The pandemic has halted production of many television shows, resulting in a dip in overall LGBTQ representation amid the current television season, but the queer representation that remained has been more racially diverse than ever, according to a new report from the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD.
The organization’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report found drops in LGBTQ representation in scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming platforms. Out of the 773 series regular characters GLAAD tracked on broadcast scripted prime-time shows, 70 were LGBTQ (just over 9 percent). This is down from 90 out of 879 characters, or 10.2 percent, in the previous TV season, a drop of more than 1 percent. The report also found a nearly 13 percent year-over-year decrease in LGBTQ regular characters on streaming services Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, as well as a 33 percent year-over-year decrease in these characters on primetime scripted cable.
“We’re hoping that is just a blip and not the beginning of a trend,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said, noting that the decrease overall was largely due to fewer shows being made. “The content is more important than ever and it’s having a bigger impact than ever. So, for us, we’re thrilled that the drop wasn’t as big as it could have been. But, if all things are equal, then even if the quantity of programs goes down, the representation shouldn’t.”
While overall LGBTQ representation was down, the racial diversity of queer characters was up.
“This is the first time in the report’s history that we’re seeing more LGBTQ people of color than white LGBTQ characters,” Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, told NBC News. This year marks the 25th year the group has tracked the presence of LGBTQ characters on TV and is the 16th edition of the “Where We Are on TV” report.
People of color comprised 53 percent of LGBTQ regular and recurring characters on broadcast series, 52 percent on cable shows and 47 percent on streaming platform originals.This marks a year-over-year increase for all three categories and the third season that broadcast has surpassed the 50 percent mark and the first for cable.
Tre’vell Anderson, LGBTQ activist and editor for the queer media outlet Xtra, said the increase in racial diversity of LGBTQ characters on TV is a step in the right direction, but they added that there’s still ample room for improvement.
“Until there’s every type of LGBTQ person represented on screen, there’s still work to be done,” Anderson said. “Every member of the LGBTQ community deserves well-developed, well-written, nuanced depictions of their lived experiences written by and portrayed by members of their own community — and these stories should be written by storytellers beyond the same four creators.”
GLAAD’s 2019 study highlighted that LGBTQ inclusion is enormously impacted by a small handful of creators and producers who have prioritized LGBTQ representation. Last year, 14 percent of all LGBTQ characters came from openly gay creators Greg Berlanti, Lena Waithe and Ryan Murphy, along with LGBTQ ally Shonda Rhimes. This year, 17 percent of all LGBTQ representations appear on their 16 collective shows.
“We know how powerful media is in terms of unlocking possibilities when it comes to life, love and even career for any person let alone a queer person,” Anderson said. “So, it’s imperative LGBTQ people see characters that fully look like every aspect of their humanity so they can imagine what is possible for their lives, and you have to wonder how accurate, fair and nuanced that storytelling can truly be when it’s mostly told by a handful of creators — two of whom are white, gay men. And that’s why we keep saying it’s not enough.”
Following the debut of groundbreaking shows like FX’s “Pose” in 2018, which made television history for casting five transgender recurring actors, the historic casting of trans characters on The CW’s “Supergirl” and FOX’s “9-1-1: Lone Star,” the latest “Where We Are on TV” report found a year-over-year decrease in the number of transgender characters on TV.
While GLAAD attributes the decline to the effects of the pandemic and several shows with prominent trans characters not expected to return, transgender actress Angelica Ross, who starred in Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” and currently stars in his “American Horror Story” anthology, believes it’s a lack of genuine effort in Hollywood.
“As to be expected, a good percentage of the movement for diversity was performative and predictable,” Ross said. “Many of my trans colleagues who are creators saw this coming well before it started happening. It is why folks like myself, Rain Valdez, Janet Mock, Shakina Nayfack and others are using our space in the industry to create more roles and create more space for truly diverse storytelling.”
Ross’ “Pose” co-star Jason Rodriguez echoed Ross’ remarks but said he is optimistic the FX hit series, which is scheduled to return for a third season this year, will show the industry what’s possible.
"It is a receipt for the industry,” Rodriguez said of “Pose.” “It’s teaching the industry how to tell our stories and that those stories can be critically acclaimed, loved and celebrated. And it’s teaching LGBTQ actors and creators there are opportunities in front of and behind the camera by seeing Janet Mock being a force. After the pandemic, I am hopeful representation across the board gets back to growth, so we can continue teaching the entertainment business how to tell our stories, and we can keep inspiring all of society with our stories.”
While GLAAD says the decrease in overall LGBTQ representation was anticipated due to the pandemic shutting down and slowing down production, the organization maintains that it is still critical — even during a health crisis — to monitor the entertainment industry’s progress and efforts
“Even though it’s been a unique year with production challenges, we’re still keeping an eye out and holding the industry accountable,” Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, said. “Many people are isolated from their family and friends and are turning to TV and are connecting with characters and building communities online through entertainment content.”
Additionally, Townsend said, non-LGBTQ viewers are watching more TV and “seeing us and getting to know us through viewing this content as well.”
“These stories still matter, and we’re working to ensure we’re not seeing progress reverse,” she said.