The results are frequently unsurprising—only 44% of regular characters on primetime broadcast are women, and the majority of LGBTQ characters are cisgender gay men—but GLAAD’s reminder of our representation in the scope of one year on television programming signals just what exactly the world sees as our community, and how limited it can sometimes be.
In 2016, GLAAD reports “the number of regular and recurring lesbian and bisexual women is down from last year on both broadcast and cable after a very deadly year for queer female characters.” Last year we had 98 queer women characters on television, and only 92 this year, with 28 of them having been killed during the course of their seasons.
The only area in which women are more represented than men is in bisexual and trans representation, with 16 bi women characters on television in 2016 vs. five bisexual men, and 12 out of 16 trans characters are trans women. Bisexual and trans women are still more likely to be found on cable and streaming networks, though, with few representations of trans women or men on broadcast television.
GLAAD also notes that racial diversity has dropped again among LGBTQ regular and recurring characters. “Only 25 percent of the 142 characters counted are POC, a drop of three percentage points from last year,” GLAAD writes. “Of the 65 LGBTQ characters on original and U.S. exclusive streaming series, 29 percent (19) are characters of color.” The report doesn’t note how many of these characters of color are women, though there has been a steadily growing number of leading bisexual black characters on shows like How to Get Away With Murder and OWN’s Queen Sugar. However, the loss of Sara Ramirez’s bisexual character Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy is significant, as she was one of the first and longest-running bisexual Latinx leads on a primetime TV show.
How to Get Away With Murder
While streaming channels like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu have been very LGBTQ-friendly, GLAAD challenges them “to be more racially diverse LGBTQ characters going forward, as 71 percent of their LGBTQ regular and recurring characters are white.” They also hope trans men will see more representation, as all seven trans characters on streaming are trans women.
Meanwhile, daytime programming is still pretty straight, but GLAAD praised General Hospital for its same-sex storyline between Kristina and her professor, Parker, as well as Bold and the Beautiful for its black trans woman character, Maya.
“The number of female characters forecast for the 2016-17 season as compared to last year make it clear that broadcast networks have not done enough to recover,” GLAAD writes. “We would like to see more lesbian and bisexual women added to broadcast series going forward. It is important that these characters exist in significant roles that are able to make a larger impact than recurring characters who only appear sporadically in special episodes. While broadcast did improve year-over-year and now counts three transgender characters, networks must go further by introducing transgender male characters, as they remain largely invisible in mainstream media.”
The truth is that some networks are making strides to include a greater range of non-white, hetero, cis, abled characters, but the queer women characters are still more likely to be feminine-presenting, part of a larger ensemble and not in a major role, and still killed off at an alarming rate. There are few shows where lesbian/bi women are androgynous or masc-presenting and they are all on streaming or cable: Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Master of None, One Mississippi and Showtime’s Ray Donovan, which has Kate Moennig in a recurring role.
If television networks can create queer characters that are complex, diverse in race, gender identity and presentation, and integrate them so that they are important enough to keep around, they will have made the kind of effort that the community is worthy of. Broadcast networks, specifically, need to put greater effort into inclusion, as 95.4 percent of their characters are straight. This is even sadder when you take into account that the 4.8% that are regular characters make up “the highest percentage of LGBTQ series regulars GLAAD has ever found.” This includes 12 lesbians and 16 bisexual females, several of which will not return for the next season because they’ve been killed off their respective shows.
In 2017, Laverne Cox will lead her own show, Doubt, on CBS, and a new lesbian-themed pilot is in development at ABC, so it’s possible we will see some much-needed improvement soon. But it’s not just about keeping networks accountable for their under representation of underserved communities—GLAAD’s stats remind us of how visible we are (or are not) to most Americans who see television as a mirror of the world and its people as they exist. Not only does more inclusive television promise richer and more inventive stories, but it actively works to humanize LGBTQ people for ourselves and others. If writers and producers want to create good television, they will start with writing good queer characters, based in reality.