How Hollywood Is (and Isn’t) Getting Better at LGBTQ Inclusion

State of Pride Full

Brandon Flynn, one of the breakout actors from Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” has spent the last two years fielding questions about his personal life. In 2017, he wrote a passionate post on Instagram, advocating for an Australian vote that allowed for same-sex marriage. Soon enough, news sites such as HuffPost and E! News were reporting that he’d come out of the closet. Flynn, 25, says that wasn’t the case. “I was embraced, so I never want to take that away from people who have been supportive of me, but in no way, shape or form did I say that this is me coming out,” says Flynn, who at around 15 years old had told his friends and family that he was attracted to men. “I had done that years ago. Being in the industry makes you somewhat of a public curiosity. Hence all of a sudden I was a gay actor, just because I was supporting human rights.”

Flynn is aware that he’s benefited from decades of progress. Unlike one of his favorite movie stars, Montgomery Clift, who remained in the closet, Flynn has been afforded the freedom to be with whomever he wants to be with, which is a gift he can pass along to his fans. “Personally, deep down,” he says, tearing up, “I’m happy to be the guy that any gay boy at home can say, ‘F—, it’s totally possible to do anything.’ Because it is. No matter how scared you are, or no matter how much hate you have to deal with, there are opportunities for us.”

Many of the people interviewed for Variety’s inaugural Pride Issue talked about how it’s the best of times for LGBTQ actors, writers, producers and other storytellers. From FX to Freeform, there have never been more cable TV channels with empowered gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender protagonists. But there’s also the caveat that change comes in waves, which can sometimes feel slower than it should. On TV, the representation of LGBTQ characters has been bolstered by the streaming services — Netflix, Amazon and Hulu — which are programming to teenagers and other viewers who value inclusivity.

“The one thing about the entertainment industry that I love is that it reflects the society that it caters to,” says Raven-Symoné, the actress, singer and star of the Disney Channel’s “Raven’s Home.” “The LGBTQ community wants to be represented on a medium that they watch as much as everybody else.”

But the movies are still lagging far behind when it comes to visibility. “Rocketman,” starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, was a victory for the community. Yet, it also could have been an opportunity for a gay actor to play a high-profile role, which went to a heterosexual star. There are no openly gay or transgender characters in most of the major studio film franchises — from “Jurassic World” to J.K. Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts.” And while coming out has become easier, there are still scarcely few openly gay or lesbian movie stars on the level of a Jennifer Lawrence or a Chris Pratt.

“There’s a big difference between society as a whole and what’s going on in social media,” says Nico Tortorella, a co-star of the TV Land series “Younger,” who identifies as non-binary. “It’s a confusing time, that’s for sure. In terms of representation in Hollywood, yes, it’s getting better. But a lot of characters we write for queer people are still determined by the violence they experience.”

The threats are very real. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 29 transgender people were killed from violent acts in 2017, an unsettlingly high statistic. The Trump administration has been known to stoke fears as it attempts to scale back LGBTQ rights. As a result, there are mixed messages being sent in society. On the one hand, Trump has banned transgender people from serving in the U.S. military and plans to make it easier for adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples. On the other hand, Pete Buttigieg is the nation’s first openly gay viable presidential candidate, whose campaign continues to pick up momentum.

The list of those in Hollywood who have fund-raised for the mayor of South Bend, Ind., include Ryan Murphy, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom and Greg Berlanti. “As an out gay person, I’m so glad that I’m at the age that I’m old enough to remember how it was,” says Berlanti, the prolific TV producer behind “Arrow” and “Supergirl.” “But I’m young enough that I can appreciate that these things are happening in my life. I never thought they would.”

In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres kicked down the closet door as the first openly gay woman to headline a TV series. The cancellation of her sitcom one year later led to questions about her career prospects. Some 20 years after that, there are now many examples of LGBTQ characters on TV who are thriving, including the transgender chosen families on FX’s “Pose,” the bisexual assassin on BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” the pansexual brother on Pop’s “Schitt’s Creek” and the gay and sexually fluid teenagers on The CW’s “Riverdale.”

Laverne Cox, the pioneering actress and activist, is optimistic about the changes that she’s seen in a relatively short time. Only five years ago, she became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy for “Orange Is the New Black.” Today many members of her community are competing for awards and getting cast in high-profile projects.

“When ‘Orange Is the New Black’ premiered, there were no trans actors with recurring roles on television shows,” Cox says. “I think we’re at about 17 or so roles. That’s a lot of progress.”

Yet Cox believes that real change can only happen when the gatekeepers in Hollywood hire transgender people behind the camera too. “It’s about access,” she says. “How do we reach out to the community and let them know that there are jobs available below the line in TV and film, and getting more of us trained? I ask myself, ‘What more could I be doing? How can I get more trans people access so they can be working in front of and behind the camera?’”

According to a recent GLAAD study, of the 857 regular characters that appeared on primetime scripted broadcast TV shows for the 2018-19 season, 75 of them identified as LGBTQ. That’s a record 8.8%, the highest number in the 14 years that GLAAD has been commissioning the study. Additionally, there are 120 LGBTQ main or supporting characters on primetime cable shows, and 75 regular LGBTQ characters on streaming shows produced by Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.

“In television, things have changed a dramatic amount,” says Berlanti, who came of age in a different time in Hollywood. “When we were first doing ‘Dawson’s Creek,’” he says of the 1998 series, “there was a lot of pushback and conversations about having characters who were gay have a romantic kiss.” He threatened to quit as a writer of the series when network executives expressed trepidation about a scene featuring a romantic kiss between two men, played by Kerr Smith and Adam Kaufman. When the scene aired in May 2000, it made headlines as a first for primetime network TV.

In 2018, Berlanti came full circle by directing 20th Century Fox’s “Love, Simon,” the first teen romantic comedy with a gay lead released by a studio. But he admits that progress has come much slower on the big screen than it has on TV. “As an audience member, I have not witnessed the same sort of change in the studio space,” Berlanti says. “It feels like they still have a lot of work to be done.”

“Love, Simon” is a glaring exception in a movie world practically devoid of LGBTQ characters and stories. In 2005, “Brokeback Mountain,” which grossed a stunning $178 million worldwide, was supposed to show Hollywood that gay love stories could reach mainstream audiences. The handful of recent Oscar-nominated offerings — such as “Carol” and “Call Me by Your Name” — have almost entirely come from the independent film world. In 2018, according to another GLAAD study, 18.2.% of all major studio releases featured LGBTQ characters. But most of them had less than three minutes of screen time.

There’s hope that two musical biopics will help prop open the development door. “Rocketman” has crossed the $100 million mark globally, fueled by the popularity of Elton John’s soundtrack. Last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which earned more than $900 million and won Rami Malek the best actor Oscar, became the highest-grossing movie ever centered on an LGBTQ character. But it was accompanied by some baggage. There was criticism that the movie’s script kept Freddie Mercury’s relationships with other men in the shadows.

As for transgender actors on the big screen, they have been nonexistent. ”There’s few of us in film,” says Cox, who would like to play more parts in movies. Many studio executives privately admit they are worried that casting gay or transgender actors could hurt the bottom line of a film in international territories — especially China — that are less tolerant of LGBTQ rights. But since no one has ever tried, this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, similar to the way the industry kept telling itself that African American casts couldn’t sell as many tickets overseas, a notion that “Black Panther” disproved in 2018.
Cox explains the conundrum many transgender actors face:

“If you don’t hire us to work, we’re never going to become that big name,” she says. “It becomes the thing where we don’t get the opportunities, and then we can’t become bankable internationally. I think it’s about taking a moment to cast a trans person in something that’s supporting and have us prove ourselves.”

The critical success of Ryan Murphy’s FX series “Pose,” set in the 1980s New York ballroom scene, could force the industry’s hand, compelling it to tell more inclusive stories. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Leyna Bloom became the first openly transgender woman of color to debut a movie there in its 72-year history with the indie drama “Port Authority,” which touches on some of the same themes that “Pose” explores.

“We’re going to see a giant boom in the next few years,” Tortorella predicts. “It’s no secret there are tons of queer people in the industry. I think we are gaining confidence in telling our own stories.”

One glass ceiling that still needs to be cracked is the A-list. Jodie Foster wasn’t publicly out when she was headlining her own films. Neil Patrick Harris is better known for his small-screen and stage endeavors than for his movie roles. The last openly gay actor to be nominated for an Oscar was Ian McKellen for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2002. For many years, Hollywood executives kept major stars in the closet by reinforcing the idea that audiences couldn’t fantasize about a leading man (or woman) if they knew he or she was gay.

In 2007, Symoné recalls being told to dress differently when she was touring during the last season of “That’s So Raven.” But it wasn’t Disney executives who were trying to change her look. “One of the members of my team went up to my mom and was like, ‘She looks too much like a lesbian. Can you tell her to put on a skirt and makeup?’” Symoné recalls.

These days, gender fluidity has become a fashionable form of activism at Hollywood’s biggest premieres and awards shows.

“I have a lot of friends who are male and will show up to red carpets in this really beautiful, plain and simple women’s clothing, or unisex clothing,” Flynn says. “And that’s still out of the ordinary for older generations. But that is perfectly f—ing cool and OK. I think they are so brave, because they just get to stand by who they are and let the world see it.”