LGBT Characters on TV: What’s New?

June 3, 2016

Photos: Michael Jones LGBT Panelists (L-R) Jennie Snyder Urman, Pete Nowalk, Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Dan Goor, Carter Covington, Moderator Greg Hernandez, Becky Mann and Sonay Hoffman.
Ten years ago, there were very few LGBT characters on television. That's changing, and the number of characters of diverse sexual and gender identification is growing.
Gary Goldstein, Chair, WGAW LGBT Writers Committee

Not too long ago, LGBT characters were not only an anomaly on television, but when they did appear in primetime they tended to be stereotypes. But in recent years, an increasing number of characters of diverse gender and sexual orientation have been woven into casts and reflect a fundamental shift within the culture. By some estimates, 180 TV shows now have at least one LGBT character.

At a recent Guild event titled “LGBT Characters on TV: What’s New?” showrunners and writer/producers explored the growing presence of LGBT characters in television, how they got there and issues involved in writing and casting.

“Once we realized the tremendous growth and change in LGBT characters on television we recognized a need for a state-of-the-state panel on TV,” says Gary Goldstein, who is Chair of the WGAW’s LGBT Writers Committee, which sponsored the event in conjunction with the Inclusion and Equity Department.

Panelists included actress Rachel Bloom (Co-Creator, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), screen and TV writer Aline Brosh McKenna (Co-Creator, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Carter Covington (Showrunner, Faking It), Dan Goor (Co-Creator/EP, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Sonay Hoffman (Series Writer, American Crime), Becky Mann, (Series Writer, The Real O’Neals), Pete Nowalk (Creator/Showrunner, How to Get Away with Murder) and Jennie Snyder Urman (EP/Showrunner, Jane the Virgin). Journalist Greg Hernandez moderated.

Journalist Greg Hernandez, moderator

The good news, they agreed, is that old stereotypes are going by the wayside. Writers are creating characters that reflect a more realistic view of the lives and relationships of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. “Gay characters on television no longer exist in service to straight characters,” observed one panelist.

Being LGBT is also no longer in itself a central storyline on television but rather one aspect of a character. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, police captain Ray Holt (played by actor Andre Braugher) happens to be gay as opposed to being a ‘gay cop,’ and very little is made of his sexual orientation in the sitcom. “It’s not a defining trait,” said Goor.

LGBT storylines tend to be more nuanced and evolve organically. This season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers broke through persistently negative stereotypes with a storyline in which Darryl Whitefeather (played by Pete Gardner) came out as bisexual. As series co-creator and star Rachel Bloom pointed out, positive portrayals of bisexual men have been practically non-existent on TV, and the storyline turned out to be a vehicle for educating viewers. Many series dealing with LGBT characters now routinely draw on the expertise of GLAAD when developing characters or story arcs.

“One of the things we learned was the extent of bisexual stereotypes,” said McKenna.

The resulting episode, “Getting Bi,” drew a significant response from the LGBT community and is regarded as one of the most positive and authentic portrayals of bisexuality ever shown on network television.

As television overall has become more explicit with the rise of cable channels, the sex scenes for LGBT characters are also more explicit. Panelists agreed that the comfort level of actors is often generational – younger actors are very comfortable in sexually provocative scenes as writers seek to bring more authenticity to their portrayal of LGBT characters.

The goal, said Carter Covington, showrunner on the MTV series Faking It featuring the first intersex character, is to portray LGBT characters who can be models for living full, healthy lives rather than using negative stereotypes. Towards this end, panelists voiced support for the Lexa Pledge, which is a guideline for writing positive LGBT storylines and characters (in response to an inordinately high number of LGBT deaths on TV series).

Moreover, as broadcast networks try to catch up with cable and streaming services, they tend to censor less – which showrunners and writers agreed leads to more authentic depictions of LGBT characters and themes. Nowalk, whose series How to Get Away With Murder featured a lesbian and bisexual storyline last season, says that networks now tend to welcome provocative programming.