Coach Eric Taylor, a high school football coach, and his wife, Tami, a guidance counselor at the same high school, are invited over to the Mayor of their small Texas town’s home for dinner. Another woman, named Barbara, is included in the intimate dinner party. After dinner, over coffee, Barbara gently rests her hand on the Mayor’s knee, letting the coach and his wife in on the fact that they are partners.
This happens in the 13th episode of the first season of the cult favorite high school football TV show, Friday Night Lights, which ran for five seasons from 2006-2011. And whose rabid fans, like me, will take any opportunity to tell you that “It’s not about football! It’s about life!” It’s one of the many small, subtle moments in Friday Night Lights where we see queer life in its fictional small town, Dillon, Texas.
The Mayor, Lucy Roddell, and her partner aren’t the only queer characters represented in Friday Night Lights. There’s also the gay male supervisor at fallen football hero Jason Street’s spinal cord rehabilitation centre. There’s Devin, the out and proud lesbian bassist for Crucifictorious, Landry Clarke’s “Christian speed-metal” band. And of course, there’s the endearingly over-enthusiastic assistant coach, Stan Traub. More on him later.
I complained to my husband once that I wished there had been a Big Gay Storyline on Friday Night Lights. As a queer woman, representation matters, right? My husband responded, thoughtfully, “I think it’s actually good that they didn’t have one.” I asked him what he meant, because there were at least five gay folks in Dillon and it would’ve been nice to see the show flesh them out a bit more. To clarify, he said that they had integrated LGBTQ+ characters organically within the show, just living their lives among the main characters. He pointed out that this was a different and necessary portrayal on TV.
The more I thought about this, the more I agreed.
Friday Night Lights was a show, to paraphrase its heartthrob, Tim Riggins, about living large in small town Texas. Its focus was on Coach and Tami and the Dillon Panthers’ cishet star football players and their families. Queer characters lived among them. They coached them, they were their classmates, they were their mayor. I was once a queer teenage girl in small-town Ontario, out only to my inner circle. To the people I wasn’t close to in high school – like, say, the football players – I was their classmate, nothing more. I don’t know if any of the players were gay, or if any of the family members of the star players were. Hell, I don’t even know if our team even had star players! I was just a girl that lived her life in that same small town, much like Friday Night Lights’ queer folx.
The closest we get to a Big Gay Storyline was in the fourth episode of season four. Devin asks Julie Taylor, Coach and Tami’s daughter, to accompany her to a gay bar near Dillon. After Julie gently ribs Devin about not being her type, she agrees to go. Tami isn’t thrilled with it and tells Julie not to tell her low-key homophobic father. At the bar, Devin and Julie are enjoying some sodas when Devin makes eyes with a cutie and leaves Julie at the bar. Julie does some people-watching from her barstool and notices a familiar face – Coach Stan Traub, one of her dad’s assistants. She gives him a friendly wave. He turns away, with a complex look of shame and fear in his eyes. It’s remarkably subtle acting from Coach Traub’s portrayer, Russell DeGrazier. When Julie runs into Coach Traub at the pep rally later that week, she takes him aside to let him know that his secret is safe with her. He tells her he doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and that’s that. It’s heartbreaking. Coach Traub shows how ingrained internalized homophobia can manifest itself, particularly in sports, in a small town and in the Bible Belt.
Mainstream television shows are getting better at queer representation, but it can still come off as tokenism. You don’t need to look any further than Parenthood – a series developed, like Friday Night Lights, by Jason Katims – for a prime example of tokenism. Parenthood was a show that ran on NBC for six seasons from 2010-2015 about three generations of a sprawling dysfunctional upper-middle-class white family living in the Bay Area, and was rightfully criticized for having zero LGBTQ+ characters. Not a member of the family, not a friend, not a co-worker or classmate, nothing. In its penultimate season, they bring back the eldest child of the third generation, Haddie Braverman, who brings home her girlfriend from college. Yay, right?! Unfortunately, the relationship is never spoken of again. It was like the showrunners went, “Well, we gave you something queer, let’s move along,” and dusted their hands of it. This is the other side of how the Big Gay Storyline can be a problematic trope, and it was brilliant that Friday Night Lights didn’t fall into it. If a Christian, conservative small town in Texas could have its share of queer townspeople, how could Katims have fumbled so horribly with its ultra-liberal protagonists and setting in Parenthood?
Friday Night Lights having not just one tertiary or periphery gay character is something that sets the show apart as still more real and groundbreaking than shows that have premiered six years after it ended. In its run and rule throughout the 90s, Roseanne led the way in modern network television shows organically integrating secondary gay characters. Roseanne is, in fact, rumored to be introducing a genderqueer character in its reboot. Will & Grace proved network shows could be successful with gay leads - and its current reboot is equally successful. I see Friday Night Lights as a trailblazer in its own right; of integration of LGBTQ+ minor characters without pandering.
Friday Night Lights’ legacy lives on in Etsy crafts, podcasts (Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Plus Booze), and think pieces like these. It’s regarded as one of the greatest network television shows of all-time and Coach and Tami’s relationship is often voted as the best TV marriage of all-time. It should also hold a legacy in queer culture. Sure, Mayor Rodell, Devin and Coach Stan Traub specifically were tertiary characters, and even though there was no larger exploration of their characters, there was nothing scandalous or sensationalized about them or their queerness. You didn’t see Buddy Garrity threaten to out the mayor or Coach Traub get in an awkward situation with a football player. These are the kinds of tropes lesser shows would fall into. Thankfully, since Friday Night Lights is basically heralded as The Wire of teen dramas (Michael B. Jordan is Vince from FNL, not Wallace from The Wire, don’t @ me), we got to see a small Texas football town with various queer characters as part of its fabric.