Joshua Yehl fondly remembers what he had most in common with his friend Drew Leinonen.
“We both loved 'Star Wars',” he told NBC OUT. “It was really just a part of our lives. We’d watch reviews and talk about it. We would listen to the sound track in the car.”
Their love for "Star Wars" movies was a bond that kept them inseparable for six years, even after Yehl moved from Orlando to Los Angeles. And it was a bond that suddenly ended when Leinonen was killed alongside 48 others in the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando.
Yehl said Leinonen, who was 32 years old, was beloved in the Orlando LGBT community.
“A lot of people who knew Drew, their story with him begins with how he helped them come out of the closet and tell their friends and families that they were gay."
It was Leinonen’s love for "Star Wars" and his dedication to the LGBT community that gave Yehl the idea to start an online petition. It asks “all those behind the 'Star Wars' film” to use his friend as inspiration for a first-ever LGBT character in a "Star Wars" film.
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Yehl said this character would serve as a Hollywood role model for LGBT youth and would continue Leinonen’s legacy of helping others.
“When kids are growing up and they’re young, they realize they’re gay and they don’t know what to do. It always helps to have a role model and a lot of times we do look to movies," he added.
“I feel like if Drew could [become] the inspiration for [a] new 'Star Wars' character, then that would mean the world. He would [have] loved that.”
He pointed out that while LGBT characters have appeared in "Star Wars" novels and comics, one has yet to appear in a movie.
LGBT characters are often missing from major studio films like "Star Wars," according to a recent report from GLAAD. The report found just 22 film releases from major studios in 2015 contained characters that identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
"Hollywood's films lag far behind any other form of media when it comes to portrayals of LGBT characters. Too often, the few LGBT characters that make it to the big screen are the target of a punchline or token characters. The film industry must embrace new and inclusive stories if it wants to remain competitive and relevant,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD President & CEO, in a press release.
But some experts speculate that decisions about whether to include LGBT characters in a film are driven by how it will affect revenue, even if there is a strong desire to include them.
“From a studio’s perspective, I think many of them tend to be just looking at the bottom line and if it’s going to keep people from the box office, they’re not going to do it,” said Lori Pearson, Communications Director for Kids-in-Mind. The organization hosts a nonpartisan, nonreligious movie review website that evaluates films based on potentially objectionable content.
“I believe that being inclusive in such a big worldwide beloved franchise like 'Star Wars' is the way to sort of dispel the hate and fear and ignorance about LGBT people."
She said that even if a film is rumored to have an LGBT character, especially if it’s popular with underage audiences, it can set off a storm of protests on social media. That happened recently when talkshow host Ellen DeGeneres made a joke about a stingray character being transgender in the children’s animated movie Finding Dory, according to Pearson.
“It blew up everywhere. People were panicking even before going to see the film. They [were] telling friends not to go see it,” Pearson added.
Even if the protests come from a minority of people, Pearson said it could affect whether studios decide to include LGBT characters “if they determine it will ultimately affect their bottom line.”
“It’s all about whatever happens at the box office,” she said.
Yehl believes including an LGBT character in a "Star Wars" film would help make people more comfortable embracing the community.
“I believe that being inclusive in such a big worldwide beloved franchise like 'Star Wars' is the way to sort of dispel the hate and fear and ignorance about LGBT people. When you see people you aren’t familiar with or don’t understand in something you do love and understand, it’s sort of a bridge to help people [relate],” he explained.