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A record year for LGBTQ representation in film — for gay white men

For the third year in a row, transgender characters were absent on-screen, and the number of queer characters of color decreased, according to GLAAD.
Image: Rocketman
Taron Egerton in Rocketman.Paramount Pictures

With films like "Rocketman" and "Booksmart," 2019 was another record year for LGBTQ representation, but despite gains, major limitations in acknowledging the depth and breadth of queer people on screen persist, according to the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD.

"One of the things we've noted is that there's a pattern of inconsistency," Megan Townsend, GLAAD's director of entertainment research and co-creator of the organization's Studio Responsibility Index, an annual report that tracks LGBTQ representation in film, told NBC News. "Some studios may go from worse to doing better or vice versa, whereas with TV, we've seen much more of that continued forward march with the quality, quantity and diversity of LGBTQ characters consistently improving year to year."

For its 2020 report, which was released Thursday, GLAAD analyzed the eight film studios that had the highest theatrical grosses in 2019 and found that of the 118 films released from these major studios last year, 22 included LGBTQ characters, marking the highest percentage of inclusive films in the report's eight-year history.

Gains were not simply made in the number of LGBTQ-inclusive films, but in the storylines as studios eviscerated commonly used plot and character tropes, particularly when it came to bisexual characters, as in "Bombshell" and "Anna."

"We've called out the use of transactional relationships when it comes to bi characters who engage in a relationship to get something they need, rather than genuine romantic or sexual interest so many times before, so it's refreshing to see these films steer clear of playing into that stereotype," Townsend said.

Yet progress remains sluggish as no bisexual male characters were featured in any of the year's releases, and for the third year in a row transgender characters were absent on screen, an omission the report calls "the most glaring way that mainstream media fails to be inclusive." The racial diversity of LGBTQ film characters is also dismal, with GLAAD recording a "concerning continuation of a downward trend" as the number of queer characters of color decreased for the third consecutive year. Just 34 percent of LGBTQ characters were people of color in 2019, compared with 42 percent the year before, prompting GLAAD to challenge studios to ensure at least half of their LGBTQ characters are people of color by 2022.

The report is the first time GLAAD ha tallied LGBTQ characters with disabilities, finding that there was only one character who fit the bill: Poe from "Five Feet Apart." Poe, however, dies before the movie's end, a plot point that the report says exemplifies "Hollywood's decades long 'Bury Your Gays' trope."

"It is unfortunate that this film introduced a vibrant character, who was gay, Latino and living with a disability, only to have him eventually die to further the plot of the central straight white characters," the report says. "When there is only one gay character in a project — whose story culminates as a plot device for a straight romance — it does not send a positive message to audiences for that character to then also die."

Though white gay men remain the most represented in LGBTQ-inclusive films, even their inclusion may not be taken for granted as progress, as more than half of all LGBTQ characters received less than three minutes of screen time, according to the report.

"There's a lot of cases where an LGBTQ characters are present, but they were only there for a smaller moment or they weren't as critical to the plot," Townsend said. "For example, in 'Wonder Park,' we see gay parents dropping their kids off to camp, which is a nice moment, but there's also a huge amount of opportunity to move beyond small moments that audiences can easily miss."

Townsend also stressed the need for "casual inclusion," which entails "featuring LGBTQ characters in all sorts of worlds and in all sorts of stories" and having their LGBTQ identity be overt, but not necessarily their defining character trait.

"There are movies where a character's LGBTQ identity is central in the plot, like in 'Rocketman' and 'Booksmart' and those are great," Townsend said. "But while we don't want to see queer stories being relegated to the subtext with moments so small that the audience might miss it, we also want to see more characters that are already out or just happen to be LGBTQ."

GLAAD encourages studios to move beyond stereotypes and tropes by providing them with specific information about the films its features in its report. After determining which films are LGBTQ-inclusive, the organization further analyzes them using its “Vito Russo Test,” named after GLAAD co-founder and film historian Vito Russo. The criteria for the Vito Russo test is as follows: The film must contain a character that identifies as LGBTQ, but is not “solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.” The character must also be essential to the plot “in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect” on the story.

Using this criteria, GLAAD found that 73 percent of LGBTQ-inclusive films released in 2019 passed the Vito Russo Test, which is the highest percentage recorded in the report’s history. It also found several films that were billed as LGBTQ-inclusive by fans and the media for casting queer actors, but did not actually include the character's LGBTQ identity in the movie's plot. These films, including "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum" and "Spider-Man: Far From Home," ultimately failed the Vito Russo Test.

When GLAAD released its 2018 index, it called on the major studios to ensure 20 percent of its annual releases include LGBTQ characters by 2021, and that 50 percent include LGBTQ characters by 2024. The film landscape is slowly transforming to meet those benchmarks.

"The pandemic has made a lot of things uncertain, but there are many projects we're excited about," Townsend said. "I'd like to see the needle move faster than it is, but some years it's been a bit more of a struggle to try and find anything upcoming that audiences should know about or look forward to, so there is hope to be had with all the studios."

She added that LGBTQ inclusion is not only "the right thing to do," but "good for the bottom line," noting that films like "Blockers," "Love, Simon" and "Rocketman" tripled their budgets in earnings.

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