Last Christmas truly was the Happiest Season for audiences hoping to see more diverse romantic pairings featured in traditional holiday movie fare. In addition to Clea DuVall's widely streamed Hulu film, which starred Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a lesbian couple, Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel premiered their first LGBTQ-themed Christmas movies, The Christmas Setup and The Christmas House, respectively. The latter movie starred Jonathan Bennett and Brad Harder as couple Brandon and Jake, who spend their holiday vacation helping Brandon's parents (Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence) transform their home into the ultimate Christmas showcase.
During the course of the film, the couple also talks about adopting a child and shares a kiss under the mistletoe — the first same-sex kiss featured in a Hallmark movie. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Bennett remembers the pride he took in making history for the network. "It's so interesting: I went from hiding who I was to the world and kissing Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls to starring as part of the first gay couple in a Christmas movie for the biggest Christmas network in the world," says the actor, who came out publicly in 2017. "It’s such a different world and such a different time, and it's exciting that this is the time we're living in now."
And the times aren't changing back anytime soon. As the 2021 holiday season kicks into high gear, more networks and streaming services are following in the holiday movie industry's increasingly inclusive footsteps. On Dec. 2, Netflix dropped Single All the Way, starring Michael Urie and Philemon Chambers — the first out gay Black actor to headline a holiday movie — as Los Angeles-based best friends who discover that they may be something more during a Christmas visit to Urie's small-town home. VH1's The Bitch Who Stole Christmas premiered the same day, featuring a bevy of RuPaul's Drag Race all-stars, not to mention RuPaul herself.
Meanwhile, Dec. 17 brings Amazon Prime Video's miniseries With Love, which finds former Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Vincent Rodriguez III spending Christmas Eve with his new boyfriend's (Mark Indelicato) family. Bennett and Harder return for another heartwarming yarn in The Christmas House 2: Deck Those Halls, which premieres on Hallmark Channel on Dec. 18. ("I say this movie has twice the humor and twice the heart of the first one," Bennett teases.) And Lifetime's Under the Christmas Tree arrives on Dec. 19 starring Elise Bauman and Tattiawna Jones as the network's first lesbian couple.
Far from feeling any sense of competition, Bennett is pleased to be in such diverse and varied company. "It’s so exciting to see so many different networks and streaming services telling stories that have LGBTQ-plus storylines in them," he marvels. "And I think what’s so great about this year is that these aren't stories about being gay — they are stories about love, and that's something we can all identify with. The fact that they’re gay isn’t the focus of the entire storyline. I think that’s really important to normalize what an LGBTQ-plus family looks like."
The stars of Single All the Way also feel that it's a gift to be part of telling a Christmas story that's universal. In the film, roommates Peter (Urie) and Nick (Chambers) are already out to their friends and family, which means they don't have to hide their identities when they show up to celebrate the holidays with Peter's family. In fact, Peter's mom and dad (Kathy Najimy and Barry Bostwick) are eager to pair him up with the local hunk, until they realize that Nick is the better match for their son.
"I'm extremely proud that the problems these characters have [are] the same problems that a straight person might have," Urie, who scored his breakthrough screen role as Vanessa Williams's out gay assistant on Ugly Betty, tells Yahoo Entertainment. "They are not dealing with coming out woes; they are not dealing with feelings of shame; and they are not dealing with homophobic families. It's not a movie about how we're different: This movie is about how we're the same."
Chambers agrees that contemporary LGBTQ stories — holiday-related or otherwise — have evolved beyond the kinds of coming-out stories that played outsized roles in movies like The Birdcage and even Happiest Season, where gay couples feel compelled to hide their identities from their loved ones. In fact, DuVall's film was criticized for recycling "old tropes," with some viewers describing Stewart and Davis's relationship as "toxic." The Spencer star has acknowledged the backlash in recent interviews. "It’s pretty awful. It’s bad. It’s really bad," Stewart told The Daily Beast about the behavior of Davis's character. "If you really unpack and truly consider where that girl is in her life? Ouch! I get it."
"I definitely do think that we have moved past that," Chambers tells Yahoo Entertainment of those particular LGBTQ narratives. "Going into this new journey, I'm looking forward to seeing these kinds of stories developed. Single All the Way is just about Peter and Nick going home for the holidays, and the things that happen to them. This project means so much to me and to Michael and, honestly, will mean so much to everybody because there's so much good, so much inclusiveness and so much representation. Anybody watching it can get something from this film."
Krysta Rodriguez — the star of VH1's The Bitch Who Stole Christmas — does have to hide who she is, but her specific deception involves her professional, not personal, identity. Obviously inspired by The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the film follows cisgender journalist Olivia St. Lapel (Rodriguez) as she infiltrates the merry small town of Tuckahoe, populated by out and proud drag queens like Ginger Minj, Peppermint and Pandora Boxx. Olivia's grinchy editor (played by RuPaul) wants her to throw cold water on the citizens' positive attitudes, but instead she winds up finding a new community and new love in the form of Big Russ (Andy Ridings).
"At its heart, this is a Christmas movie," Rodriguez tells Yahoo Entertainment of being the straight woman at the center of "the draggiest Christmas movie ever made" — as VH1's own marketing materials described The Bitch Who Stole Christmas. "People still have stakes and problems, and then we want to come together at the end and feel joy. It just happens that everyone's favorite queens are coming in and doing that! But they're playing roles, they're playing women and they're playing a real community — it just happens to be ridiculous and cheeky."
"I feel like it's like a drinking game," Rodriguez continues. "Like, take a shot every time a new queen comes up and do double shots if they do their signature thing! That's a big thing of what makes this movie fun and, in a subversive way, move the needle forward a little bit for a lot more representation."
Of course, moving that needle hasn't come without some pushback. During the 2019 holiday season, the conservative group One Million Moms publicly complained about the Hallmark Channel's decision to air a Zola commercial that featured a lesbian kiss. The network pulled the ads, only to put them back on the air following a public outcry led by prominent LGBTQ voices like country singer Chely Wright and Queer Eye star Bobby Berk.
That controversy led to the departure of Crown Media Family Networks CEO Bill Abbott in January 2020. Abbot has since taken the top job at GAC Media, and is in the process of launching GAC Family into the holiday movie game. The new network has already made some high-profile hirings — including several Hallmark Channel mainstays — although its commitment to diversity remains a subject of much speculation.
In June 2020, Hallmark's new leadership team unveiled an early look at a holiday movie lineup that was conspicuously absent of LGBTQ characters and storylines, leading to another negative social media cycle. But that changed within weeks, as the network made a public commitment to diversifying the characters and stories of its Christmas fare. That promise was realized when The Christmas House premiered on Nov. 22 and became a success story, even as One Million Moms launched an online petition calling for a boycott of the network.
For his part, Bennett says he wasn't listening to the "haters" in the run-up to The Christmas House's historic premiere last year. "I was too busy trying to find the trench coat I wore in the movie to give to the Smithsonian because Hallmark made history with this movie," he says, laughing. "I am so proud of the Hallmark Channel and their commitment to inclusion and diversity. If the younger me were to see two men in love at Christmas, I think he would have felt a little less scared. And I hope that we’re able to make a whole bunch of other LGBTQ-plus people feel less scared and more seen during the holidays with their families." Another familiar Hallmark Channel face, Candace Cameron Bure, is similarly pleased to see the network making more room under the Christmas tree for diverse characters. "Everyone deserves to be represented," she tells Yahoo Entertainment as part of a recent interview for the Are the Kids Alright? video series. "They are striving to do that and I'm just gonna continue to do the same. It's nice to see fresh faces, and you hear all kinds of stories about all different families, because families look different everywhere you go."
In the spirit of Single All the Way's message to not hide one's true feelings, Urie has a message for those who might try to make Christmas movies yet another front in the culture wars: "Bring it on," he says with a smile. "If they think gay people don't love Christmas, then they're living under some kind of heterosexual rock. If you don't like watching gay people love Christmas, then you can go find one of the literally thousands of other straight Christmas movies. As we take over, Christmas movies will be inherently gay, and the ones about straight people will have to be described as straight Christmas movies!"
Urie points to a specific scene in Single All the Way that acts as a signpost for the lasting change that's coming to holiday movies. It's a simple, yet moving one in which Chambers and Bostwick have a heart-to-heart about how best friends can also make the best life partners.
"Barry Bostwick is a total icon — he'll always be hot! — but let's face it: He's an old white man," Urie says, laughing. "So an old, straight white man telling a young, queer Black man that they're same... there's something so beautiful in that. Their experiences and backgrounds are different, but when it comes to love and companionship, these guys are the same. There will be a lot of old white men who end up watching this movie because whoever they're with told them to. When they see that scene, they'll realize this movie is also for them — and I love that."