LOS ANGELES — Before 1971, there were no openly gay characters on television. An episode of Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” that year featured a gay character. But the landmark program to break the barrier came in 1972. The made-for-television movie “That Certain Summer” addressed homosexuality through a gay couple played by Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook.
There weren’t even organizations like GLAAD to press for change as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation organization wouldn’t be founded until 13 years later. Since its launch, GLAAD has been very active in monitoring the number of LGBTQ characters and storylines, releasing a yearly report that looks at TV shows that have debuted between June 1 of that year and May 31 of the next year.
This data is used when dealing with casting agents, directors, network brass or studio heads to make sure representation continues to grow. GLAAD’s data shows that 20 percent of people 18-34 in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ.
Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, told TV critics: “Our priorities for this year is we need more stories featuring LGBTQ people of color, who have been historically left out or relegated to the sidelines, if they are included. We need more bisexual characters, who have more nuanced, fully realized stories that don’t just lean into these tropes that we’ve seen over and over and over again.
“We need better stories for queer women that don’t end in death; and just more queer women, period. I don’t think it’s any surprise that TV has kind of failed queer women. In the past two years, character after character after character was killed. Just since the beginning of 2015, we’ve lost more than 50 queer women on television, often in violent ways that benefit somebody else’s story, rather than anything contributing to that character’s own arc.”
GLAAD’s findings show that with scripted, primetime broadcast series — on broadcast, cable or streaming originals on Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu — there were 278 regular and recurring LGBTQ characters. This includes shows from ABC’s “Modern Family” to Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.”
If the LGBTQ representation on the networks is one-third of the total, that’s only a small sampling of the characters on the five broadcast networks of ABC, CBS, CW, FOX and NBC. There were a total of 895 series regular characters during the past monitored year. One of the big areas where the networks have failed to stay in step is with lesbian characters; they were down 16 percent.
NBC will raise the network percentage slightly as it is going back to a series that made history for the network in 1998: “Will & Grace.” This was not just a TV show devoting one episode or designating a minor character as LGBTQ, but featured two gay main characters. The cast of Eric McCormack, Sean Hayes, Debra Messing and Megan Mullally have reunited to bring the series back.
“Will & Grace” executive producer Max Mutchnick promises the series will maintain the direction it had when it originally launched 20 years ago and will be about inclusion.
“That’s what we started with and that’s the type of people they are. That’s the type of characters that they are, so I think when we come back, we will get to it again. But it’s just going to be about trying to make the funniest shows that we can with these characters passing through the life that you all know that is taking place out there right now,” Mutchnick says.
Messing adds that during the original run, only LGB characters were featured and she wants to “finish the alphabet” with this run.
NBC isn’t the only programming provider that will air shows with LGBTQ characters this fall. The new CBS All Access streaming series of “Star Trek: Discovery” features a gay member of the Starship team played by Wilson Cruz. The “Star Trek” feature film franchise revealed that Sulu’s character is gay but that was only in passing. Cruz promises that there will be no questions about his character of Dr. Hugh Culber.
Cruz is proud to be part of the production because he gets to represent a part of the world that before 1971 had no place on TV.
“People everywhere, no matter who you are, whether you’re LGBTQ or a person of color or white or a woman, we all just want to be seen. We all just want to understand that we are part of the human fabric and that we are valued members of that,” Cruz says. “So the power of television … is to help people understand that who they are is important and that they matter and that their lives matter.
“And we get to reflect their lives in our work. And it’s important for young people to see that, because when they see themselves, they hate themselves less. They understand themselves. And it can be a catalyst for conversations with their parents or people in their lives about who they are and what their lives are like. So it’s important that these characters and these storylines exist, because they create an empowered community.”
And that representation isn’t confined to any age group. GLAAD’s research also includes children’s and family programming because there are more than 14 million children living in families with LGBTQ heads of household. The organization has seen some slight improvement through a show like Disney Junior’s “Doc McStuffins” which featured an episode that had two moms. “Steven Universe” and “Danger & Eggs” have been more progressive in their casting.
The season finale of “Danger & Eggs” featured all of the characters at a Pride parade. Stephanie Beatriz, voice of Sheriff Luke on the Amazon series, stresses it’s important to introduce children at an early age to show they or their family are being represented.
“To me, that show is introducing ideas to children at a young age in this very gentle way,” Beatriz says. “If the people in your life are telling you that you’re hateful and wrong and that the Bible is saying that you shouldn’t exist, there’s a way for you to go out in the world and choose the people around you who will love you and support you.
“That’s a message I don’t ever think I received as a child. And the idea that it’s streaming on Amazon Prime right now for everyone to just show their kids is, like, I’m gobsmacked at that. I think it’s necessary, and I can only hope that it opens more doors for other shows like it.”