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Arts & Culture » Television

LGBT characters on TV, by the numbers

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Power TV executive producer Shonda Rhimes.
Power TV executive producer Shonda Rhimes.  

It's that time of year again: the very full month of October. Yes, it will end with the official gay holiday of Halloween, but we have to get there. Pink ribbons flutter everywhere in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Lavender ribbons also flutter for Domestic Violence Awareness month. Just like Black History got the shortest month, the two most pressing issues for women's health got shoved into the same month. Nice. Oh, and while we're shoving the marginalized together, October is also Hispanic Heritage Month and LGBT history month. National Coming Out Day is Oct. 11.

October is also the month GLAAD releases their annual report on LGBT characters on TV. The report was released Oct. 1 and is, as usual, more glowing than we can comprehend, since we always think we watch and monitor way more TV than anyone who works at GLAAD. According to GLAAD, in the 2014-15 season, 3.9% of 813 characters regularly seen on prime-time network scripted series are lesbian, gay or bisexual. That's a total of 32 characters. The percentage is up slightly over last year, which was 3.3%, but it's down from 2012's 4.4%.

GLAAD says the networks and cable must do better on transgender characters, as the only scripted series with recurring trans characters, both trans women, are Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and Amazon's new series Transparent. There is also a trans character on ABC Family's The Fosters.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual people comprise between eight and 11% of the U.S. population, according to most studies, which also state there are nearly 700,000 trans persons in the U.S. There are more bisexuals than lesbians or gay men, and more bisexual women than bisexual men. Of course, those percentages are people declaring their LGBT status. So the numbers are likely higher. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, as of Oct. 2, 2014, the U.S. population was 318,838,000. So, given there are 813 recurring characters on the tube, we're pretty sure there should be more than 32 LGB characters on TV, just going by basic math. And while trans persons are a minority within a minority, two characters on two series, neither of which are on network or cable, are clearly not enough. (India actually has a trans woman news anchor, Padmini Prakash.) GLAAD categorizes LGBT visibility on TV with the broadest possible brush. Many years GLAAD has counted animated characters, yet has never counted reality TV personalities. Go figure.

Diversity on TV has been a problem for, well, ever. Women are underrepresented. Only 40% of characters are female, yet women are 52% of the population. Racial diversity is not equal to the population either. Several new series spotlight women of color, notably How to Get Away with Murder, State of Affairs, Cristela, blackish, Jane the Virgin, Forever and Gotham. Nearly 40% of the U.S. is non-white. Yet when blackish debuted on ABC, Twitter was all atwitter with questions about where the shows with white families were.

TV execs often create two-for-one characters, with a person of color also being a show's LGB or in the case of Orange Is the New Black, T character. We don't want to slam OITNB, as it's one of the most diverse shows, but it is true that their one transgender character is also black.

TV needs to get less male, less white, less straight. We haven't even gone to less ageist. (Not all men in their 50s are married to women in their 30s, just like not all men are George Clooney.) TV needs to look more like America: there have to be more people of color and way more of them have to be Hispanic, since that's our largest ethnic minority.

The recent outrage over New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley's racist and tone-deaf piece reducing power exec Shonda Rhimes to a cultural stereotype of the Angry Black Woman and referencing black women actresses on TV as "not classically beautiful" should have raised consciousness among TV execs. It certainly raised the attention of Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor at the NYT, when black women all over America started cancelling their subscriptions. But what about us ? We rarely even get bad press, let alone good press, unless some reality TV bigot like Phil Johnson on Duck Dynasty says something crazy.

LGBT people have GLAAD to speak out on our behalf about how and how often we are represented. Sara Kate Ellis became the new president of GLAAD last November. While we were thrilled to see a lesbian heading GLAAD, we still haven't seen much change in how GLAAD operates. SF activist Michael Petrelis called GLAAD "a leech upon the queer body politic." But in a May 29, 2014 interview with B.A.R. reporter Chuck Colbert, Ellis was unequivocal about the role of GLAAD: "We are the voice for LGBT equality," she declared. Leech on or voice for LGBT people? You be the judge, but we're stunned by how few new LGBT characters there are on the tube.

We're happy with a lot of the long-time LGB characters on the tube, notably those on Rhimes' super-diverse shows. The pairing of doctors Arizona Robbins and Callie Torres on Grey's Anatomy has not always run smoothly, but the two have stayed together, got married, are raising a daughter, and are discussing having a second child. Seeing them return on Sept. 25 in the premiere episode of GA 's 11th season was like seeing old friends. Old lesbian friends.

The same was true of seeing Jeff Perry as presidential chief of staff Cyrus Beene on Scandal, which began its fourth season Sept. 25. Last season Scandal killed off Cyrus' husband, James. James was played by gay actor Dan Bucatinsky, who plays one of two gay dads on the new NBC sitcom Marry Me, debuting Oct. 14. The dads are both named Kevin are also both not white. Bucatinsky is Latino Jewish, and the other dad is played by African-American SNL alum Tim Meadows. So yes, the two gay characters are also the people of color.

Rhimes also exec produces How to Get Away with Murder, the third in the Thank God It's Thursday lineup, a first for anyone in TV history. The show, which debuted Sept. 25, was created by openly gay TV writer Peter Nowalk, who has worked on both Grey's and Scandal. We must have LGBT people behind the camera to get more in front of the camera. Nowalk proved that in the first episode of HTGAWM, which had steamy gay-male sex scenes to equal those between the show's star, Tony winner Viola Davis (playing law professor and defense attorney Annalise Keating), and her character's lover and husband. Oh, and she also had a mild flirtation with one of her prettiest male students. Yet the gay sex equaled all of that.

Jack Falahee plays Connor Walsh, one of Keating's top students and interns. He manages to get information other students can't because he's hooked up with a hot computer hacker, Oliver (Conrad Ricamora). (Oliver is, just to keep hammering home our point, Asian.) In both the season opener and the second episode, Connor has super-hot, tear-each-other's-shirts-off-our-ripped-bodies sex. And this is network, folks, not cable. In a Sept. 25 interview for E! with Kristin Dos Santos, Nowalk said there would be "lots of same-sex sex scenes" on the show, because "it's part of life." Yes. But outside of Rhimes' shows, we haven't seen much of that on the tube. The door tends to close on gay-male sex especially.

Nowalk told Dos Santos, "I knew I wanted to push the envelope, especially with the gay sex. And to me, writing some real gay sex into a network show is to right the wrong of all of the straight sex that you see on TV. Because I didn't see that growing up, and the more people get used to two men kissing, the less weird it will be for people."

One of the new characters on Grey's this season is Dr. Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary), who also played lesbian doctor Tyra Dupre on the CW's short-lived 2012 series Emily Owens, M.D. We're hoping that McCreary is playing a lesbian on Grey's as well, but so far her sexual orientation is a secret. Rhimes and now Nowalk, with her exec-producer support, have created a different TV landscape from what we are used to seeing. That landscape is equally white and non-white, and gay people are always part of it. Women are strong and vibrant and in positions of relative power. And interracial relationships are not taboo, they are a commonplace. We need more of this.

One of our other favorite showrunners, out-there-gay Ryan Murphy, is back. The incomparable American Horror Story returned for its fourth season Oct. 8 on FX with what is bound to be the most controversial season yet. Set in 1952 Jupiter, Florida, telling the story of one of the last remaining freak shows in America and their struggle for survival, Freak Show pushes every envelope. Freak Show will focus on the conflicts between the freaks and the "evil forces" who do not understand them, like Twisty, the deranged clown. Returning cast members from previous seasons include Emmy winner Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Denis O'Hare, Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, Jamie Brewer, Emma Roberts, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe. Guest-starring in a dramatic and non-singing role is Patti LaBelle. Michael Chiklis also joins the cast.

Murphy said he wanted to explore how a group of people who were hounded for who they are and who had endured centuries of abuse had finally started to stand up for themselves and for their own civil rights. (Sound metaphoric, does it?) This is the most expensive season of AHS â€" Murphy had to build an entire town to create the 60-year time difference â€" and the sets are magnificent. Freak Show may also be the most tragic season of AHS. But since each season has been more brilliant than the previous one, expect yet more brilliance. No doubt there will be some push-back about Murphy's portrayal of the so-called freaks. But Jessica Lange's Elsa is a savior figure this season, rescuing people locked away in hospitals and asylums and bringing them out into the open. Whether one views her as benevolent or manipulatively voyeuristic remains to be seen, but Freak Show is a must-see.

Another must-see if you are not already watching is Fox's Gotham. Fox ranks highest on GLAAD's list of networks with LGBT characters, and Gotham has several. Even if Batman isn't your m�tier, Gotham is simply extraordinary. The acting, the writing, the plotting. Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney is a revelation.

Another must-see on Fox is the limited series Gracepoint, which debuted Oct. 2, an American version of the BBC series Broadchurch. David Tennant and Breaking Bad's brilliant Anna Gunn are superb. The claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town is appropriately stultifying. The juxtaposition of the beauty of the raw Pacific coastline and the raw emotions of the town is pitch-perfect. And there's a San Francisco connection. Need we say more?

Some other new-season tidbits: Leslie the lesbian Shay (Lauren German) was killed off in the third season opener of NBC's Chicago Fire. That cuts into the LGBT character count on the tube considerably, as Shay had many girlfriends. We liked Shay, and we will miss her. But we admit, she was the only reason we watched Chicago Fire, so that's now off our list.

We liked seeing Neil Patrick Harris on Letterman Sept. 29 talking about his wedding in Italy the same day the world was agog over George Clooney's marriage to the gorgeous Amal Alamuddin. As he showed pics of his own wedding to David Burtka, he turned to the audience and said, "Take that, George Clooney." Harris also did a hilarious impromptu bit reading from his memoir about Letterman as a "generous" gay lover.

We said we wouldn't talk about the NFL scandal anymore after last column, and we likely won't (and inexplicably it's already out of the news cycle, although we will note that ESPN censoring Bill Simmons for calling Roger Goodell a liar is the height of hypocrisy). But we just want to note that South Park, as is often the show's wont, did a fabulous show last week about the NFL and the Redskins controversy that was brilliant. South Park is now in its 18th season and is the longest-running animated series after The Simpsons. You can catch the Comedy Central show online, it streams.

For fans of zombie world, the fifth season of The Walking Dead begins on AMC Oct. 12. We want to know if Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) is really gay. Reedus thinks he is, so does that mean he will be playing Daryl that way this season? We hope so. The show's creator Robert Kirkman has been hinting at it all summer. Stop teasing us and just bring it, please.

Speaking of bringing it, if you aren't watching season six of CBS' The Good Wife, you are missing one of the best shows on TV, with gay plots, Alicia's gay brother, and of course, the magnificent Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), who was back in the sack with a woman in the debut episode. The lead-in to The Good Wife this season is Madam Secretary, starring T�a Leoni as a Valerie Plame-meets-Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. The debut episode was a little messy, but the show hit its stride in the second. NBC's State of Affairs, with Alfre Woodard as the country's first black female president Constance Payton, doesn't debut until Nov. 17, so Madam Secretary has plenty of time to set the stage for women in the White House.

Finally, we'd love to see two women in the detective roles in the revolving HBO crime series True Detective. Who better to play one of those characters than lesbian actress Ellen Page? If you can't imagine the winsome star of Juno as a tough-talking, Matthew McConaughey-esque gumshoe, check out the parody Page and Kate Mara did of the show for Funny or Die. It's priceless: youtu.be/EGo58GUNi70.

So for all the things TV is and for all it has yet to become, for the brilliant Viola Davis and ever-amusing Ellen Page, for gay showrunners Peter Nowalk and Ryan Murphy, for out comedian Sean Hayes coming back to the tube on CBS' The Millers (and hopefully not ruining it like he has the last few shows he's been on), for knowing more about LGBT TV than GLAAD ever will, and to continue playing the "two-for-one marginalized characters" drinking game, you know you really must stay tuned.

 

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