Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” a reboot of the 1970s Norman Lear sitcom of the same name, has been portraying modern experiences of coming out to a Catholic family in a refreshingly honest way. The program doesn’t just show mere acceptance, but also the process of how this acceptance happens. Catholic LGBT identity is embraced in the story line. “One Day at a Time” displays the complexity of the individual coming out experience, particularly when involving strong Catholic identity.
One of the main themes of the show is fulfilling the desire to live freely and openly, in a variety of contexts: grandmother Lydia, played by Rita Moreno, escaped Cuba’s communist regime to come to the United States as a teenager; mother Penelope (Justina Machado) struggles with being open about her PTSD as a veteran who served in Afghanistan; son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) wishes racist taunts from peers would go away; daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) struggles with coming out and embracing her sexuality.
Midway through season 1, Elena comes out as gay to her family. She first tells her younger brother, Alex, in a touching moment where he unquestioningly accepts her for who she is. Other coming out moments prove more difficult, though. Penelope supports her daughter, but struggles with the implications of Elena’s sexuality and their collective Catholic upbringing.The mother struggles and admits that she doesn’t know how to take the news. She wants to support her daughter, but is having difficulty with rewriting Elena’s future in her head. Grandmother Lydia initially disapproves, but lets her love for Elena overpower her adherence to rigid rules of Catholicism.
For a few episodes, Lydia talks herself through an all-too-common situation in devoutly Catholic families: how to reconcile Church teaching on sexuality and morality with a family member’s recent coming out. At first, Lydia is unyielding in her commitment to her Church, but she later realizes that this commitment can also support Elena’s sexuality:
“You have to understand: I am a religious woman. And I’m sorry—I’m sorry, but I have a problem with Elena being gay. It goes against God! Although, God did make us in his image. And God doesn’t make mistakes—clearly. And when it comes to the gays, the pope did say, “Who am I to judge?” And the pope represents God. So, what, am I going to go against the pope and God? Who the hell do I think I am? OK! OK, I’m good.”
At the end of season 1, Elena comes out to her estranged father, Victor, and is met with immediate disapproval and disbelief: another all-too-common reaction when family members are met with their relatives’ newfound sexuality. He believes she’s going through a phase, and verbally bashes Penelope for “allowing” their daughter to run away with such ideas. Victor is a no-show at Elena’s quinceanera, leaving her alone on the dance floor for the father-daughter dance. But, in Alvarez family fashion, each family member slowly gets up and dances with Elena, encircling her in the support her father refused to give her after coming out.
“One Day at a Time” focuses more on personal evolution and less on institutional adherence. The program depicts struggle, but the nuance is unlike any other coming out scenario seen on modern TV. For example, in “The Real O’Neals” (an ABC sitcom where a teenage boy, Kenny, comes out to his rigid Irish Catholic family), there is no nuance about coming out. Characters are outcasts because of their sexuality; Kenny is the only out gay kid at his school.
However, while Elena is ostracized, this happens because of her nerdiness, her ardent feminism, and her social-justice-warrior-esque liberalism and protests, not solely for her sexuality. Bringing her non-binary partner Syd to a school dance, and introducing Syd to teachers, is also a complete non-issue. In “One Day at a Time,” we see simple acceptance as a reflection of accelerated social norms, while Victor’s complete rejection of his daughter still encompasses some modern Catholic attitudes surrounding the LGBT community. The program offers nuance in responses to sexuality.
LGBTQ Catholics have come to expect resistance, but “One Day at a Time” shows, fictionally, that perhaps one of the most radical things the Church can do to welcome the LGBTQ community, for now, is simply acknowledging and supporting its existence. In season 2 Elena even starts a GSA (gay-straight alliance) at her Catholic high school to bolster support of LGBTQ students. She is prepared to fight the administration on the club’s founding, and is instead utterly dumbfounded when they give unquestioning support.
Elena, though only 14 at the show’s outset, exhibits the possible: that a teenage gay girl can feel open enough and supported enough to come out in a religious environment, and be welcomed with little hesitation by her family community. Integrating Cuban identity, mental illness, social awkwardness, and family dynamics into the fold of Elena’s coming out story shows that understanding one’s sexuality is never a static process, and doesn’t always reveal positive results. Yet when healthy conversations about struggle – especially with faith and sexuality – take place, we all better understand each other.
–Lindsay Hueston, New Ways Ministry, May 4, 2018