Is it Gay?

What follows is an intense explanation of the rather untethered processes by which I and our TV team actually find out WHAT IS GAY. This is also a request for donations. If you want to help us out but don’t feel like reading this, you can check out the fundraiser here (and get yourself some gay gifts, too, as a treat).


On the first day of the month we publish a guide to all the TV shows and movies debuting on streaming networks that month and a lot of you read it and maybe it seems like, in the grand scale of things, to be a smaller thing, an incidental thing. Just a little list like so many lists we fling into the universe in an average year. Like bicycle scenes! And knifeplay!

But in fact it is, like so much of what goes on with my work and with our Film and TV coverage, a very Autostraddle thing, a post that would not exist if we did not exist. Behind that handful of shows and movies to anticipate is 3-4 days of research, is the literal database of TV shows (750+) and LGBT actors (700+) I built and maintain and also the metaphorical databases that exist in the brains of our 10-member TV Team. It would not be possible without information I glean from other TV team members, from reader tips, from our entire archives of film and TV coverage, from our friends in the industry, from our friends in prestige mainstream media who often get tips before we do, from our friends at LezWatchTV (which’s run by the same people who run the tech for this website!), from the relationships Heather and other writers and editors have built with network PR teams, from our writers attending film festivals.

Building the streaming guide creates a post for the website, but it’s also part of a larger info-gathering mission that’s central to the TV Team’s ecosystem, part of what enables us to plan some TV and film coverage in advance. There’ll always be shows we can’t pre-identify that TV team members or readers will discover and alert us to on their own, but this process takes care of a lot of that initial legwork. In general, new queer-inclusive films are easier to pre-identify than TV shows because: often they start at festivals before hitting streaming (Drew and Shelli’s film festival coverage has been a huge help in this regard), queer films are more direct than TV shows about marketing their queerness and, when it comes to older films being added to a streamer’s archive, I can recognize the gay ones by name.

But television? Well, there’s more queer-inclusive television than ever these days — so much we can’t even cover it all! — but identifying it ahead of time hasn’t gotten any easier. This is why the process I undergo of “attempting to identify it ahead of time” is probably objectively unhinged.

It’s incredibly difficult to suss out, 1-30 days early, what’s gonna be gay. Because most of the time, nobody wants to tell us what’s gonna be gay, and visual cues can’t be trusted, and onscreen female friendships are really homoerotic! Unfortunately, even in the year of our lord 2023, marketing materials usually obscure our presence, and it’s rare for a lesbian to be revealed as such until episode three at the earliest. I get around 50 emails a day from PR people about upcoming movies and TV shows, which are sent to me indiscriminately, regardless of said property’s actual queer content — and even the ones that do have queer content usually won’t say so.

If something pings for me, I write back asking directly if there’s any queer women and/or trans characters. Sometimes they write back with a yes or a no. Sometimes they say they can’t tell me, or they tell me with enthusiasm that there’s an LGBTQ+ actor in the show, which is irrelevant and also yes Stephanie I know that Cherry Jones is gay! But also, the deluge of not-gay PR emails I receive means I sometimes miss the gay ones, ‘cause rarely is LESBIAN CHARACTER in the subject line. (I wish it was!)

There are hundreds of new shows and movies each month and it’d be impossible to investigate all of them, although I almost do — the process of the Monthly Streaming Guide usually starts for me with Rotten Tomatoes and Futon Critic’s listings of that months’ releases, followed by barreling down into each specific network’s list. I watch maybe 30-40 trailers per month. If two girls kiss in a trailer I am happier than Cindy Lou Who on Christmas morning. The TV Team is always doing this analysis — somebody drops a trailer in Slack and we all descend upon it with our various areas of expertise, our affections for involved actors, our lifetimes of experience in this work.

After accounting for the few shows that are actually deliberately and obviously queer-centric or queer-inclusive, I simply have to rely on my finely honed TV gaydar to locate the rest — imperfect, but familiar enough with the patterns of various genres to know what’s worth looking into. Mostly it’s a vibe I can’t describe, but there are some things I can try to.

Sometimes it’s a haircut or an outfit, though both can be red herrings. Network sitcoms and “Dad shows” — grizzled white men doing espionage or ranching — are rarely gonna debut with a queer female character. Ditto for action shows or any series clearly aiming for an international release. If a lead character in a rom-com has a gay best friend, she will rarely encounter a lesbian. A reboot will always have a queer character. If there’s a major gay male character in a new TV show, there won’t be any queer women in its first season, unless said show or it takes place in high school, in which case there’s a chance, but a slim one. Shows tend to debut with gay men who clearly identify as such and do incredibly slow burns for the self-discovery or reveal of gay women.

Certain actors (e.g., Tig Notaro, Fortune Feimster, Kate Moennig, Roberta Colindrez) are almost always gonna be playing queer characters, as are most non-binary actors. All sci-fi or fantasy or superhero series will eventually introduce a queer woman and/or non-binary person — not always in the first season, but eventually. Ensemble shows about teenagers, especially if they go to a school that requires wearing blazers, will usually have a few gays. Large ensembles in general will have a gay, like every medical show will summon a bisexual at some point. Period pieces are hit or miss, although usually the ones that are somehow about women having jobs are a safe bet — but a character keeping her sexuality a secret from other characters tends to mean that sexuality is also withheld from the viewer until at least mid-season. Anthology series will have a gay episode. There’s a certain type of prestige drama that’ll always have queer people and a certain type that never will. The streaming platform most likely to have a queer woman and/or trans person in its original programming is Peacock and the most likely network is Freeform.

Once I gather my vibes, I begin my research. There are press websites, filled with episode descriptions and photographs and press releases. Some networks are generous with screeners (Apple TV+, Prime Video, Showtime & Peacock) and that’s the best way, really, for me to find out what’s gay or not, is simply to watch the show. Netflix chooses a few shows or movies a year to push through its really fantastic LGBTQ+ PR team, stuff like First Kill and The Circle Season Five, but if queerness is not central to the show, we have to do our own research. So I’ll have a show on in the background while I do other work pretty much constantly for 3-4 days, and sometimes I’ll start at the third ep or fast forward through it if I’m not enjoying it on its own merits. This does mean I have endured nearly entire seasons of shows that pinged only to learn, once again, that straight women can have gay haircuts.

If it’s an adaptation – based on a comic book, a movie, a series from another country, a video game – I’ll see if anyone on the TV Team has read it, or I’ll read it myself, or I’ll scan book reviews, fandom wikis, reddits and forums, and compare LGBT characters revealed therein to the cast of the adaptation. I Google casting calls, I read sides (scripts given to actors who are auditioning for roles). For British or Australian shows just now hitting the states, I can read reviews of its original run or find videos or fans discussing it.

For returning shows, I rely on my database and my TV Team – by the time a show enters its second season, we as a team will have already known or learned of its queerness and hopefully already written about it. A character can be described as queer on a wiki but unless you actually talk to someone or read something by someone who’s seen it, you can’t really know how queer it is.

Google isn’t as helpful as it should be, in all of this. One of many frustrating things about this work is the proliferation of “here’s what we know about [show]” posts on literally every website on the internet, regardless of the website’s alleged focus topic. Whether its Forbes or Cosmopolitan or Town & Country or Celeb Cheat Sheet or Collider — every popular show has a million duplicate posts like this, and they contain absolutely no information whatsoever, just a series of SEO phrases like “Is there a trailer for [show]?” and “When is [show] coming back?” and “What is Season 2 about?” and “Is the cast returning for Season 2?”. If the website does not have the answers to any of these questions, it will not stop them from creating a post in this template. It is absolutely maddening, especially as a website that never writes empty posts like these and yet is constantly struggling for any type of SEO authority at all.

After I publish the streaming guide, I build another document that I hand over to the TV Leadership team — me, Carmen, Kayla and our TV/Film Editor, Heather — and together we split up the work of looking into a laundry list of shows as they debut every month and then they split up the work of writing about them among our TV Team. There is no other website with a team as expansive and diverse as ours, wholly devoted to queer film and TV and full of niche expertise — superhero shows, sci-fi franchises, arthouse indies, horror, mean teenager shows, animation, reality dating shows, Emmy Bait Dramas, Shondaland, procedurals, high-brow TV, sentimental sitcoms, the list goes on.

What I’m trying to tell you here from all of this is that even 14 years into this work, we’re still relying on our own instincts and word-of-mouth and tips and our own data and encyclopedia brains to deliver information to you about queer TV. And that it’s harder than it looks, but I love to do it — finding that queer character in a show that pinged my gaydar is an absolute thrill, I literally do a small cheer at my desk.

The system that disseminates information about TV from their producers to sites focused on specific genres or niche audiences is improving, but it’s still often broken when it comes to LGBTQ+ women and trans people. Sci-fi sites don’t need to watch a sci-fi show to know if it’s sci-fi or not. But only a few dozen shows each year actually broadcast their gayness, while nearly 200 have some on offer.

When I think about Autostraddle vanishing, I think about a lot of things: I think about how even though we do indeed exist, and were built on an empire of L Word content, AfterEllen still outranks us in SEO for Season 3 Gen Q recaps and their recaps refer to Tess as a man invading lesbian spaces.

Screenshot of Gen Q Season 3search results showing that AfterEllen's search results are both leading above Autostraddle's and that even the excerpt from AfterEllen that Google has chosen is blatantly transphobic.

I think about all the queer shows jostling for visibility that only get a nod from the mainstream but from us get a whole glance — and we stick with our shows through multiple seasons, long after The AV Club and Vulture have ceased their interest.

I hope in the coming years that more networks give us heads-up about gay characters and more than that, that they invest their ad money in our website, so that we can keep on connecting them to queer audiences. I hope the ones that have, keep doing so. The Editors are always hustling to get you interviews and exclusives, and we have more clout than ever now to do so.

In Carmen’s letter, she wrote that “the week I spent last summer not sleeping to write A League of Their Own recaps was one of the greatest times of my life.” That’s the other thing: I do love this. I wish it was easier than it is — but I enjoy the research and the thrill of discovery and let’s be honest, I love watching television! I also love watching our team grow and reading what other team members have to say about the television and film that they love and hate. I love getting tips from you. I love it all. And the less time I have to spend stressing out about money, the more time I have to write about television.

Because yes, I do all of this on top of my job as CEO and CFO of this website.

Even when everybody else in my life is rolling their eyes at the amount of obsessive, painstaking research I am doing to create one (1) post, I can count on Autostraddlers to have their eyes firmly planted upon their screens, caring deeply about the same weird shit that we do. If we’re gone, nobody else will be writing this streaming guide. I know this because making my list involves going through everybody else’s lists, too. 90% of these lists, even on the most reputable websites in the world, are just copy-pastes of a network’s releases for the months as provided to us via press release — no links, no descriptions, just a list of dates and names. Those posts are easily dominating SEO, earning their employers plenty of ad dollars for literally zero effort. You expect more from us, and it’s because you give us your dollars that we can deliver more.

I set a two-week limit on this fundraiser. Past fundraisers have lasted as long as seven weeks. For me, the exhausting part mostly happens in the six weeks or so leading up to the fundraiser, making sure our numbers are right, ironing out messaging with Nico, perfecting that intro post with Nico, nailing down perks and developing a design concept with Nico and Viv. For the editorial team and the social media team, the work mostly happens during the fundraiser period — and includes extra hustling for traffic by Carmen and the whole team, extra shifts on Twitter and rearranging our priorities to allow for additional time spent on Facebook for Heather. For Nico and Viv who works closely with them on all things design for the fundraiser, the busy period never stops from the planning of the fundraiser through its execution. There are no breaks during fundraisers, it’s all-hands-on-deck. On top of that, Nico then spends the months after fundraisers sending out perks. Nico barely sleeps, and as their boss, that’s not okay with me! So I set a two-week limit for this fundraiser because that aforementioned lifestyle is not a lifestyle anybody should be maintaining for six weeks.

If we couldn’t hit our goal in two weeks then so be it — we would ask you how much we’re worth, and you would tell us, and we would work with whatever that amount turned out to be. The sticker price we set for ourselves was the bare minimum of what we needed to get through the next few months, but it was the highest price we imagined we were capable of fetching for our services. But like I’ve been saying for the last many thousands of words, we know our service is worth a lot more than that, and costs way more than that to produce, and holy shit have you agreed with us!!!

Go to the fundraiser!

When I look at our budget shortfalls for the year and that $199k loan hanging over us — it’s overwhelming, and sometimes feels insurmountable. Every dollar over our goal that we raise gets us a little bit closer to a place where we can really drill into these questions, chip away at that debt and build something sustainable.

The work we can produce with your help — if you can help! — will be glorious and obsessive and weird.

Will you help? We need more donations, and I hope that if you haven’t already, and you can, that you’ll pitch in.

Will you help?

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3179 articles for us.

24 Comments

  1. Also bonkers that advertisers won’t give money because I feel like we the readers have shown over and over again that WE WILL READ IT and what’s more, we will probably SPEND TIME/MONEY on it

  2. Ugh Riese this was so fascinating to read (and maddening!!) !!! Those “everything we know about [fill in the blank with tv show name]” copy paste posts drive me bonkers! 🤪

  3. As we reach the end of another month, which means of course ramping up for another streaming guide and dispersing our tv coverage among our team, this letter is more timely than ever. I’m so appreciative of all of the work you do, Riese. Thank you.

  4. Riese, the work you and the TV Team put into content that ultimately looks effortless, that is super enjoyable and relevant and culturally important — it’s blowing my mind! Thank you for sharing this.

  5. “This does mean I have endured nearly entire seasons of shows that pinged only to learn, once again, that straight women can have gay haircuts”

    yeah having grown up in the midwest i can 100% confirm that the venn diagram of midwest soccer mom and coastal gay lady haircuts has a HEFTY overlap, especially but not exclusively in the mullet and short-n-curly categories

  6. Incredible work and incredible piece detailing that work! Everyone watches television. It’s so important to have the TERF-free data on queer TV that Autostraddle provides available to all.

  7. I expected: an article about how it’s difficult when a person wants to get into a new show and is specifically looking for shows with queer woman characters and f/f romance arcs, because it’s hard to tell when a show is actually going there. Maybe something about the recent cancellation spree, too.

    I got: more requests for money and screenshots of already sufficiently described TERF screeds, I guess to prove that you really need people to give you money. I know it was only most of a sentence of TERF screed, but that was most of a sentence more than I wanted to see and most of a sentence more than anyone needed to see to know that the TERF site has better SEO and that’s bad, because right before you posted the picture you told them so. In plain English. If you felt the image was important, there would’ve been multiple ways to let people see it if they want to without forcing it on people who just wanted to read an article about how it’s hard to watch TV when you’re gay.

    There’s nothing wrong with regular fundraising as a business model, or with letting people know when it’s extra important. That’s not what I’m criticizing. I also don’t believe depictions of bigotry need to be handled with kid gloves, and I want you to keep having enough money to do the site. But it really looks like you are showing unsuspecting people something you know will be upsetting so they’ll give you more money while they’re shaken up. If you’re not trying to do that, then don’t do that.

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