Sex Education has already proved to be one of the most refreshing shows about growing up and adolescent sexuality, but with its second season, it goes down in the history books as one that sets the bar for nuanced portrayals of queer teens. By the time the credits roll at the end of Sex Education season two, the beloved Netflix series is one of the queerest teen comedies ever — out of the main characters, nearly half of them have exhibited queerness in one way or another.
The debut season of Sex Education introduced us to the unapologetic, unabashed Eric Effiong played by Ncuti Gatwa. He's best friends with protagonist and sex wizard Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), but the show has never reduced him to the trite archetype of gay best friend or comic relief. Sure, he's downright hilarious and isn't afraid to stunt when it comes to his outfits (never forget that iconic African head wrap and heels moment), but Sex Education has always treated Eric as a multifaceted human being. He has his own set of values, such as his faith and the church community he's part of with his family. And in a queer television landscape that's mostly white, the fact that he's of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent is crucial. Eric, with all of his dimensions, is one of the most revolutionary gay characters on TV.
Season two progresses Eric's storyline, though to be fair, it does so by using one of the oldest tricks in the book, a love triangle. But the use of this narrative device has historically been reserved for straight characters. Queer characters rarely even get an opportunity to have one potential romantic suitor, let alone two. Sure the love triangle employs the age-old suspense that comes with "who will he choose," but in the end, it's less about which boy Eric likes more — it's about which one makes Eric sparkle more. Even his mother notices the difference that comes with the two vying for her son's heart.
Eric's love triangle also features two dynamic, interesting queer boys who couldn't be any more different. The second season of Sex Education brings in Rahim (Sami Outalbali), a handsome, head-turning transfer student from France. While Eric is out, he's not quite as bold as Rahim, who wants to kiss in public and play rounds of Dance Dance Revolution at an arcade. A point of disagreement between Eric and Rahim comes in the form of religion: The latter is an atheist because his family had to leave their country of origin because of religion. Religion playing a part in Rahim and Eric's downfall, a queer relationship is an interesting juxtaposition because we don't often see queer characters engage in spirituality the way these two do.
Meanwhile, Eric's endgame for the season turns out to be former bully Adam (Connor Swindells). After hooking up at the end of season one, Adam is briefly sent off to military school only to return still with feelings for Eric. Struggling with his own sexuality and problems at home, Adam is angry and unable to be the kind of person he needs to be in order to have a healthy romantic relationship. Perhaps most importantly, the show reckons with Adam's past treatment of Eric — Otis points this out to his best friend and addresses the fact that Adam made his life a living hell. But the show unpacks Adam's fury, and how he works at being a better person not only for Eric but for himself. This ultimately culminates in a grand romantic gesture in front of the entire school.
Adam is one of the few representations on television of a bisexual young man. While characters like Eric and Rahim are out from the get-go, seeing Adam's journey of self-discovery and acceptance is a reminder that there are still many young people out there who struggle with their identity. It's also an example that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that learning to love yourself will let you fully embrace others.
Joining Adam under the bisexual umbrella is Ola (Patricia Allison), who realizes she identifies as pansexual following her breakup with Otis and the development of feelings for her friend Lily (Tanya Reynolds). She's a direct contrast to Adam: Ola simply takes a quick online test to accept her identity and then she's unafraid to embrace rainbows and put her own spin on tailored menswear. Ola and Adam work together at the convenience store, and their friendship ends up being one of the most surprising and adorable ones to come out of Sex Education. It's not their sexualities that necessarily create their bond, but that common ground does bring another layer to their connection.
With Lily and Ola's newfound relationship comes an additional presentation of queerness: one that's unlabeled. After Ola kisses Lily, it takes a little bit of time for the fan fiction lover to accept how she actually feels due to her past romantic interests and phallic fascinations. Lily never comes out or puts herself in a box, she just starts seeing Ola, showing that not every everyone who ends up in a same-sex relationship also anchors themselves with some sort of concrete identity.
Along with these characters, queerness is craftily sewed into the fabric of Sex Education. There's an entire episode dedicated to anal douching, something for which there are few resources, but luckily Rahim can practically write the textbook on the practice. In another segment, Otis asks for advice from a lesbian at school for fingering help. A further installment sees Jackson's fellow Romeo and Juliet castmate come to terms with the revelation that she's asexual, another form of queerness that's fundamentally underrepresented in on television. We've known since season one that Jackson has two queer moms who are guilty of the same things as straight parents. All the while, Sex Education never feels like it's handling these topics with a heavy hand.
Even the setting of Sex Education evokes some sort of queerness. These characters exist in a world that's hard to pin down. The show's comedy and approach to sex clearly derives from a British sense of humor, but the American pop culture influences are constantly present, from the John Hughes of it all to the vintage wardrobe styling. Even the soundtrack suspends time and place, using artists and genres from Rod Stewart to Ezra Furman to Salt-N-Pepa to Sufjan Stevens, helping make the show feel timeless.
Sex Education should be praised for showcasing the multiplicity of queerness, but something that it has yet to depict is a trans character. Hopefully, in the future, we'll see the series introduce a trans teen who feels as fleshed out as the rest of the Moordale students. Fans are already calling for it.
Ultimately, it's so exciting that practically half the cast of a beloved TV series can be queer in some form. But in Sex Education, it's not just that these queer characters meet some quota. It's how the show's writers incorporate them. It's the care you can see in how their storylines are presented — their sexuality is part of their identity that touches many other facets of who they are, but it's not the whole of who they are. It's an essential part of them, and it drives some of their choices and actions, but not all of them. They're here, they're queer, but they're allowed to be complete, complex humans too.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue