It’s official: America is queerer than it’s ever been before—no matter the anti-trans poison spouted in recent days by Republican politicians including former President Donald Trump in response to the passage of the Equality Act through Congress, which would federally outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ people.
The Equality Act may or may not be passed in the Senate. If it fails to, it will show how far politics lags behind how people are living their lives.
A recent Gallup poll revealed that 5.6 percent of American adults identify as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender—up from 4.5 percent the last time the company collected such data in 2017. Unlike the previous poll, which simply asked participants to answer “yes or no” regarding their sexual orientation, Gallup allowed people to self-identify this time around and found that more than half of LGBTQ adults (54.6 percent) identify as bisexual, 24.5 percent as gay, 11.7 percent as lesbian and 11.3 percent as transgender.
As a result, the poll found that more Americans are identifying as LGBTQ across the board, with young Gen Zers being the generational group with the biggest percentage of people who identify as LGBT, at 15.9 percent.
All of this feels good and almost like a no-brainer given the increased visibility and awareness of LGBTQ culture, people, and rights in the workplace, schools, and across various media. From the increase of gender neutral bathrooms to the inclusion of preferred pronouns on name badges, society has been integrating LGBTQ-friendly norms into everyday life.
This progress is in stark contrast to the ugly transphobia we witnessed last week as Republicans lined up to proudly voice their bigoted opposition to the Equality Act in Congress—including Marjorie Taylor Greene’s vicious insults leveled at colleague Marie Newman’s trans child. On Sunday, our twice-impeached former president gave a transphobic speech at CPAC referring to transgender female athletes as “biological males.”
Hollywood, meanwhile, is trying to embrace diverse representations—even if the pace of change could come quicker.
If you were to watch most of the television shows out right now that are not from the likes of Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti, Lena Waithe, or Ryan Murphy, you’re either getting no positive images of LGBTQ people or tired tropes. I find myself bored with characters coming out as if it’s some sort of major reveal that’s supposed to shock us.
Nothing gets more played out than watching the low-hanging fruit of a female character who shares that they may or may not have “dipped into the lady pond” as if they are some risqué daredevil. Rather than normalize LGBTQ lives, current television shows still treat our existence as some sort of spectacle or cautionary tale.
For example, when watching a recent episode of Grown-ish on Freeform, there was much chatter on social media about one of the male characters, Vivek (played by Jordan Buhat), confessing to his friends that he and his girlfriend had an experimental threesome with another man.
The entire episode was pretty much a farce of his friends coming to terms with how their non-gay friend could still consider himself heterosexual in spite of a casual encounter with the same sex. Although the script of the episode, called “Know Yourself,” was written by Des Moran, who identifies as Black and queer, I felt it was a let-down that a LGBTQ storyline was reduced to a retold experimental sexcapade that ended with the main character involved pronouncing his heterosexuality.
I felt similar disappointment in how Michael K. Williams’ queer character of Montrose Freeman was portrayed in the hit HBO show Lovecraft Country. How many miserable Black queer men do I need to watch on television who are struggling with their sexuality or masculinity based on it? Or how many do I need to see played by Williams (still not over Omar Little in The Wire)?
While I found the show to be groundbreaking sci-fi that was filled with breathtaking fantasy sequences, it was deeply devastating that such imagination and creativity could not be given to Freeman or his scorned lover, whose relationship was dysfunctional and fractured by the end. Once again, Black queer viewers like myself were left feeling empty-handed. (Shows like Pose and Euphoria have given us better LGBTQ representation and nuance, but are facing production hurdles due to the pandemic.)
According to GLAAD’s 2021 report of TV character representation, only 9.1 percent of series regular characters scheduled to appear on broadcast scripted primetime television this season are LGBTQ (70 out of 773)—1 percentage point lower than last year. What’s more telling is that the report found that nearly one in every five LGBTQ characters that appear on a series is tied to one of just four creators: Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Bridgerton), Berlanti (Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash), Waithe (The Chi, Boomerang, Twenties), and Murphy (Pose, Ratched, Hollywood, The Politician, American Horror Story).
In other words, I can count on less than the number of fingers on my first hand how many television showrunners are committed to keeping LGBTQ representation on air.
All of this reveals how disjointed representation and progress can appear. In one sense, more is less when watching several LGBTQ characters on channels like FX and Netflix, only to realize that many of them are from shows that are being produced by Rhimes and Murphy. The industry’s limited scope of LGBTQ characters is a let-down during a time where more Americans are self-identifying as such.
And just when you thought film would be better, those numbers are worse.
GLAAD’s 2020 Studio Responsibility Index revealed increased LGBTQ film representation for white cis-gender gay men—but zero transgender film characters three years in a row and a decline for queer people of color. Although more LGBTQ adults are identifying as bisexual, recent films lacked any male characters who identified as such.
Just a little over a third of LGBTQ film characters (34 percent) were people of color (compared to 42 percent the previous year), pushing GLAAD to demand that studios strive to have at least half of their LGBTQ characters be of color by 2022. All of this shows how out of touch the industry is to the current population trends of the audiences they’re striving to appeal to.
If television and film can give us an overrepresentation of violence, thin bodies, wealth, and white people, they sure can offset some of these disparities with more diverse, nuanced, and imaginative LGBTQ characters. For every other cover model love interest that enters a scene, can we get a Black or brown queer character that’s in a healthy romantic relationship? Or how about for every fourth hyper-aggressive male archetype written on television, there’s a transgender character written to counteract such stale plot-spoilers?
Whatever, both Washington and Hollywood need to wake up, and recognize, respect, and respond to the diversity of the public they serve.