TV Has More LGBTQ Characters, but There’s Still a Diversity Problem

GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report is in, and the good news is that there’s more LGBTQ representation on television.

Today, almost five percent of series regulars are LGBTQ. Bisexual and trans characters are both on the rise, though lesbian representation has declined.

In general though, that picture might sound good. The bad news? Those characters aren’t very diverse, a trend seen across the film and television industry despite the fact that it doesn’t reflect the reality of society.

Specifically, 77 percent of the LGBTQ characters identified on broadcast, cable, and streaming series were white gay men; and even a casual look at the demographics of the LGBTQ community illustrates that this is a gross distortion of reality. Moreover, the researchers at GLAAD identified just 17 transgender characters across the media they examined, even though this isn’t an accurate reflection of the world either. Increased transgender visibility in society has evidently not transferred over to Hollywood just yet.

Undoubtedly, an increase in LGBTQ representation is something to celebrate, but the breakdown of this study highlights that there’s still a lot of work to do, and people may want to put away the party hats for now. Why? Well, as long as film and television are rewarded for small gains that come at a cost to the larger community, they’ll keep failing on the diversity front. And that matters.

Failing to illustrate the racial diversity of the community means that many people will have trouble seeing themselves in the media they consume, which can feel isolating and alienating. In addition, it creates a distorted picture of what the LGBTQ community really looks like — and skates over issues of vital importance to the community. For example, trans women of color play an active role in public life, but you might not guess that from watching television, and nonbinary people are evidently entirely absent.

Simply having trans characters on television isn’t enough, either: They need to be played by trans actors, something Hollywood still struggles with. GLAAD notes that trans people also belong behind the camera and in the writers’ room, and they’re currently very underrepresented in both locales. These changes are critical for the authenticity of trans characters, and to create opportunities for trans people in media.

When it comes to disability, GLAAD found that 1.7 percent of characters overall identified with a disability — including characters with both acquired and congenital disabilities, such as PTSD, amputations, and blindness. Meanwhile, 20 percent of the population is disabled, and LGBTQ people, especially elders, are actually more likely to have disabilities than the straight, cis population.

GLAAD didn’t provide a breakdown on the representation of LGBTQ immigrants onscreen, nor did it explore depiction of religious minorities, like Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs.

This isn’t just a problem in television. GLAAD also has a Studio Responsibility Index, where it takes a look at LGBTQ representation in film, and the organization has found the numbers there similarly lacking.

So, what can we do to increase the diversity of LGBTQ representation in film and television? We can consume media with LGBTQ characters frequently and consistently, and reach out to creators to explicitly tell them we like this content — and want them to do better on diversity. Money talks, and networks pay attention to what people are watching and why.

We can be particularly supportive of diverse LGBTQ characters, whether they’re series regulars or special guests, and press for representation that reflects our reality and doesn’t treat these characters as tokens. Consider using research like this to approach networks and talk about the need for diverse characters.