‘We’re Here’: Emmy-Nominated Show Succeeds by Focusing on ‘Compassion Instead of Conflict’ (Guest Column)

We're Here HBO
Courtesy of HBO

Each year the list of Emmy nominees is rightfully analyzed and scrutinized for diversity. The list of LGBTQ Emmy nominees is then further examined for its own racial and gender diversity, but that analysis consistently has overlooked the geographic diversity of LGBTQ people. Though GLAAD’s latest TV report found the largest number of LGBTQ characters ever, LGBTQ people and stories outside of major cities are immensely underrepresented in entertainment.

That’s why this year’s Emmy nomination for HBO’s “We’re Here” in outstanding unstructured reality series deserves attention and should send a message to the broader industry about the necessity and the power of telling stories of LGBTQ people living outside of urban centers.

As the industry undergoes self-reflection and begins to prioritize diversity, LGBTQ people in rural America, and the power of showcasing the interaction between LGBTQ people and their neighbors in these cities, cannot be underestimated or overlooked. Last year, the Movement Advancement Project released a report that estimated between 2.9 million and 3.8 million LGBTQ people live in rural parts of the country, making up 3-5% of the estimated 62 million people who live in rural America.

This year, the Television Academy was largely applauded for an increase in Black nominees and for the long list of worthy LGBTQ icons who earned acting nominations including Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, Dan Levy, Samira Wiley, Kate McKinnon, Tituss Burgess, Jim Parsons, Wanda Sykes, Fiona Shaw and several more. LGBTQ favorites “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Queer Eye” continued their nomination streak in competition program and structured reality series categories, which each show respectively won last year. The LGBTQ community also applauded transgender Filipina actress Rain Valdez’s groundbreaking acting nomination in short form comedy or drama series for her star-making role in “Razor Tongue,” a web series she also wrote and produced. LGBTQ representation extended into creative categories as transgender artist Deja Smith earned her second nomination for outstanding period and/or character makeup on “Pose.” LGBTQ fans and community leaders also loudly and rightfully criticized the absence of nominations for “Pose’s” groundbreaking transgender actresses and director and executive producer Janet Mock.

Absent from the diversity discussion so far has been the LGBTQ people on “We’re Here” — people of different gender identities, ages, races and some living with disabilities in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Twin Falls, Idaho, Branson, Missouri, Ruston, Louisiana, and Spartanburg, South Carolina. The power of the “We’re Here” stories is not simply in the LGBTQ people and magnetic hosts Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela and Eureka O’Hara, but in the non-LGBTQ people who join in the discussion of LGBTQ acceptance over the course of each episode.

The premise of “We’re Here” seems ripe for conflict: to spread LGBTQ acceptance, three drag queens visit a small town and work with three locals individuals to create a drag show in a local venue and invite the entire city. But the actual tactic is simple: it’s the power of conversation and common ground. The show finally debunks the stereotype that all people in rural America are anti-LGBTQ and that LGBTQ people are not valuable members of small towns. Not everyone on the series is pro-LGBTQ, but despite the differences between the hosts and the non-LGBTQ citizens of the towns, the power of conversation unearths common ground and teaches viewers that in today’s divisive culture, our shared humanity unites. The show’s focus on compassion instead of conflict is a television rarity.

One episode focuses on Farmington, New Mexico and includes the story of Nate, a gay Navajo man who lives on a reservation. While bowling with Nate, Bob the Drag Queen speaks with a native woman who happens to be at the bowling alley with her LGBTQ child. “A lot of people, they don’t like who he is and it’s really hard for him sometimes,” she says. “But I always stand by behind him and tell him keep going, you know, pushing him. You can do it.”

In a country more and more divided over political lines and so-called “identity politics,” the industry has an opportunity and responsibility to be a part of the solution. Real conversations like those between the LGBTQ people and their non-LGBTQ peers living in the small cities which are front and center in “We’re Here” are part of that solution.

“We’re Here” is nominated in the outstanding unstructured reality program alongside Netflix’s “Cheer” and VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.” Ironically, these overtly and proudly LGBTQ shows are nominated alongside Nexflix’s “Kevin Hart: Don’t F**k This Up,” a series that allowed Kevin Hart to attempt to clear his name after refusing to engage in conversation when GLAAD and other leaders asked him to “step up, not step down” as Oscars host after violent and anti-gay tweets surfaced.

The power of “We’re Here” happens not merely in compelling subjects, but in enlisting LGBTQ talent behind the camera. When telling diverse stories with power and authenticity, the talent behind the camera is just as important as those in front. Gay executive producers Johnnie Ingram and Steve Warren are long-time LGBTQ advocates, with Warren having received GLAAD’s Stephen F. Kolzak Award for his advocacy efforts. Producers and casting leads worked closely with LGBTQ organizations and local advocates. Rather than bring a Hollywood production into a rural community, the show actively involved local LGBTQ advocates to tell the story of their city.

The “We’re Here” hosts were far from bystanders and their voices and storytelling can be seen and heard in each episode too. The three hosts, all alumni of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” are proven and recognized social justice advocates in addition to being drag performers and actors. Bob the Drag Queen is a strong voice for racial justice, hosting a Black Queer Town Hall in June. Shangela took on the Trump Administration’s anti-LGBTQ attacks while hosting the GLAAD Media Awards and Eureka O’Hara released a music video on body positivity. The three are credited as consulting producers and earned those titles.

The LGBTQ people and hosts of “We’re Here” have expanded the meaning of LGTBQ diversity in an authentic and compelling way that unites, one that other creators should make note of. At the end of the New Mexico episode, each of the main subjects appears in a local venue and performs in drag to a standing-room-only audience of their neighbors. Shangela speaks to the in-person audience, but her message needs to be heard by the whole media industry: “We’ve been traveling to small towns across America, connecting with great people, helping to showcase what a queer community can look like. No matter how large or how small, it’s the love that matters. Halleloo!”

Rich Ferraro is GLAAD’s chief communications officer.