like it or not, women are bound by a lot of beauty standards. Our show is different.”

Erika’s character was part of a travelling “cabinet of curiosities,” some of whom had visible disabilities and deformities.

Freak Show was about discrimination against people who are disabled,” she explains. “I got lots of positive feedback and I was placed in touch with a lot of people who are disabled, and I realised that gender dysphoria, as it is, is closely related to these issues.”

Dr Daniel Clarke, an academic who has written extensively on American Horror Story and its use of camp, says that Freak Show and its follow-up, Hotel, “serve as a wider metaphor for the the hetronormative oppression of queer identities.”

“I think there's an interesting connection between how the showrunners portray socially marginalised characters and LGBTQ+ characters,” he explains. “These groups are not always one and the same in their shows, but the former is often used as an analogy for the latter, often in search of social parable or allegory.”

Of course, American Horror Story is far from perfect. For every Amazon Eve there is a Liz Taylor, the trans woman played by Denis O’Hara in Hotel. Though his performance was widely acknowledged as the stand-out of the season, the decision to cast a cis man in the role of a trans woman felt outdated then, and even moreso today.

The franchise also has a lack of queer characters of colour, which was magnified by Hotel’s casting of five similarly good looking white men in key roles. A photo of the five actors (three of whom played queer roles) went viral when the season aired in 2015, with fans accusing the show of having a definite ‘type’ when it comes to gay men. 

This is something that Miguel Sagaz, a gay Mexican actor who guest-starred in season seven, Cult, rejects. “I think it was a big fuss over nothing,” he says, describing the casting process as colour blind.

"I've faced challenges in my career because the industry often lacks the vision to see beyond stereotypes during casting. American Horror Story was a first for me in that I was cast because of my acting abilities, neither my accent nor the tone of my skin were crucial to booking the role of Bruce."

Nevertheless, as the show progresses it continues to improve on representation. This year’s season, 1984, sees Angelica Ross, a black trans woman, to the cast. The series prior, Apocalypse, featured two queer black men (Billy Porter and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman). 

Behind the camera, Murphy, whose repertoire also includes Glee and Feud, has had a $300 million Netflix deal that makes him one of TV’s most powerful producers. In 2016, he launched his Half initiative, which aims to have 50 per cent of directorships across the super-producer’s slate filled with minorities – within a year of launching, Ryan Murphy Television’s director slate hired 60 per cent women directors, and 90 per cent met its women and minority requirement.

According to Sagaz, it is these efforts towards better representation and diversity which will be the legacy of the show. “No matter your nationality, race or sexual orientation, you have a voice on that set, and your voice matters.”