When Caitlyn Jenner revealed her transgender truth to Diane Sawyer on primetime TV, LGBT issues were thrown under an ever bigger spotlight than ever before. And while scripted series have sporadically featured gay characters, unscripted television embraced the LGBT community a long time ago.
Certainly television, in general, is far from having evenly distributed representation, with GLAAD’s 2014 annual report of diversity in television calculating only 3.9% of primetime scripted series regulars as members of the LGBT community.
On all sides of equation, scripted or otherwise, television is experiencing an influx of LGBT awareness, including Jenner’s new docu-series “I Am Cait” on E!, Laverne Cox’s recurring role in the scripted series “Orange Is the New Black,” Oyxgen’s docu-series “The Prancing Elites Project,” above, which follows an African-American, gay and gender non-conforming dance team, and TLC’s upcoming show “I Am Jazz” about 14-year-old trans teenager Jazz Jennings.
Using reality TV as a platform to share personal stories helped shatter stereotypes on MTV’s “The Real World.” Co-creator Jonathan Murray says creating diverse casts was a priority from the beginning, and central to his pitch to MTV back before the show started in 1992. The first three seasons of “Real World” featured such cast members as Norman Korpi, who identified as bisexual; Beth Anthony, a lesbian; and season three’s Pedro Zamora, who became an important LGBT advocate when he opened up about living with HIV. “We would have probably cast Pedro even if he hadn’t had HIV,” Murray says. “He was just this amazing person.”
Network competition shows followed suit, including “Big Brother” and “Survivor,” whose first season champ, Richard Hatch, was openly gay.
“He was a great character,” says Craig Piligian, president and CEO of Pilgrim Studios and one of the original executive producers of “Survivor.” “We knew he was gay, and he was very vocal about it. He was extremely articulate and he played everybody like a sweet violin.”
Piligian continues to focus on diverse storytelling, having recently produced the Michael Sam documentary about being openly gay in the NFL.
At the crux of the LGBT community’s acceptance on unscripted television is the genre’s ability to portray authentic narratives.
It was that authenticity that turned “An American Family,” a 1973 unscripted series on PBS that many consider to be the protoype of fly-on-the-wall TV, into a national talking point when one member of the family, Lance Loud, came out as gay.
“His relationship with (his family) probably ended up challenging a lot of people’s stereotypes about gay people in general back then,” says Matt Kane, the programs director for entertainment media at GLAAD. “And since then we’ve seen a lot of shows start to follow suit.”
Murray says, “I always feel like it’s important for the person to be able to tell their own story, and tell it in the time that they want to tell it.” That philosophy applies to “Project Runway” season eight contestant Mondo Guerra, who decided to share his experience living with HIV midway through his season.
“I just remember feeling physically and emotionally lifted,” Guerra says. “I know that I was supposed to be on that show. I know that I was supposed to talk about my HIV status, and be inspired to continue to use that platform to bring attention to a very important cause.”
The show’s also got an openly gay host in Emmy-winner Tim Gunn, and incorporated Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s marriage equality org Tie the Knot into a season 12 challenge.
But not every member of the LGBT community pursues television to send a message. When J. Alexander (Miss J) joined “America’s Next Top Model,” he wasn’t concerned about being inspirational, he was just himself — his outrageous, runway diva self. Alexander says during the first few seasons of “Top Model,” the producers tried to make him read lines from a script.
“I’m like, but that’s not how I speak,” he says. “That’s really not how I speak, and I’m not an actor so I’m not following a script. What you see is what you get, and sometimes a whole lot more.”
Similarly, while RuPaul has been an LGBT advocate for decades, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” displays an outrageous portrait of gay culture. To RuPaul, the gay community should be portrayed from all angles. RuPaul says the biggest shift he has seen as a result of “Drag Race” is “that a younger demographic knows and understands that (drag) is a form of expression.”
Kane warns that although television has the capacity to break stereotypes, it can also reinforce them.
“Especially if you don’t know someone in your personal life who is gay, lesbian or bisexual, the images that you see in mass media are going to be what informs your opinion about LGBT people,” Kane says. “And if all you’re seeing are depictions that are being grossly misconstrued, or are basically grafted to get a laugh, you’re not going to take the issue of, say, marriage equality very seriously.”
Yet while a cynical take might be that it has been easy to get laughs or outrage from LGBT characters, solidly mainstream unscripted series such as “Say Yes to the Dress,” “Love It or List It” and “House Hunters International” feature gay couples without making a big deal about it. It’s just good storytelling to the producers.
And consider that as incredible as Cox’s performance is in “Orange Is the New Black,” her advocacy and legacy as a black, trans woman will always be her most important story arc. She proves — just like Loud, Zamora and all of unscripted television’s diverse voices — that reality is powerful.