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1 in 5 studio films included an LGBTQ character in 2021, GLAAD report finds

Nearly 70% of those characters were gay men, according to GLAAD’s annual Student Responsibility Index.
Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in "Dear Evan Hansen".
Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in "Dear Evan Hansen."Erika Doss / Universal Pictures

Major Hollywood studios have boosted LGBTQ representation in their films over the past several years, but this representation has not been evenly spread, and the studios still have a long way to go, according to a new report from the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD.

GLAADs 10th annual Studio Responsibility Index found that 1 in 5, or 16 out of 77 films released in theaters last year by a major studio included at least one LGBTQ character. Among these queer-inclusive films were “​​Licorice Pizza,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Eternals,” “West Side Story” and “In the Heights.” 

The report evaluated movies from the seven film studios that had the highest theatrical grosses from films released in the 2021 calendar year: Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, United Artists Releasing, Universal Pictures, The Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. (Universal Pictures and NBC News are both owned by Comcast NBCUniversal.)

Sixteen of the 77 films released by those studios (20.8%) featured 28 LGBTQ characters, the report found. That percentage is down slightly from 2020, during which 10 of the 44 theatrical releases (23%) featured 20 LGBTQ characters, according to the report.

Of the 16 films that included LGBTQ characters in 2021, 11 films (69%) included gay male characters, four (25%) included lesbian characters and two (13%) included bisexual characters, according to the report.

There was just one transgender character in a major theatrical release last year — Anybodys from “West Side Story,” who was played by trans and nonbinary actor Iris Menas — according to the report. The last trans character counted in the report was the nonbinary model All in the 2016 film “Zoolander 2,” played by Benedict Cumberbatch, which GLAAD described as “an offensive caricature.” 

Four years ago, GLAAD challenged major studios to reach 20% LGBTQ inclusion in major theatrical releases, and they’ve done that. However, this year’s report noted that there’s still significant room for growth and improvement. It found that parts of the LGBTQ community are still underrepresented, and queer characters received significantly less screen time in 2021 compared to 2020. 

The report found that the percentage of lesbian characters dropped dramatically: In 2020, 50% of major studio films included lesbian characters, and, as a result, queer women had outnumbered queer men in mainstream releases for the first time. 

Bisexual people continued to be underrepresented in films, the report found, with just two of the 77 theatrical releases including bisexual characters: Sony’s “Our Ladies” and Disney’s “The King’s Man.” GLAAD noted that bisexual people actually represent the majority — just over 50% — of the LGTBQ community. 

“This ongoing minimization and erasure of bi, pan, and other stories has a legitimate impact on bisexual+ people,” the report said. It added that studies have shown bisexual people are less likely to be out than gay or lesbian people and are more likely to report worse mental health.  

For the second year in a row, GLAAD found that there were zero LGBTQ characters with disabilities or LGBTQ characters living with HIV represented in the year’s films. 

There was also a slight decrease in LGBTQ characters of color, at 39%, which is down slightly from the previous year and pales in comparison to 2017’s record high of 57% characters of color, the report found. 

Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, said there’s been “exponential growth” in LGBTQ representation in film driven in part by GLAAD’s study, but that LGBTQ people living with HIV, those with disabilities, bisexual people and trans people “have yet to see themselves fully reflected on the big screen.”

“As we look to the next 10 years, these stories must become a priority if studios want younger and more diverse generations to continue to support and engage with their storytelling,” she said. 

As GLAAD pushes for better representation, it would also like to see queer characters receive more screen time and leading roles. Seven of the 28 LGBTQ characters, or 25%, received more than 10 minutes of screen time, down significantly from 80% of characters who received more than 10 minutes in 2020’s films. The majority of the 28 characters, 17, received fewer than five minutes, and six of those characters received less than a minute of screen time. 

In some genres, there were no LGBTQ-inclusive films: The report found that, for the first time in three years, there was not a single queer-inclusive film in the kids and family genre, for example. 

“This is down from the previous year with Pixar’s ‘Onward,’ which included a lesbian cyclops cop voiced by out actor Lena Waithe,” the report said. “This is a drastically different picture from television, where a significant boom of LGBTQ-inclusive family content allowed GLAAD to introduce a second GLAAD Media Award category for programming in the space and expand the categories to ten nominees each.”

A new part of the report graded the seven studios by also evaluating their public advocacy on LGBTQ issues, available resources for LGBTQ employees and whether they or their parent companies donated to elected officials that GLAAD defines as anti-LGBTQ, meaning they have supported anti-LGBTQ legislation, among other criteria.

None received a “good” or “excellent” grade. Sony Pictures, United Artists Releasing, Universal Pictures and The Walt Disney Studios received a grade of “Insufficient”; Warner Bros. received a grade of “Poor”; and Lionsgate and Paramount Pictures received “Failing” grades for not including any LGBTQ characters in their movies.

None of the seven studios immediately responded to NBC News’ request for comment.

CORRECTION (Dec. 17, 2022, 9:15 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the percentage of LGBTQ characters of color in studio films in 2021. It was 39%, not 11%.