The last time (2005) we wrote about the topic, television by and about lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans people was dominated by LOGO, a basic cable network, and here!, a pay-per-view service. Ten years later, LOGO is a shadow of its former self, with one sure hit (RuPaul’s Drag Race) but otherwise dominated by reruns of situation comedies like The Golden Girls or Roseanne. And while here! seems here to stay (at least for now), its programming is but a fraction of its initial output. Television series about LGBT people have declined from the days of “Queer as Folk” or “The L Word,” Shows that center around our lives are few and far between; most notably HBO’s “Looking” (recently canceled) and Amazon’s “Transparent.”
In spite of all that, LGBT characters are more visible on our television screens than ever before. According to GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV Report” for 2014, released on October 1, out of 813 prime time broadcast scripted series regulars, 32 (3.9 percent) are LGBT. On cable, GLAAD counted 64 regular LGBT characters. “Television networks are playing a key role in promoting cultural understanding of LGBT lives around the world, and are now producing some of the best LGBT-inclusive programming we’ve yet seen,” GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement that accompanied this report. “As they move forward with new programs and storylines, networks must also keep an eye toward diversity and strive to include significant transgender content comparable to those efforts being made by their online competitors, such as Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and Amazon’s “Transparent.” Since October, some of the series considered by the GLAAD report have been canceled, while others have taken their place. Even so, the GLAAD report is optimistic about the future of sexual and gender minorities on American television.
As a rule, LGBT characters, like other minorities, are most prevalent in series where they are part of a large cast. Shows like ABC’s “Modern Family” and Fox’s “Glee” (now in its last season) give us queer characters we can relate to while they appeal to the straight majority. Afternoon soap operas, once the domain of stay at home moms, now feature lesbian and gay characters and situations. Meanwhile reality shows, where the whole thing began (1971’s An American Family, on PBS) feature LGBT people both negatively and positively, in competition against, or in cooperation with, their straight counterparts.
Ideally, the LGBT content is higher on basic cable than on broadcast television; and higher still on premium channels. Public television, which used to have a higher LGBT content, declined as “In the Life” went off the air and PBS became more dependent on public subsidies and private donations. Even the most well-meaning broadcast or cable channel is dependent on the programs’ ability to attract advertisers; which among other things forced LOGO to go from an LGBT network to whatever it is now. There is also the possibility of a backlash from outraged heterosexuals; not just from the expected busybody groups but from viewers who will switch the channel if they see something they don’t like. Even gays were shocked by the sexual aerobics of Connor Walsh, the gay law student played by Jack Falahee in ABC’s “How To Get Away With Murder.” Though there were complaints, the show got away with sodomy because it’s on at 10 p.m., Connor is cute, and the show is produced by Shonda Rhimes, whom ABC considers to be a goddess. On the whole, lesbian activity is more acceptable than male homosexuality; as witnessed by the brouhaha caused by man-to-man kisses on Fox’s “Empire,” AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and Starz’s “Black Sails.”
All in all, there is still work to be done. But I am generally hopeful about the future of television, a medium dominated by the likes of Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper, Ellen Degeneres and Neil Patrick Harris. Even “The Flash,” the CW’s new super hero show, has a gay villain, The Pied Piper, played by the adorable (and openly bi) Andy Mientus. Like LGBT people in society at large, LGBT characters are fully integrated into much of American television, and things only promise to get better.