The Drama Over LGBTQ Actors in Emmy Drama Categories (Guest Column)

This year LGBTQ Pride month coincides with the nomination process for the Emmy Awards, and while there have been notable increases in LGBTQ visibility on the nominees list in recent years, LGBTQ actors are still often overlooked and underrepresented, particularly in television drama categories.

Historically, nominations for LGBTQ actors have been limited to the comedic categories, a partial reflection of a dearth of active out actors, as well as few meaningful LGBTQ storylines in dramatic series and the lingering effects of the closet. Out actors Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Tituss Burgess, Lily Tomlin, Cynthia Nixon, Kate McKinnon, Jane Lynch, and Jim Parsons were all deservedly recognized in lead and supporting categories in the comedic genre; many of them have even received multiple nominations and wins.

Recently, more out LGBTQ actors than ever have been cast in drama series and several even play LGBTQ roles with the innate artistry that comes from lived experiences of existing on the outskirts of society. As LGBTQ characters continue to evolve from punch-lines to complex personalities, recognition for such efforts — especially when the actor is also LGBTQ and brings nuance to their performance — would make great strides toward continuing this important progress in the industry.

For LGBTQ women, actors Evan Rachel Wood and Samira Wiley became the first out women to earn nominations last year in lead and supporting drama actress categories, respectively. Wiley did so playing the lesbian character of Moira on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Bisexual actress Sara Ramirez, or trans actresses Jamie Clayton, Amiyah Scott, and Laverne Cox could all enter the Emmy race this year for their groundbreaking respective turns in CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” Netflix’s “Sense8,” Fox’s “Star,” and CBS’ “Doubt.” Though Cox became the first trans actress to earn a nomination for guest actress in a comedy for Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” a transgender actor has never received a nomination in lead or supporting drama or comedy categories. FX’s “Pose” will no doubt open the door for more trans representation when its stars are eligible next year.

This year can and should be a game changer for LGBTQ actors in dramas because several out actors are earning buzz for playing out roles.

In the last 20 years, only Alan Cumming and T.R. Knight were out at the time of their nominations for supporting actor in a drama, although their respective characters on CBS’ “The Good Wife” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” were not LGBTQ. “Alias’” Victor Garber came out years after his three consecutive nominations. Kevin Spacey was nominated five times for portraying bisexual President Frank Underwood on “House of Cards,” but the actor only recently came out publicly and was harshly criticized for doing so as a PR response to sexual assault allegations. As a result, his character was written off of the show for its upcoming final season.

Out actors do not have to be limited to playing a LGBTQ character, but as more LGBTQ characters enter drama series, it is time for an out actor to be nominated for playing an out role. Dan Bucatinsky took home a well-deserved statue in the guest actor category for playing an out character on “Scandal,” and this year it could happen in the lead and supporting Actor dramatic categories.

CBS has been a leader in creating LGBTQ characters for mainstream audiences and employing out actors to fill these roles, many of which are long overdue for Emmy recognition. CBS was the first broadcast network to have a drama on air with a gay character in a leading role, played by out actor Alan Cumming on “Instinct.” Cumming was twice nominated for supporting actor for his work on CBS’ “The Good Wife” and has now been earning praise for his work as gay professor and detective Dr. Dylan Reinhart.

CBS: All Access also made history with the first gay couple in a “Star Trek” television franchise on “Star Trek: Discovery.” Actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz brought life to Paul Stamets and Dr. Culber in a relationship that instantly became a fan favorite. Cruz knocked down the closet door in television when he had the courage to come out to his parents, the industry, and the world in 1994, coinciding with his “My So-Called Life” character’s coming out on ABC.

Nearly 25 years later, he and Rapp are breaking new ground as two gay men who brilliantly showcase the layers of being in a long-term relationship with nuance and sophistication. The couple’s epic love story and authentic back-and-forth has put both actors on the map for recognition and raises the bar for same-sex couples in drama series. Even small scenes of Cruz and Rapp doing menial tasks like brushing their teeth together are performed with a tenderness and familiarity that add depth to the characters’ love for one another. Cruz gave a particularly stirring turn when Dr. Culber was shockingly killed, and then (in true sci-fi fashion) returned to give his husband vital information needed to save the universe. It’s a moment that will not only live on in “Star Trek” history, but in TV history overall. The show has since said that Cruz’s character will be back for season two.

From his early work on “My So-Called Life” to his recent work in the Fox drama “Red Band Society” and Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” Cruz has consistently brought authenticity and magnetism to his characters, demonstrating the range and heart that is most likely to emerge when an out actor plays an out character. His trailblazing work on “My So-Called Life” should have garnered an instant nomination, so hopefully voters will not overlook his star turn on “Star Trek: Discovery.”

This year Jussie Smollett on “Empire,” Russell Tovey on “Quantico,” Jonathan Groff on “Mindhunter,” Conrad Ricomora on “How To Get Away with Murder” and Tommy Dorfman on “13 Reasons Why” all also turned in strong performances that could be considered in the supporting actor category. Non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon, who uses they/them pronouns, will be submitted for the second year in a row in the Best Supporting Actor category for Showtime’s “Billions,” which is their preferred category because they point out that “actor” is a non-gendered term.

Nominations validate and recognize quality television content, boosting viewership and molding the depictions of all types of people, especially LGBTQ people. GLAAD’s most recent “Where We Are on TV” report found the overall percentage of LGBTQ regular characters on scripted broadcast series was at an all-time high — although trans characters still lag far behind. If these characters are to continue making waves, then it’s important for the Television Academy to recognize LGBTQ roles, as well as the actors who portray them. Beyond the characters, the Academy can play a huge role in creating a more inclusive industry by strongly considering out LGBTQ actors for all roles, especially those who bring true pride to LGBTQ storylines.

Sarah Kate Ellis is the president and CEO of GLAAD.

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