For nearly a decade, GLAAD has tracked and advocated for LGBT representation on television through our annual report, the Network Responsibility Index (NRI), and the change we’ve seen in that time has been nothing short of remarkable. As the LGBT community celebrated historic victories in the real world, on TV, LGBT people appeared in growing numbers and can now be found on nearly every major network.
GLAAD’s NRI has been a critical tool in holding networks accountable for the images they present, and no doubt, helped ignite better representation of a community once left out of the picture entirely. Now, almost 10 years after its debut, GLAAD will retire the NRI, though not for the reasons you might think.
We haven’t “won” when it comes to television, because simply getting higher numbers of LGBT people on TV was never the only goal. Since its founding, GLAAD has pushed for fair and accurate representations in the media, and today, as LGBT images on TV continue to flourish, that means better reflecting the rich diversity of our community.
Getting to this point has required reflecting on how far we’ve come to better understand where we now need to go. In the documentary “The Celluloid Closet,” actor Harvey Fierstein expresses a sentiment that pretty succinctly characterizes how many LGBT people felt in the early days of the community’s representation, proclaiming “visibility at any cost.” Fierstein was speaking about appreciating films that didn’t paint very flattering pictures of us, but for many were better than nothing. And “nothing” had been the norm for a very long time.
Rigid forces and regulations in the entertainment industry, like the Hays code, didn’t just keep LGBT stories from being told, they kept us from openly existing in popular media at all. It’s no wonder then that when those first characters finally made their way onto film screens – characters whose differing sexual orientation or gender identity couldn’t be denied – LGBT people appreciated at least having a place in the story. Even if it meant being depicted as tragic figures, dangerous deviants, or stereotyped comic relief — having a place in the story affirmed that we had a place in culture.
In truth, those first images were probably necessary to bring us to where we are today, which is a radically different media landscape. Once the proverbial genie was out of the bottle and we started coming out in greater numbers, debates about our place in society began both from within the LGBT community and in the world around us. This only accelerated when government inaction in the face of the HIV and AIDS crisis made it clear that LGBT people needed much more than just acknowledgement, we also needed to be represented with dignity and respect.
Hoping for “visibility at any cost” soon turned into advocating for fair representations, as some of GLAAD’s founders did when they publicly denounced films like “Braveheart” and “Basic Instinct” for perpetuating dangerous, outdated stereotypes. After many challenges, hardships, and bumps in the road, things have gotten exponentially better for both real-life LGBT people and our fictional counterparts, and brought us to what may be the next phase for media advocacy: pushing for real, intersectional diversity.
As GLAAD’s annual television reports have shown, LGBT representation has increased to the point that we can be found in the programming of nearly every major network. Though even as those numbers increase, the roles themselves often remain narrowly defined. Statistically speaking, LGBT characters are still most likely going to be white, male, cisgender, and from a middle-class background. These depictions don’t accurately represent the diversity of the LGBT community, and that still leaves too many people starved for representations of themselves.
The recent success of TV programs like “Empire,” “Scandal,” and “Orange Is the New Black” is helping us get closer to that possibility. Particularly in the last year, these shows have not only attracted record audiences, but sparked discussions about the importance of programming featuring multiple people of color in major roles, which was followed by questions of whether this was just a “fad” or sign of real, lasting change in the way networks produce programming. It will be up to all of us – creators, viewers, and media advocates alike – to make sure it’s the latter.
Diversity should not be reduced to a “trend,” but rather as a duty to more accurately reflect the reality of the world we live in. The more that popular media reflect the full diversity of their audience, the better their stories will become, and the more viewers will tune in. Including more LGBT characters is only part of the equation; they must be diverse as well – not just in terms of their race and gender, but in their backgrounds, their jobs, their religious affiliations, their challenges, and their dreams. Networks must not only remember the lessons being gleaned from the recent success of diverse programming, but build on them.
Visibility shouldn’t come with a cost for anyone, and GLAAD will continue to push the entertainment industry to make that a reality.
Sarah Kate Ellis is the CEO and president of GLAAD.