Just six months ago, GLAAD released a study showcasing that LGBTQ+ representation had reached a record highs on television. Yet there is so much more to the conversation than simply seeing a character from that community on-screen: What storylines they get to explore and, to a degree, who is portraying them, is even more important.
“I just want to see a show about gay men living, laughing and f—ing — just living our lives, and it’s not all about our trauma,” said “Special” creator and star Ryan O’Connell at a “Writing LGBTQIA Love and Romance on TV” panel presented by the Television Academy’s Writers Peer Group on Tuesday.
O’Connell’s show, which is semi-autobiographical, centers on a character who is gay and has cerebral palsy, but who “just wants the basics [in life]: a boyfriend, a good relationship with his mom, a job where he’s valued,” O’Connell explained.
When he first began pitching the show, he acknowledged that a lot of executives thought it was a strange concept. “In 2015, Hollywood was still unpacking how racist and sexist it was, and gay and disabled was in two-point font,” he said, noting that it took awhile for the industry to break out its magnifying glass to be able to consider even more inclusive stories. After some time talking to Warner Bros.’ Stage 13, his show eventually landed at Netflix. Rather than compromise his storytelling by trying to play to a certain platform or executive, O’Connell said, “I just had to do me and hopefully know I was doing others at the same time.”
On “Special,” O’Connell’s character deals with trying to lose his virginity, and one thing O’Connell and other content creators, such as “Boomerang” showrunner Ben Cory Jones, who was also on the panel, have been adamant about is the fact that in order to “normalize” and fully capture the queer experience, such characters should be seen in relationships, but they shouldn’t have those relationships be the most interesting things about them.
“A lot of times where you see a queer character, the queer character is loveless. Literature is farther along in strides of showing actual love and romance. It takes someone who has actually lived the experience to tell the nuance of it,” Jones said.
On “Boomerang,” there is a sexually fluid character named Ari (played by Leland B. Martin), but whose story is not focused on his sexuality, but instead the fact that he’s a young, struggling filmmaker in Atlanta. “I love that people say, ‘I didn’t realize he was gay until Episode 3.’ That’s the point. I don’t walk around with gay on my shirt,” Jones said. “Let’s allow this black man to be what a lot of black men are not allowed to be on television, which is varied and diverse.”
Although Jones said he felt there is now a route to tell such stories, he admitted it is still a fight to get them made, especially when he walks into a network meeting and isn’t sitting across from someone who looks like him, let alone has had some shared experiences. As a writer, he acknowledged that his job overall is “helping people to understand the way I see the world,” but it can still feel like a battle.
Our Lady J, who is a producer on “Pose” and previously worked on “Transparent,” pointed out there is a level of education that is often required from shows that feature underrepresented communities. On “Transparent,” she recalled, “we had to say, ‘OK where is America at and where do we need them to be?'” For the first few seasons, she acknowledged, “it felt like we couldn’t have the nuanced conversations we needed to have.”
Now, a few years later and on a different network, Our Lady J said those who work on “Pose” feel a similar “responsibility to tell stories that are accurate to the community, but it is about the perception of how you do it.” That 1980s drama centers on an ensemble of queer and transgender characters in the ballroom community, with the two lead characters (played by Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez) living with HIV. The importance, she noted, was that “Pose” is not a show about HIV, but rather “how these characters live their lives through tragedy,” which does include a lot of moments of “fabulousness and glitter…and joy.”
“I do believe the end to the epidemic is to end the stigma. We have the medication…and if we can just bring in characters who are HIV+, out, still have love lives, still have sex, protected, responsible, then you’re going to inspire,” she said.
The platforms on which these stories live was also an important part of the discussion, with O’Connell and “Tales of the City” showrunner Lauren Morelli stressing the importance of having executives in your corner who understand the show you want to make and the characters you want to share with the world. With “Tales of the City,” Morelli previewed, there is a character who has recently transitioned from female to male and is now passing as biologically male when out with his girlfriend, which tests her own queer identity. Morelli acknowledged that a lot of networks would have had notes about making sure the audience understood the dynamics of the relationship before his transition, which often results in expositional dialogue, but Netflix has “more space to tell really specific stories.”
Similarly, “Good Trouble” and “The Fosters showrunner Joanna Johnson expressed how Freeform has often been quick to tell her to “be gayer” with her shows.
“We have a real gay agenda, I’m just going to say it. And we have a very LGBTQIA agenda and a political agenda and an agenda to talk about race relations,” said Johnson. “I think we have to be conscious as writers to not always dramatize the sensationalism of that. But we’re always going to be a minority…so our stories will be unique as well.”
While Johnson noted that because queer individuals still don’t “have complete safety or complete rights,” there will always be a lot of fascinating stories to tell through their eyes. Going forward, some areas in which the panel wanted to see better representation and methods of storytelling included “breaking out of binaries in general” and more stories about the “stable home life of gay people raising children,” said Morelli.
For Jones, there was interest in telling stories about queer individuals in the world of sports. “All those hits on the ass in the locker room meant something,” Jones said, noting the importance of “tearing down these ideas of the burden of masculinity and seeing the nuance of it.”
When it came to casting actors to portray queer characters, a case was made for both casting queer actors in those roles, as well as cast those who identify as straight. “I want everybody to play us. I think there’s something interesting and beautiful about someone as an actor coming into our experiences,” Jones said. “The gay actors have to play everything else, why not do it the other way?”
Johnson, who admitted she “would like to cast queer actors in queer roles, but you can’t ask” how they identify in the auditions, has two straight, cisgender male actors on “Good Trouble” whose characters were in a relationship with each other in the first season. “They’re game, but you kind of have to do a little work to get it there,” she said of helping them get comfortable with the on-screen intimacy.
“I think they’re more concerned with getting it right than ‘What will people think of me?'” Our Lady J said.
What is key, both for actors and in the writers’ rooms in capturing nuance and authenticity, the panel said, is communication, research and getting different points of view so all characters can be as grounded in reality and as nuanced as possible.
“Have representation in the writing staff and ask for consultants, use GLAAD and other places,” Johnson said.
Added Our Lady J: “I kind of invite people to f— up. I’ll educate you. I don’t want people to be scared.”