LGBTQ Characters Are Thriving on TV While the World Burns, GLAAD Report Finds

Last year, I built an internal database of every lesbian, bisexual and queer female character to appear on English-language television, which I’ll continue maintaining indefinitely. However, “maintaining the database” and, respectively, keeping our Fall TV Preview current, has turned out to be a bigger job than I anticipated. Sometimes it feels like the opposite of 2016, when updating the list of Dead Lesbian and Bisexual TV Characters eventually became part of my daily routine. We’ve amassed some bodies this year, sure, but we’ve gained a lot of new characters too. After an unprecedented summer for queer characters of color, the fall season has bestowed upon us surprise new lesbian and bi characters on Manifest, The Man in the High Castle, God Friended Me, Law and Order SVU, American Vandal, The First, The Deuce, Shameless, Atypical, The Purge, The Haunting of Hill House and Wanderlust. Those are just the shows that we weren’t aware would feature queer women — there are over a dozen more we knew about ahead of time.

Which is just to say that I wasn’t surprised that for the first time in all the years we’ve been reporting on the GLAAD Where We Are On TV Report, the news is mostly positive. “Where We Are on TV” accounts for and forecasts the presence of LGBTQ characters for the 2018-2019 TV Season (June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019). This is the 23rd year GLAAD has done this quantifiable tracking.

Here are the major things GLAAD found about representation on broadcast television:

  • Record high percentage of LGBTQ series regulars (8.8%, up from last year’s 6.4%)
  • We have finally reached gender parity amongst LGBTQ characters: men and women are coming in at 49.6% each (last year: 55% men, 44% women)
  • For the first time ever, LGBTQ characters of color (50%) outpace white (49%) characters! Just barely but still!
  • Record-high numbers of Black (22%, vs. 18% last year), Latinx (8%, tied with last year) and API series regulars (8% vs. 7% last year)
  • Lesbians are up slightly from last year (28% vs 25%), but we have yet to re-ascend to the 33% we had in 2015-2016, many of whom proceeded to die in 2016.
  • Bisexual+ characters are up (29%), with 25 bi+ women and eight bi+ men.

The CW takes broadcast honors for the most inclusive network, and came up top in analyses of gender diversity, too, which backs up something we’ve noticed in Autostraddle Teevee HQ: The CW, often guided by Greg Berlanti, is really angling for the queer female audience. As Kayla noted in her piece about Cheryl Blossom’s confirmed bisexuality, “[The CW] should probably at least change their slogan from “dare to defy” to “dare to BE BI.” By our own count, 13 of The CW’s 17 current scripted offerings include LGBTQ women characters. Supergirl now has the first trans superhero on TV and we’re getting closer and closer to the debut of lesbian Batwoman.

GLAAD notes that many of these shows have only one LGBTQ character amongst a group of straight cisgender characters, which should change. As I’m sure many of you know and have experienced firsthand, being the only queer person in an entire town of straight cisgender people can often be a living breathing nightmare that nobody should have to endure in real life and perhaps not so frequently on our television screens either.

Findings from Cable:

  • Lesbians (53 characters, 26% of the total) are up in number but down in percentage and bisexual women are down three percentage points (19% characters, representing 40 characters). The number of bi+ men on cable has increased for the first time in three years.
  • The number of LGBTQ regulars on scripted primetime cable is up to 120, from 103 in the previous year. Recurring characters are up to 88 from 70, for a total of 208 characters.
  • Gay men are still the majority of LGBTQ regular and recurring characters, at 43%.
  • 3.9% of these characters are transgender: seven trans women, one non-binary person.

GLAAD notes that FX, with its hearty roster of Ryan Murphy programming, has overtaken Freeform as the most inclusive cable network. However, it’s worth noting that FX’s inclusive programming, while often featuring queer women, seems to always feature queer men; and Freeform was essentially the reverse — often featuring queer men, always featuring queer women.

Pose alone is responsible for more than half the trans representation on all of cable. GLAAD writes, “There has never been a scripted show with several ongoing trans characters who interact as chosen family in the same ways that lesbians and gay men were able to see and relate to on The L Word and Queer as Folk respectively.”

The fine print: 31 characters included in this year’s cable report won’t be returning for next year, and 27% of all LGBTQ representation on cable is on eight series that have six or more queer characters each. If any of those series were cancelled, there’d be a notable decrease in inclusion across cable generally — but this has also always been the case with these reports. See, for example, the few years lesbian numbers spiked but almost all of those characters were on The L Word.

Findings from Streaming:

  • Streaming networks boast 112 regular & recurring LGBTQ characters, 42 more than last year
  • 48% are people of color, up from last year’s 23%.
  • Streaming is the only place where Latinx characters are significantly represented, at 24% (Cable has 9%, Broadcast has 12%, and Latinx people are 17% of the U.S. population.) Fifteen of those 27 characters are from foreign Netflix series. (I’m assuming this is Elite, House of Flowers & Cable Girls.)
  • Gay men are at 35%, Lesbians at  33%, Bisexual women at 17%, and Bisexual men at 8%
  • Streaming has the highest number and percentage of trans characters.

Netflix was awarded ‘most inclusive network’ honors, but they also have the largest number of shows, period, so it’s not really a fair fight. They also found 14 of Hulu’s 16 LGBT characters are women — Harlots and The Handmaid’s Tale both got even queerer this year, Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual premieres next month, and Marvel’s Runaways is returning in December. Hulu’s queer women abundance might be related to the fact that 62% of Hulu’s subscribers are women.

The “highest number and percentage of trans characters” is a little tricky too, as they include next year’s 2-hour musical finale of Transparent (I’m serious, that’s the plan) and Orange is the New Black, which’s also airing its final season next year. I’m not sure if Sense8‘s finale movie was part of that count, either, but that’s over too.

Cross-platform findings:

  • Significant increases in LGBTQ characters of color
  • Trans characters are up with 26 across all platforms — 17 trans women, five trans men and four non-binary characters.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, which is a topic we touch on just about every day. We need more trans characters across all shows, and a lot more trans men, and more QPOC characters and more characters with disabilities and women and men should be even and wow there’s just a lot still to be done!

Last year, armed with our new database, I did an enormous piece on the year in queer TV, and I’ll be doing that again this year, too, so I don’t want to get too much into what we’ve observed on the topics GLAAD’s report covers or our theories about why it’s happening aside from the obvious — showrunners are listening to GLAAD, they’re listening to fans, and they’re increasingly aware of how specifically passionate queer women are about our stories. But I do wonder if maybe just maybe in general, the people of this devolving country are more open than ever to stories about women generally, and stories about women who date women instead of men specifically. Just saying.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. 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 2727 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. You should a piece on twitch streamers! They’ve added an LGBT+ tag to find users more easily. I’m one of them. ? Love to see how we are doing there. And how many are partneres/affiliates.

    • Right. I’ve never watched Transparent, but from everything I’ve heard/read, it doesn’t seem kitschy enough to make a random musical episode work? And as a finale? I can’t think of any show where a musical finale for a non-musical show would make sense…

  2. I had an inkling about the numbers for QTPOCs on television. I feel like as a TV Team we started really noticing the trend mid-summer — something different was afoot this year.

    We still have a lot more to go, for one, I still want more trans characters and specifically more queer trans characters played by trans actors.

    Anyway! Thank you for this early breakdown Riese. I can’t wait to read your deep dive at the end of the year, (shhh! it’s better and more in depth than the GLAAD report anyway ?)

  3. This is awesome. Our visibility increased. So i’m really happy about it.

    And this week Chicago Fire also revealed a new character was bisexual too. And she’s a woman of color. So we’ll be having more reveals that even GLAAD won’t have taken note of.

    I hope this is just the beginning of the normalcy of lgbt characters on TV. Those straight people that usually get annoyed that they can’t watch any show today without it having an lgbt character don’t know what they are in for. It’s gonna get worse for them. Lol.

    Thanks for posting Riese.

  4. This is so great to read! I’ve noticed a difference in the last few years of being able to pick which shows I want to watch with queer women instead of having like three to pick from and not actually liking any of them.

    And now I get to watch things and they have surprise lesbians and that makes me so happy!

  5. Just a quip: Spanish-speaking television doesn’t necessarily equal latinx representation. Specially if we’re talking about Spanish tv shows like Elite, Las Chicas del Cable or Vis a Vis. They’re from Spain, not Latin America (in most cases, white) they just speak the language. So I’m confused if they took them into consideration for the numbers on latinx characters, or just for streaming in general.

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