Lesbian and Non-Binary TV Characters Are All The Rage, Relatively

After years of roaming the earth listlessly in search of a televised field in which to triumph, lesbians have achieved a remarkable pinnacle in the field of media representation: for the first time in GLAAD’s storied history of reporting on this topic in their annual Where We Are on TV Report, lesbians represent the majority of LGBTQ characters on broadcast television, outnumbering the previous consistent winner of “Gay Men.” For the first time since the 06-07 season, lesbians also represent the majority of characters on cable. However, as in ’06-07, GLAAD attributes this to the prevalence of lesbian characters on a show from ye olde The L Word franchise.

Just a Few Shows Are Doing All The Work: The L Word‘s impact isn’t unusual. handful of shows comprising the majority of any given year’s gains or losses is a pretty typical feature of a Where We Are on TV Report, and there’d be value in looking at the overall percentage of shows with LGBTQ characters, period. The 2010 report noted massive losses for queer female representation, but anybody who hadn’t been watching The L Word wouldn’t have noticed a seismic shift. In the cable analysis section, GLAAD notes that the majority of Freeform’s LGBTQ characters appear on Good Trouble and Single Drunk Female and that FX’s are concentrated on Better Things and What We Do in the Shadows. Furthermore….

Trans Representation Getting Better: There is an increase in the number of trans characters, as well as a “welcome increase in trans characters who appear in a comedy series.” After decades of being used as the butt of the joke, it’s encouraging to see more trans characters making jokes, and sometimes even being lead characters, as in Euphoria, Saved by the Bell and Sort Of.

In recent years, growth in trans representation was carried by Transparent and/or Pose, usually alone, and it’s actually incredibly promising that despite Pose‘s cancellation, the number of transgender characters on cable has only decreased slightly. And that’s actually only if you look at the numbers in a very specific way, which brings us to….

More Non-Binary Characters Than Ever: GLAAD reports 42 transgender characters, including eight non-binary characters, on television overall, but they then note the existence of 17 “additional characters who are non-binary and not transgender.” Detailed later in the report, they explain “If the character is non-binary, but the word transgender is never mentioned, the character explicitly says they are not transgender, or creators confirm the character is not transgender – the character will be counted as non-binary but not counted as transgender.” According to GLAAD, characters falling under this category of “non-binary but not transgender” include characters on Grey’s Anatomy, Feel Good, And Just Like That and The Sex Lives of College Girls. 

Hands-down the most difficult part of analyzing LGBTQ+ data of any kind is deciding how to define any of the terms in that acronym — terms that are always evolving and mean different things to different people. Based on GLAAD’s own definition of transgender as “a person’s gender not matching what they were assigned at birth,” it does seem that if we are counting “women who date women” as lesbians regardless of them explicitly saying they are lesbians, we should count “people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth” as transgender regardless of if they say the word? Relying on characters with notoriously limited screen time and cis writers/creators to label their characters feels… tricky.

But again, this isn’t easy stuff to sort through!! In the Autostraddle community lexicon, we do include non-binary people in the definition of “trans,” so I will be conflating GLAAD’s numbers when I say things like this: there were 25 non-binary characters this year and that’s an impressive leap! As someone who has been maintaining an orderly and updated database of TV characters who are LGTBQ women and/or trans since 2017, this tracks — it’s been a very noticeable rise. Streaming networks seem to be performing best in this regard with14 trans women, 17 non-binary characters and six trans men.

Trans Characters Played by Trans Actors: Of the 42 characters it counted, GLAAD noted 41 were played by trans actors. (This is another tricky thing to count, especially when it comes to young actors!)

Other notable tidbits:

  • GLAAD “challenged” platforms to have at least 50% of its LGBTQ+ characters be characters of color, and network television and cable continue to meet that goal, but overall racial diversity of LGBTQ characters on broadcast and streaming increased, while cable saw a decrease.
  • Only TWO (2) ASEXUAL CHARACTERS emerged from the ether this year, and one was on the now-cancelled program genera+ion.  GLAAD has promised a second asexual character on a streaming series whose details “are under embargo at time of publication.” That’s exciting!
  • Bisexual+ characters comprise 29% of all LGBTQ characters on broadcast, cable and streaming, an increase of one percent from last year. Bisexual men remain elusive, with 50 bi+ men out there. There are also nine bi+ non-binary characters, although I’m not sure what that means.

In conclusion, it’s a great thing that our exact demographic continues to see increases in representation! We do hope that as viewing options multiply, that more networks see the value in investing their marketing dollars in various ecosystems long taken for granted, such as websites that enable them to reach the exact audience they require to support the LGBTQ-inclusive content they’re creating. It’s one thing to create the shows, but one must also invest in their success, and it’s sad to see so many of the best shows for queer representation, like genera+ion and Gentefied, get cancelled before their advertising departments have exhausted even their most obvious option. Just saying!


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Riese

Riese is the 40-year-old Co-Founder and CEO 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 California. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," 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. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2984 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I miss Greta. She was the first character I really thought about when I heard Genera+ion got canceled. I loved her! I wanted to see her story develop further, she was sweet and loving and messy and I related to her on a lot of levels. Also-Que Porra? They canceled Gentrified? When? I just started watching it! I was getting attached to everybody! Why do they keep rooting out the Queer Latinas?

  2. I’m NB and don’t consider myself trans. TBH I also dislike the word non-binary; I don’t define myself by what I am not, but by what I am, which is genderfluid. I wish NB was its own category. Why can’t it be?

    Great to hear representation is on the up again. Agree that it’d be interesting to see how many shows actually have representation, instead of just counting characters overall.

    • Non-binary and genderfluid can be used interchangeably. same thing, not binary and not fixed. we do not need more terms ffs, really must get ourselves an umbrella term for people that feel they’re outside the binary.

      non binary is a good choice

      • “nonbinary and genderfluid can be used interchangeably. same thing”

        I know this can be true for some people, and maybe it is true for Mel who you were replying to, but I just wanted to say that for a lot of people of both categories this isn’t true at all! I consider myself nonbinary but would not say I was genderfluid because my gender never changes.

  3. I agree that nonbinary people fit under the definition of trans you cite, which is the one I like best! Honestly as a nonbinary person, it’s important to me to understand nonbinary as The Kind of Trans That I Am rather than like, “trans lite.” My experience is intimately shaped by my transness, from advocating for people to use my pronouns to changing my gender marker and name to waiting agonizing time on waitlists for access to medical transition. At the same time I recognize not all nonbinary people feel this way, but I definitely do, and I appreciate you recognizing nonbinary people as trans here.

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