Television needs to do better for LGBTQ people.
Despite advances over the past decade, the LGBTQ community is still underrepresented in modern media — namely television.
For years, gay characters were at the fringes of TV plotlines, if they existed at all. The classic mentality was that queer storylines would scare advertisers away. It took until 2000 for a show specifically about LGBTQ people — "Queer As Folk" — to gain traction, and it was only after that proved itself a financial and critical success that that other shows started being created by and featuring members of the community in earnest, according to Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy (CCDML). Today, shows featuring LGBTQ characters are more common and channels like Canada's own OUTtv are dedicated entirely to this type of content.
These advances, however, don't mean there isn't still a long way to go.
According to GLAAD's "Where We Are On TV Report," in the 2016-2017 TV season, there were 895 main characters on scripted primetime broadcast shows, and 43, or 4.8 per cent, were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, the highest percentage ever reported. While statistics for the actual population are inconclusive, various studies have suggested anywhere between 4 and 11 per cent of the population falls somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, according to The Williams Institute.
Lesbian representation dropped, with lesbians representing 17 per cent of all LGBTQ characters on broadcast television. LGBTQ representation across platforms, including cable and streaming, also stayed overwhelmingly white.
The report also noted that 25 queer female characters died since the beginning of 2016, with most not serving any purpose beyond advancing the storylines of a usually cisgender, straight main character.
And more and more, young LGBTQ people are vocalizing their desire for better representation and condemning content creators for practices they deem harmful to the LBGTQ community, particularly LGBTQ youth.
"Bury Your Gays" is an example of one issue that has been widely condemned over the past few years. The website TV Tropes defines "bury your gays" as such: "Often... gay characters just aren't allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple... has to die at the end... Additionally, the problem isn't merely that gay characters are killed off: the problem is the tendency that gay characters are killed off in a story full of mostly straight characters, or when the characters are killed off because they are gay."
The concept of "burying your gays" made headlines last year over what many people perceived as an abnormally large number of lesbian and bisexual women dying in shows when their numbers in television were already very limited, the biggest example being Lexa from "The 100."
Autostraddle, a feminist website aimed at lesbian and bisexual women, tracks all the lesbian and bisexual women who have died in the history of television. When its list began in March 2016, it had 65 women on it. It now has 182.
The repercussions of these seemingly insignificant plot choices go deep, because the LGBTQ community has very few positive, complex role models in pop culture whose roles go beyond their sexual orientation or gender identity. Seeing themselves reflected in media has been found to have a positive impact on young queer people.
"[In our research] we have found good representations are validating and normalizing for LGBTQ+ youth, and contribute to their identity development and overall well-being. However, many youth have to go online to find these affirming representations, often into online fandom communities, because of the limitations of LGBTQ+ representations available in offline media," says Lauren McInroy, a social work doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto.
On most shows, there's usually only one queer couple at most, so if something happens to one or both characters, that representation disappears entirely. For straight couples, if something happens to them, there's usually another straight couple who fans can root for or see themselves in, so the death has less of an impact, according to Eve Ng, a media arts professor at Ohio University.
Ng adds she doesn't think showrunners are killing off their LGBTQ+ characters out of any sort of malice, but merely because they believe it furthers the plot, without thinking of the bigger picture. But, she adds, they do have a responsibility to think about the implications of what they write.
"Context is everything. If individual showrunners think they're so brilliant that they're escaping the larger context of burying your gays, they need to step back and say, 'Okay, maybe in my show it really does advance my storyline in a narratively exciting way but also it will have implications for queer representation and I need to think about that.'"
The importance of representation is underscored further when it comes to the insidious practice of "queerbaiting."
Queerbaiting is a contentious term within online fan spaces. The word came into existence in the past five or so years, but the practice itself stretches back much longer. It refers to the concept of showrunners and writers adding homoerotic subtext between two characters, usually leads, in order to attract LGBTQ audiences to the show without ever intending to elevate the subtext to an actual relationship. This often goes hand-in-hand with the show's cast and crew encouraging fans to support and create fanworks for these non-canonical relationships, never truly ruling out the potential for these pairings to become canon.
Many shows are commonly accused of queerbaiting their fans, including "Supernatural," whose writers have said they would go ahead with the fan pairing of Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel if it "served the story," "Sherlock," where the script often has characters mistake John Watson and Sherlock Holmes for a couple, and "Rizzoli and Isles," whose writers and cast have admitted to playing up lesbian subtext between the two leads.
Within fan spaces for these shows, there is debate over whether queerbaiting is a real phenomenon. Some fans argue that those who think queerbaiting is real are just reading too much into a show's framing, an actor's micro-expressions and a script's dialogue — which can often include jokes about whether two friends of the same gender are actually dating.
But fans, especially LGBTQ fans who believe shows intentionally queerbait them, contest that the impact is real.
Alicia Schreiner, 31, who identifies as a lesbian, was a longtime fan of "Once Upon A Time," but quit the show because she grew tired of what she considered to be queerbaiting of two of its main characters: Emma Swan, the daughter of Snow White, and Regina Mills, the Evil Queen. Many other former viewers took similar actions.
"I thought they were endgame... and I know I wasn't alone. It was two women who were brought together by their son, who fought side by side. The show's tag line was 'true love is the most powerful magic of all' and Emma and Regina shared, together, the most powerful magic when combined. When the ship kind of took off and more fans started talking about it, they suddenly gave Emma a male love interest, who ended up being just a watered-down version of Regina without the magic," she tells HuffPost Canada.
"They continued to yo-yo the fans, pitting the heterosexual shippers against the SwanQueen shippers ... having Emma and Regina make monumental sacrifices for each other, and then having the straight white male swoop in at the last minute to 'save the day.'"
She adds that she and many other fans felt hurt they'd been strung along for five years and given false hope.
"The show started out as a 'modern day fairytale', and what would be more modern than showing one of the first LGBT fairytales? But alas, it ended in the least modern way."
Ng says she thinks queerbaiting is sometimes accidental and sometimes intentional, and usually happens for a mix of reasons, such as ratings, as well as a real desire for representation.
"I think that some showrunners would like to do more with diverse representation so when fans write to them and say 'any possibility of x couple,' they don't want to just shoot them down and say 'no.' Maybe if it was within their control they would want to write that couple," she adds.
Matthew Johnson, the director of education at the CCDML, adds sometimes producers and showrunners encourage fan theories and speculation, but are reluctant to commit to those same storylines because they fear alienating what they consider to be their main audience: straight, white men.
"We may just need to have a few producers commit to having major characters who are LGBTQ so that we can dispel that conventional wisdom that straight white men aren't going to go see a movie because the main character doesn't reflect them precisely. And also to dispel all the myths that all the other sectors of the audience aren't enough to make a big budget production profitable," he says.
A lack of proper representation, or having accurate depictions taken away, can project the idea that these people are less worthy of real stories.
"For many young people, [fictional characters are] their only, or the most emotionally resonant, queer person that they know. The harm is not just, 'Oh we're disappointed,' the harm is causing mental and emotional pain," notes Ng.
"And from a political point of view...I think that it reinforces this sense that LGBT people are second-rate. That this is what happens on television shows or in horror movies, because you're more expendable, like if we have to get rid of characters, you're the one that will be gotten rid of."
TV Is Changing
But that doesn't mean there's no hope to be found. More and more showrunners are writing in non-stereotypical, nuanced examples of LGBTQ characters into their scripts. "How To Get Away With Murder's" Annalise Keating, and "Shameless's" Ian Gallagher are examples of complicated, well-written queer characters whose sexualities are often explicitly touched on and explored within the plot, but whose storylines don't only revolve around who they date. And they both happen to be massive hits too.
Other shows like "Orphan Black," "Black Sails," the Norwegian social media hit "Skam" and of course, "Modern Family," have also worked wonders in normalizing LGBTQ relationships on television.
Going forward, Johnson says more media production needs to involve queer people.
"We need to see ideally a more accurate representation of reality. We need to see these characters in more central roles more often, not just at the margins. And it's also absolutely vital that members of these communities be involved in media production. Because if you just have straight white men writing and directing and having control of how the stories are told, than it's not going to be that much better than what we have now," he says.
Schreiner adds that LGBTQ+ relationships still need to be normalized on television.
"A lot of people think LGBTQ+ people want LGBT characters on TV so we can watch them have sex or make out, but that's not it at all. LGBTQ+ intimacy is not pornographic and we shouldn't have to be told to 'go watch cable' to see ourselves on TV. We're asking for healthy, well-written stories that represent us as individuals and as a community," she says.
Here's to having more complicated, well-written LGBTQ characters by the time next year's Pride Month rolls around.