As representation declines industry-wide, is television letting down its LGBTQ+ viewers?

During the aptly named Golden Age of Television, it seemed like television representation of the LGBTQ+ community was improving.

More and more shows on the network began to include not only token gay characters, but also well-written storylines centered around LGBTQ+ protagonists.

Even for relatively progressive shows, it took a long time to get there.

Main photo: LGBTQ and representation – 9-1-1

Grey’s Anatomy, for example, introduced gay and transgender characters in its early seasons by integrating them into the show’s medical cases.

But it wasn’t until season 4, when Callie Torres realized she was bisexual, that a main character on the show was recognized as LGBTQ+.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve rarely seen perfect same-sex relationships on screen. Glee gave us Kurt, Blaine, Santana and Brittany.

Modern Family had Cam and Mitchell. Callie and Arizona from Grey’s Anatomy made network television history.

Most of these shows ended over the years.

Nico Returns - Grey's Anatomy season 20 episode 3

Grey’s Anatomy persisted, but there was no significant gay male couple until season 15, when Levi was introduced to Nico in an elevator.

In many shows, gay and trans characters are tokenized if they are allowed to exist.

If we’re lucky, a character’s quirk isn’t treated like a commodity.

Yet even when this is done with minimal issues (as 9-1-1 demonstrated with Henrietta and Karen), the LGBTQ+ side of it all often hides in the shadows until it is convenient for audiences for the series.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent gay characters on television right now.

In fact, the opposite is true. Take Doctor Who, for example: Ncuti Gatwa (formerly of Sex Education fame) plays the first queer version of the show’s title character.

Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa smiling

But in general, where there is queer representation, tragedy and disappointment will surely follow.

The slogan “bury your gays” has managed to persist, even if it has caused a real scandal each time it is used.

The tokenization of LGBTQ+ characters remains a barrier to meaningful representation, as does the lack of racial diversity among queer characters making it to the small screen.

So what about those members of the community who aspire to be represented on their favorite television shows?

Often the only option is to try to find ways to relate to poorly written characters.

Deciding on Parenthood - Station 19 Season 7 Episode 5

Do real-life gay men actually feel seen when watching Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family?

We’re talking about a couple that was written so generically that they never even shared a kiss until season 2.

Probably not, but how many other family sitcoms between 2009 and 2020 even bothered to include a married gay couple in their ranks?

Representation isn’t just important for the gay community to see themselves in their favorite shows.

Studies have shown that LGBTQ+ representation on television has a real impact.

As more gay and trans characters get quality screen time, community acceptance increases.

Taking a Flight - Modern Family

After news broke of the cancellation of another show widely praised for its quality representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, fans rallied to try to save their favorite shows from an untimely end.

Both NCIS: Hawaii and Station 19 have amassed loyal fans over the years.

The shows share many details in common: they are led by female characters, have racially diverse casts, and each has a popular queer female couple.

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), both shows are set to end this month.

Petitions to save both shows have gained popularity online, mainly thanks to fans hooked on the representation the show offers.

However, there is no indication that either will be saved.

It’s unfortunate for everyone, but especially for LGBTQ+ fans who have difficulty recognizing themselves.

Women in Black - The 100 Season 2 Episode 14

It’s rare that a gay or trans TV character can live a happy life, free of trauma related to their identity, making it difficult for queer people to imagine a happy life for themselves.

There’s some good news: Streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix have created original series that positively portray LGBTQ+ characters leading normal lives.

These shows, like Heartstopper, Ginny & Georgia and Love, Victor, typically depict LGBTQ+ teens, which isn’t always exciting for queer adults.

Additionally, is it fair that members of this community can only find representation behind a paywall?

Kissing Boyfriends - Heartstopper Season 2 Episode 8

The industry is failing viewers from all kinds of communities, from people of color to women to gay and trans people.

However, the answer isn’t as simple as writing new LGBTQ+ characters and shows.

Accurate representation in the industry starts at the top and from within.

Specifically, without a queer voice in the writer’s room, you’re very unlikely to write a gay character that resonates with audiences successfully.

For too long, gay and trans stereotypes have persisted because the characters were written by people who think they are qualified to speak for marginalized groups.

Max as Lady Blair - Ginny & Georgia Season 2 Episode 8

If shows want to improve their representation efforts, they need to hire LGBTQ+ showrunners, directors, and writers.

Networks need to hear and buy pitches from queer creators.

It is not difficult to understand that the only way to include the LGBTQ+ community is to include them.

As the old saying goes: “Nothing about us without us.”

Haley Whitmire White is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on.

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