The energy in the room was cautious excitement.
GLAAD was about to announce the 2019-2020 “Where We Are on TV” numbers and they were better than ever. For the first time, over 10% of series regulars on broadcast shows are LGBTQ. Over half of the LGBTQ characters on broadcast shows are people of color. There are twelve more transgender characters across platforms than last year.
But this was a room filled with people who understand the stakes. “Our community finds itself in 2019 facing unprecedented attacks on our progress,” GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis began. “The role of television in changing hearts and minds has never been more important.”
Ellis was quick to remind us that while the 10% landmark is worthy of celebration, 20% of Americans ages 18-34 are LGBTQ. She announced that GLAAD is now calling for the industry to reach this 20% goal by 2025. “That’s six years so we have time,” she added, underlining how practical and reasonable they’re truly being.
As a trans lesbian who was sitting next to an asexual person, both of us lamenting how rarely we see ourselves on screen, I appreciated the complex framing. It’s not that there isn’t cause for celebration, but when the stakes not only include gaining political acceptance, but personal acceptance, better only means so much. As Ellis said, “Television must evolve.”
This mix of optimism and awareness continued on the panel moderated by Dino-Ray Ramos featuring Ellis, Gloria Calderón Kellett (showrunner One Day at a Time), Jacob Fenton (UTA), Nicole Maines (Supergirl), Brian Michael Smith (The L Word: Generation Q), and Sabrina Jalees (Carol’s Second Act).
Ramos began by bringing up the 20% goal and asking if the panelists currently saw themselves on TV. Jalees quipped, “I’m not going to be happy until 100% are specifically Pakistani-Swiss lesbians. What’s it gonna take?”
Calderón Kellett spoke about the importance of behind the scenes representation, specifically as a straight showrunner: “I think it’s really about empowering queer voices. I know that the storylines on our show are made excellent because we have a largely queer staff. And I think that is lifting up those voices and making sure they’re learning the process of showrunning… And the hope is they’ll become showrunners themselves. Because to answer your question I had to create a show to see myself on screen.”
“It’s also that shift of understanding the real value of queer voices versus checking off a box,” Jalees added. “I’ve been in rooms where I felt like I’m here because I’m the diversity hire and I’ve also been in rooms where I feel like I’m here because I’ve got a story.”
And on the subject of token queers, Maines discussed a frustration many of us share, when shows only have one LGBTQ character. “We tend to flock!” she exclaimed. “I know when I was in college I had a whole suite full of gay people. I wouldn’t see a straight person for days.”
This is the first year where LGBTQ women characters outnumber LGBTQ men, a welcome change of pace. As Jalees noted: “We all know within the queer community that lesbians get the one night at the gay bar. We get to rent it out for the night and then we’re out of there!”
“Stack the chairs before you leave!” Maines added.
But Maines also pointed out that this gender breakdown isn’t so simplistic when discussing trans stories. “There’s an overwhelming majority of trans women to the point where there aren’t nearly as many stories of trans men being told,” she said. “I don’t think men should outnumber women. I don’t think women should outnumber men. I think it’s important that all queer people’s stories are being equally represented.”
There is one queer woman show that is going to have not one, but two trans male characters.
“I mean, it’s The L Word so it’s gonna be a lot of joy, a lot of sex, a lot of bodies, a lot of discussion of issues. There’s gonna be lesbians! It’s gonna be great,” Smith said, the crowd growing rowdy, and Maines piping in: “Stop there. I want that.” (Sorry Supergirl fans, Maines did also say at one point she is not gay.)
Smith went on to say that he was a fan of the original series until Max’s storyline. But he was much more positive about Generation Q‘s trans representation.
“Instead of trying to shoehorn everything in the transmasculine experience that there could possibly be into one character it was very clear they recognized there’s diversity in the transmasculine experience,” he explained.
Smith also discussed being the first black trans man to be a series regular with his upcoming role on 9-1-1: Lone Star. And Maines discussed being the first trans person to play a superhero on TV. Turns out transphobic Twitter comments aren’t Maines’ only challenge.
“It’s an uncomfortable suit. I’m not used to having good posture. The vest pulls everything back. I’m like, this is awful!” she confessed. “Can I be the first slouching superhero? That I think is the representation we need to see.”
A reoccurring theme among all the panelists was how important representation was to them growing up and how much they wished there was more. “To picture myself seeing that kind of representation it would’ve changed my narrative of my identity for the better,” Jalees shared. “It feels really good that there are young people watching us, watching our stories, and feeling better about who they are. This myth that we’re supposed to be some version of normal can go away and we can all just be ourselves.”
I am very excited to say that in the upcoming season there are going to be three trans lesbians on TV. But the number of asexual characters has gone from two to one and that one show is ending. As Smith said, “It’s not inevitable. You have to really work to keep the truth and authenticity out there.”
We’re getting to a place where we can expect and demand nuance, and we need to keep pushing to ensure all our stories are told. Every identity. Every intersection of identities.
There is plenty to celebrate. And there is plenty of work to be done.