When Ellen DeGeneres came out on ABC’s Ellen back in 1997, announcing “I’m gay” for everyone in the airport and the country to hear, it made television history. Today, according to the 20th annual GLAAD report on LGBT characters on television, there are 35 primetime TV characters identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, with another 35 LGB characters in recurring roles. There are even more LGBT characters on cable – 84 as series regulars and 58 more in recurring roles. Add to that the 43 LGBT series regulars and 16 recurring characters on Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, and there are 271 LGBT characters appearing across all TV platforms.
It’s been a remarkable sea change that’s reshaped the television landscape.
And yet, some things haven’t changed. The report found that between broadcast and cable, there is only one recurring character who is depicted as HIV-positive – on ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder. Some things, it seems, are still better left in the TV closet. “We hope to see more creators fairly and accurately sharing the stories of people living with HIV going forward,” the report said.
GLAAD’s latest “Where We Are On TV” report also found that many gay stereotypes still persist on TV. “It’s important that television characters reflect the full diversity of the LGBT community,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “It is not enough to just include LGBT characters; writers must craft those characters with thought and care. They must reject harmful, outdated stereotypes and avoid token characters that are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”
The GLAAD report was mostly upbeat about television’s inclusiveness of gays and LGBT issues, though it found room for improvement. “We’ve witnessed tremendous progress in television since GLAAD began tracking the presence of LGBT characters 20 years ago,” Ellis said, “but there is still a great deal of work to be done and many new and exciting stories to be told. We will continue to applaud networks and streaming services telling these stories – and holding their feet to the fire when they don’t.”
The report, which looked at the 2015-16 scripted TV season, found that 4% of the regular characters on primetime scripted shows are LGBT, which is about the same percentage of LGBT people in the U.S. population, according to a recent Gallop poll. That same poll, however, found that a third of the U.S. population thinks that 25% of their fellow Americans are gay or lesbian, with only 9% of those surveyed saying they believed gays and lesbians make up less than 5% of the population.
GLAAD found no regular or recurring transgender characters on any of the primetime broadcast shows, three
recurring transgender characters on cable and four on streaming series, with two as series leads on Amazon’s Transparent. Of the seven transgender characters counted, only one was a transgender man. “We would like to see broadcast networks catch up to their online competitors with the introduction of significant transgender characters,” GLAAD said.
The report found that bisexual representations rose on both broadcast and cable this year, with a notable increase – from 10 to 18 – in the number of bisexual men appearing on cable programs. “Unfortunately,” the report said, “many of these characters still fall into dangerous stereotypes about bisexual people.”
On broadcast television, gay men make up 47% of the 70 regular and recurring LGBT characters. Lesbian characters accounted for 33% of the LGBT roles, with bisexuals accounting for the other 20%. The report singled out Fox’s Empire as “one of the most inclusive programs on broadcast television.” The report noted, however, that “Of the 70 LGBT characters on broadcast in the upcoming season, 69% are white, which is three percentage points higher than the overall percentage of white characters on broadcast.”
On cable, the number of LGBT characters continues to rise – to 84 compared with 64 last year. Male LGBT characters still outnumber females, however, 54% to 46%. The report singled out ABC Family and Showtime as “the most LGBT-inclusive networks on cable, with each network boasting 18 regular and recurring characters.” The report also noted that these two networks are responsible for all transgender characters on cable. The report praised The Fosters, which follows a lesbian couple raising their biological, foster and adopted children, as ABC Family’s “most inclusive show, with seven LGBT characters.”
Still, the report found, there’s room for improvement on cable. “As with broadcast, we would like to see cable create more racially diverse characters going forward. Of the 142 regular and recurring LGBT characters, 71% (101) are white characters.”
Only on streaming services did female LGBT characters outnumber males – 56% to 44%. The report singled out Netflix’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black as the show with “more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted program tracked in this report.”
The report, in addition to examining LGBT issues, also looked at the overall employment of women and minority actors on television. Of the five broadcast networks, Fox shows had the highest percentage of female characters (48%), followed by ABC (45%), CBS (42%), the CW (41%) and NBC last with 39%.
The report found that minority actors are working on broadcast shows in numbers greater than ever before. “The past two years have seen welcome increases in overall racial and ethnic diversity on broadcast programming after years of little variation. This year that number continues to climb, with 33% – 287 of 881 series regulars – being people of color. This is a six-point jump from last season’s 27% and a full ten points over two years ago, when only 23% of regular characters were people of color.”
NBC leads the five broadcast networks with 41% of their regular characters being people of color, up from 29% last year. FOX comes in second at 36%, up from 32% last year, followed by ABC with 32%, a two-percentage-point increase from last year. The CW has 29% and CBS 25%, though they too posted increases from previous years.
And it’s been an especially good year for African-American actors. This year, GLAAD said it found the highest percentage of black regular broadcast characters it has ever counted — 16% (145) — since it began gathering comprehensive racial data 11 years ago. This represented an increase of three percentage points from the previous year.
The percentage of Hispanic characters on broadcast shows, however, dropped by one percentage point this year to 7%, from a high-water mark of 8% last year. The report said that “This is a drastic difference from the actual U.S. population, which was estimated to be 16% Latino/Latina in the 2010 census.”
Even so, Alex Nogales, President of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, noted that the networks are beginning to tell a wider variety of stories about the Hispanic experience. “Just a few years ago,” he said, “many portrayals of Latinos on television were negative stereotypes. More recently we have seen a balance emerge in the way we are portrayed. Yes, sometimes we are still criminals and gang members, but these roles are balanced by Latinos playing lawyers, teachers and good citizens within the same program. We expect to see more of these nuanced characters for Latinos on the big and small screen.”
The report singled out NBC’s midseason show Hot And Bothered for its predominantly Latina/Latino cast, and the network’s upcoming Shades Of Blue and Superstore for their Hispanic leading characters. GLAAD found that the streaming services had the highest percentage of Hispanic LGBT characters, thanks to shows like Hulu’s East Los High and Netflix’s Sense8.
The percentage of Asian-Pacific Islander regular characters, meanwhile, increased two points this year to 6%, tying the highest percentage GLAAD ever has found. This has been helped in no small part by ABC airing two Asian-American family sitcoms: Fresh Off the Boat and the new Dr. Ken starring Ken Jeong.
According to Guy Aoki, founding President of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans: “The biggest problem continues to be the exclusion of Asian-Americans in places where we’re found disproportionately in real life. Despite the fact that one out of every six doctors in this country is of Asian descent, there has only been one Asian regular on Grey’s Anatomy in its first 10 seasons and none since Sandra Oh left. Although Hawaii is 60% Asian-Pacific Islander, 30% white, and 3% black, the presence of the Asian-Pacific Islanders regulars on Hawaii Five-O continues to be diminished in favor of white and black guest stars who tag along with the team to help solve the crime of the week.”
“Given the increase in regular characters of color on broadcast,” GLAAD said, “it seems that networks are finally making serious strides towards more diverse representations.”
The report found that the racial diversity of the LGB regular and recurring characters on primetime scripted broadcast series has also increased, with 31% of the 70 actors this year being people of color compared to 26% last year. Racial diversity among LGBT characters on cable programming, however, is down this year, falling six percentage points from last year to 28% this year. Of the 59 LGBT characters on original streaming series, 27% are people of color. “This is an area that we would like to see all three programming platforms improve in,” the report concluded.
American Indians, the most underrepresented minority group in Hollywood, weren’t even mentioned in the report, and the report found that people with disabilities are nearly invisible on television. According to the U.S. Census, they make up about 12% of the population, but the report found that they make up less than 1% of the characters on television. The report found only nine characters with disabilities appearing on network shows, with Fox’s Empire, Rosewood and Scream Queens leading the way with four.
On daytime television, the report found that LGBT characters continue to be featured on ABC’s General Hospital, NBC’s Days of Our Lives, and CBS’ The Bold and The Beautiful.
LGB personalities also are prominently featured on daytime talk shows, including Sara Gilbert on CBS’ The Talk, Clinton Kelly on ABC’s The Chew and of course, the trailblazing DeGeneres on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
America has seen an amazing transformation in recent years about the way LGBT people are viewed by society as a whole. It wasn’t that long ago that it was a crime to be gay in many parts of America. When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, not only was it illegal for gays to marry there, it was illegal to be gay. That changed in 2003 with the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas, when the U.S. Supreme struck down laws there and in 13 other states.
Television, more than any other medium, has played a key role in the way gays and lesbians are viewed by bringing them out of the closet and into our living rooms. And over the decades, ABC has been at the vanguard of humanizing gays and lesbians in the popular culture. Twenty-five years before DeGeneres’ coming out on ABC, the network aired That Certain Summer, a TV movie starring Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook that was the first TV show to explore the lives of same-sex life partners. The first network primetime series to feature a gay couple was Norman Lear’s Hot L Baltimore, which aired for one season on ABC in 1975. Billy Crystal played a gay character on ABC’s Soap from 1977-81, and in 1986 the network aired My Two Loves, a TV movie about a lesbian love affair.
In 1992, five years before DeGeneres’ coming-out episode, Sandra Bernhard’s recurring character Nancy came out as a lesbian on ABC’s smash comedy Roseanne. Two years later, Roseanne created a national stir when Mariel Hemingway kissed Roseanne Barr. Later that year, ABC aired an episode of My So Called Life featuring a gay teenager who had a crush on a male classmate. Three years later, and three months before DeGeneres came out, the ABC series Relativity featured the first open-mouth kiss between two women on primetime television. ABC’s All My Children aired the first lesbian kiss on daytime TV in 2003 when Bianca kissed Lena, and aired the first same-sex wedding in 2009. That same year, the network’s Modern Family debuted, and today gays on TV no longer are controversial but part of the American fabric.
October is LGBT History Month, and NBC has several milestones to celebrate as well, including its 1985 TV movie An Early Frost, which was the first to deal with the subject of AIDS, and its 1995 TV movie Serving In Silence, the true story of a National Guard medical officer who is kicked out of the military for being a lesbian. A year later, NBC aired the first primetime lesbian wedding on an episode of Friends titled, aptly enough, “The One With The Lesbian Wedding,” and in 1998, NBC began airing the long-running Will & Grace, which co-starred Eric McCormack as a gay lawyer.