Counting up LGBTQ representation

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Wednesday November 15, 2017
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There's good news, bad news, and worse news this week. The good news is GLAAD released their annual report for the 2017-18 season on LGBTQ representation on TV, and there are more LGBTQ characters than ever (read the full report at As we've been writing here for over 20 years, more of us behind the camera mean more of us in front of the camera. We would love to have GLAAD add showrunners, producers and directors to their annual list, because it is also a good way to chart the progress of LGBTQ characterizations. A handful of showrunners - Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti, Bryan Fuller and Lee Daniels - can be credited with a third of those regular LGBTQ characters. More queer or, in the case of Rhimes, queer-friendly showrunners, and there will be more LGBTQ characters.

GLAAD reports that out of 901 series regular characters appearing on scripted primetime broadcast this season, 58 (6.4%) were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer, making it the highest percentage GLAAD has found in the history of this 20-year report. There were an additional 28 recurring LGBTQ characters. The number of regular LGBTQ characters counted on scripted primetime cable increased to 103, and recurring characters increased to 70, making for 173 characters, twice as many as broadcast.

In streaming, there were 51 LGBTQ regular characters counted in original scripted series on the streaming services Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, as well as 19 recurring characters. This is an increase of five total characters from last year's 65 total LGBTQ characters.

Representation of bisexuality is fraught. The Chicago Tribune asserted on Nov. 9 that "bisexual people account for the majority of the LGBTQ community." We would like to see some numbers on that as it's not our personal experience over many years as an LGBTQ activist, but if true, it makes GLAAD's report dispiriting, to say the least. GLAAD notes bisexual+ characters make up 28% of the LGBTQ characters tracked across all platforms (broadcast, cable, streaming originals), a slight decrease from last year. These characters still heavily skew toward women (75 women, 18 men). If what the Tribune reports is accurate, then bisexuals+ are even more underrepresented than gay men and lesbians.

We would add to GLAAD's report that all TV venues still have problems distinguishing between lesbian and female bisexual characterizations, something that angered bisexual actress Sara Ramirez and kept her from returning to ABC. The most recent example is on Ramirez' former show, "Grey's Anatomy," where Arizona's new girlfriend is suddenly kissing men when she was introduced to us as lesbian. Ramirez' character, Arizona's former wife Callie, was always bisexual. Bisexual should be its own category, not a default for when shows want to move a lesbian character in a different narrative direction. That's not how lesbianism works in real life.

Trans representation was up this year, with 17 regular and recurring transgender characters tracked across all three platforms. (This doesn't count several unscripted shows featuring trans persons.) Of those, nine are trans women, four are trans men, and four are non-binary, a new category in the report, since there had never been a non-binary character on TV before "Billions" Taylor Mason, played by non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon. There are also two asexual characters, which had never been counted before, on "Bojack Horseman" and "Shadowhunters."

As we assert every year, the bad news is these are still awful numbers. We're not sure how GLAAD counts, for example, the death toll among lesbian characters, which, as we have reported, is egregious. More than 50 lesbian and bisexual female characters have been killed off in the past few years on all three venues. This past week alone, another young lesbian character, this one on "Scandal," was killed off. Yasmeen was a Middle Eastern Muslim, too, niece of the President of Bashran, which goes to our other complaint that often shows create queer characters of color for virtue signaling, only to dispense with them, eliding both a lesbian or gay character and a character of color.

There's more bad news from GLAAD: Women only represent a little over 40% of scripted characters, but the U.S. Census has put women at between 51-52% of the population.

As we have reported, racial diversity is just as awful. A third of Americans are non-white: black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American. Where are the representations on screen? "Empire," "Star," "black-ish," "Fresh Off the Boat," "How to Get Away with Murder," "Grey's Anatomy," "Orange Is the New Black," "The Exorcist," "Madam Secretary," the "American Horror Story" series, "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," "Jane, the Virgin," "The Bold Type," all have LGBTQ characters of color. Next year "Pose" and "Versace" will feature gay and trans characters of color.

But as GLAAD reports, racial diversity of LGBTQ characters "remains an area of concern." Of the 70 LGBTQ characters counted on streaming originals, 77% were white. All three platforms tracked here (broadcast, cable, streaming originals) lacked significant numbers of LGBTQ characters of color. Think about how many shows have all-white casts. Yet we remember quite well how hysterical people got when "black-ish" debuted on the top network, ABC, with an all-black cast. Still one of the funniest of all sitcoms, and has three LGBTQ characters.

GLAAD also reports that while regular primetime broadcast characters counted who have a disability slightly increased to 1.8% (we assume wholly due to "The Good Doctor," "Speechless" and "The Exorcist"), that's still far fewer than the actual number of Americans with disabilities, which the CDC puts at one in five. And there are only two characters with HIV on the entire TV landscape. (Newsflash, as World AIDS Day is only two weeks away: AIDS is still a thing.)

Seeing us on the small screen has advanced people's image of us as normalized in the culture. It's been 20 years since that lesbian wedding on "Friends," and now we have fully integrated LGBTQ characters (and to a lesser degree, actors) on the tube at every age level, from the coming-of-age stories we've seen on shows like "The Fosters" to Connor asking Oliver (who is Latinx and HIV+) to marry him in a romantic moment this past week on "HTGAWM."

It's not just how many LGBTQ characters are on the tube, it's how they are represented. Marcus (Ben Daniels) on Fox's superb thriller "The Exorcist" is perhaps the most complex gay man on the tube: a handsome, sexy, butch ex-priest with no pedophile past who is attracted both to his fellow priest, Father Tomas (the gorgeous Alfonso Herrera) and another ruggedly handsome middle-aged scientist. This is a leading character in a show where two of three leads are a Latino (Herrera) and Asian (Korean-born John Cho). Of the supporting characters two are black, one is Asian, one is lesbian, three are disabled, and all are seamlessly engaged in the storyline. Which means it can be done.

The same is true of Shonda Rhimes' programming, which has always had not just a racial balance (Rhimes is black), but LGBTQ characters and storylines. Currently "Scandal" has longtime lead cast member Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), who is now the first openly gay Vice President, involved in a relationship with millionaire Fenton Glackland (Dean Norris). Cyrus has always been gay, and his gayness has always been part of the storyline, including his two weddings.

Maintaining fully developed LGBTQ characters is vital. The re-boot of NBC's once-groundbreaking sitcom "Will & Grace" has been surprisingly important. Not only is the show still funny, but with the cast being between 47-58 in age, these are middle-aged folks. LGBTQ isn't just about coming-out stories anymore. There are young characters like Frankie (Hannah Alligood) on "Better Things" who is obviously lesbian or non-binary, and we are just waiting to see the 13-year-old reveal who she is. There are the characters in every other age group, including bisexual leads like Viola Davis on "HTGAWM" who couldn't be more openly sexual with both women and men. While gay men continue to be largely sexually neutered (think Cam and Mitchell on "Modern Family"), some showrunners have made it a point to show explicit gay and lesbian sex.

So it's good news there are more representations of LGBTQ people on TV, but it's bad news because so many of those characters still are marginalized. Do better, everyone.

Abuse roll call

That could be the dictate for the "worse news" part of the week, which is the now-daily reveal that actors and showrunners are sexual abusers, pedophiles and rapists. The list of victims, straight, bisexual and queer, is growing. These women and men have not just been abused, they've been frightened into silence by powerful men.

Last month we outed comedian Louis C.K. as a serial abuser of women in this column and cited lesbian comedian Tig Notaro's interviews with The Daily Beast. The New York Times did an expose, and on Nov. 10 the comedian acknowledged the allegations about him were true. Even his close friends like Pamela Adlon, a long-time collaborator with the comedian, were stunned. Her statement to her fans sounded like someone who had just been notified of the death of a loved one.

Two weeks ago it seemed that only Anthony Rapp had been sexually assaulted by Kevin Spacey. Now a half-dozen men, including Harry Dreyfuss, son of actor Richard Dreyfuss, have also come forward with allegations toward the star of "House of Cards."

Ironically or not, Richard Dreyfuss' public support of his son's revelation led to an accusation against him by LA writer Jessica Teich that he had sexually harassed her. In a statement to Vulture, Dreyfuss acknowledged being "an asshole" to women when his career was at its peak. Dreyfuss asserts he was oblivious to women objecting to his advances. He acknowledges forcing Teich to kiss him, denies exposing himself and describes their encounters as "a complicated flirting ritual."

The revelations against Hollywood men run the gamut from the rape accusations against Harvey Weinstein to the accusations of pedophile assaults of underage teens by Spacey to the sexual harassment and assaults of women and some men by male actors, directors and showrunners. Among the recent victims are actress Portia de Rossi, wife of Ellen DeGeneres, who revealed that actor Steven Seagal had exposed himself to her during an audition. De Rossi's allegations were followed by others from Julianna Margulies, Eva LaRue, Rae Dawn Chong, Lisa Guerrero and Jenny McCarthy.

Director Brett Ratner has been accused of a panoply of abuse from sexual harassment to rape. He denies all the allegations. On Nov. 10, Ellen Page, lesbian actor known for films "Juno" and "Inception," accused Ratner of "encouraging another woman to have sex with her," saying, "You should fuck her to make her realize she's gay" during the making of "X-Men: The Last Stand." Page said Ratner made the comment about her being gay during a cast-and-crew "meet and greet" before filming began. "I was a young adult who had not yet come out to myself. He 'outed' me with no regard for my well-being."

Page, who has been an LGBTQ activist since coming out in 2014 at 26, also detailed other experiences of sexual harassment as well as her regret in acting for Woody Allen, who has been accused by his daughter Dylan Farrow of sexual assault. Page asserted an unnamed director "fondled" her leg under a table when he took her to dinner at the age of 16, telling her, "You have to make the move, I can't." She continued: "I was sexually assaulted by a grip months later. I was asked by a director to sleep with a man in his late 20s and to tell them about it."

Page wrote, "Let's remember the epidemic of violence against women in our society disproportionately affects low-income women, particularly women of color, trans and queer women and indigenous women, who are silenced by their economic circumstances and profound mistrust of a justice system that acquits the guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence."

With allegations surfacing on Nov.10 against beloved gay actor and Trump nemesis George Takei as well as against actor Jeffrey Tambor, who has won consecutive Emmys for his groundbreaking role as the 70+ transgender Maura in Amazon's "Transparent," a new hashtag sprung up on Twitter, following the #MeToo hashtag actress Alyssa Milano started last month to accommodate women's stories of sexual harassment and abuse. The new hashtag: #NotHimToo seems to address what many of us are feeling as we wonder what we can watch and what we can't now that we know the provenance of some of our favorite work.

Andrew Kreisberg has brought LGBTQ characters to the tube as a showrunner on "Arrow," "Supergirl," "The Flash" and others. Kreisberg was suspended late in the day on Nov. 10 by Warner Bros. after allegations from 15 women and four men. Warner Bros. issued a statement, "We have suspended Mr. Kreisberg and are conducting an internal investigation. We take all allegations of misconduct extremely seriously, and are committed to creating a safe working environment for our employees and everyone involved in our productions."

It's laudable that Hollywood is finally listening to victims. Less laudable is that it took men speaking out about being abused by other men to get anyone to listen to women who had been complaining for years, only to get raised eyebrows and shrugs. The era of the casting couch, which we now know was really just a rape room, should have ended decades ago. That literally hundreds of actors and writers have been living with the impact of these assaults, sometimes for decades, should be a source of outrage to all. We, the viewers, are left to figure out what we can watch and what we can't, knowing now what we cannot un-know. So for the good, the bad and the very ugly, you know you must stay tuned.

Lesbian actor Ellen Page says director Brett Ratner outed her.