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Presence vs. representation: Report breaks down LGBTQ visibility on TV

LGBTQ people make up about 4.5 percent of the U.S. population and 6.7 percent of recurring TV characters — but the numbers don't tell the full story.
Alexis played by Annie Murphy, Patrick played by Noah Reid, David played by Dan Levy, and Stevie played by Emily Hampshire in \"Schitt's Creek\" Season 5.
Alexis, played by Annie Murphy; Patrick, played by Noah Reid; David, played by Dan Levy; and Stevie, played by Emily Hampshire, in the fifth season of "Schitt's Creek."Schitt's Creek POP TV

From Billy Porter in "Pose" to Dan Levy in "Schitt's Creek" and Elliot Page in "Umbrella Academy," LGBTQ people have been increasingly seeing themselves and their stories represented and celebrated on television. But there is still room for improvement, according to Nielsen's "Being Seen on Screen: Diverse Representation & Inclusion on TV" report.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people make up an estimated 4.5 percent of the U.S. population, and, according to Nielsen's inaugural report, they were 6.7 percent of the top 10 recurring cast members in the top 300 programs on broadcast, cable and streaming platforms in 2019. The report also found that 26 percent of the top 300 programs included at least one cast member who identifies as LGBTQ.

While the numbers alone paint a picture of increased visibility, Stacie de Armas, Nielsen's senior vice president for diverse consumer insights, said it's important to differentiate presence from representation.

"When you look across the TV landscape, the LGBTQ population looks well represented,” de Armas told NBC News. “But when we look deeper, and at intersectional groups, it’s clear there is a need for greater diversity in LGBTQ representation. White LGBTQ people are most represented on screen, while female LGBTQ people of color and Latinx LGBTQ people are below parity compared to their population estimates."

Harvey Guillén, an openly gay actor who has a lead role in FX's "What We Do in the Shadows," said that in terms of media diversity, "We've come so far, but we have so far to go."

"It's great that there are more queer actors in queer roles in living rooms consistently, but getting more people of color, of different gender expressions and different body types across different genres is our next priority," he told NBC News. "Just as the world builds their perceptions of the LGBTQ community from media, we LGBTQ people also form our own identities from media."

Jack Moore, writer and co-showrunner for Netflix's "Dear White People," said part of the effort to diversify LGBTQ storytelling is to diversify the writers' rooms.

"A huge part of the puzzle the industry has to work on is allowing queer women, queer Latinx people and other underrepresented members of our community to tell their own stories," said Moore, who identifies as bisexual. "This is one way networks, artists and creators can go beyond telling the same white, queer stories over and over."

Chris Rudolph, an editor and producer for Logo, ViacomCBS' LGBTQ lifestyle channel and entertainment channel, said the queer community has a role to play.

"Great shows like 'Vida' and 'One Day at a Time' centered Hispanic and Latinx queer women but didn't get enough support from the LGBTQ community," Rudolph said. "If we want to see shows other than the ones that focus on gay, white men, we as a community have to show them the same amount of love and support."

LGBTQ representation was just part of Nielsen's diverse representation report. Among its broader key findings are that women, who make up 52 percent of the U.S. population, were just 38 percent of top 10 recurring cast members on the top 300 programs and that people of color, who are nearly 40 percent of the population, represent less than 27 percent of the characters in these top roles.

Nielsen hopes its report sheds light on the importance of diversity and inclusion in news, as well.

When these diverse groups are not visible in news, it raises the question: "Are their stories being told and being told fairly?"

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