The Good, the bad, and the Destiel: LGBTQ+ representation in TV shows

By Oliver Gullikson

In the past few years, LGBTQ+ representation on television has skyrocketed. LGBTQ+ characters have become more common, without always being stereotyped or killed off. It’s important to look back at past TV shows that were hailed for being inclusive to see how far we’ve come and to look at shows hailed for representation today to see how far we still have to go.

We begin in 1998 with Will & Grace, the first mainstream TV show to feature an openly gay lead. The show is credited with shaping a more positive attitude towards gay men. However, it didn’t do much for anybody else. Biphobia and transphobia came up in the form of throwaway jokes and the cast was pretty much straight except for the lead and a couple of other gay men. It was groundbreaking at the time and built a foundation for shows that followed, but today it seems painfully dated.

In 2004, we got The L Word, a show that focused on queer women, which was rare then and still is today. The show featured lesbian and bisexual women as well as a trans character, though it is worth noting that the portrayals of bisexual and trans folks were inaccurate and stereotyped at times. Despite that, the show was and still is a huge part of queer culture. It was the Girl in Red of the 2000s.

Glee came long in 2009. Questionable storylines aside, Glee was pretty good for LGBTQ+ rep. Characters came from across the spectrum, though they didn’t really branch out from LGBT. Biphobic jokes and misinformation about bisexual people were prevalent, even though the show had openly bisexual characters. It seems they were represented but not really accepted.

Representation continued forward in 2013 with Orange is the New Black. The biggest jump was the casting of Laverne Cox. Cox is a trans woman and was cast to play a trans woman, which seems obvious but it’s something that rarely happens. This put a trans voice in the show, which is essential when telling trans stories.

Inclusive casting took another leap ahead in 2018 with Pose. The show boasts the largest cast of trans actors in television history. This makes sense since Pose is set in the Harlem ballroom scene during the 1980s and ‘90s, which was composed almost entirely of trans folks. Yet it was still surprising. Unfortunately, though recognized as groundbreaking, the cast has yet to be recognized critically, despite outstanding performances. This has become a trend in the TV world, to have diverse casts but not honour their performances.

There are exceptions, like a show with representation winning nine Emmys. I am, of course, talking about Schitt’s Creek. The show’s main character is pansexual and there is no homophobia. This was a conscious decision, with writer Dan Levy saying he has “no time for homophobia.” It’s very refreshing to see a LGBTQ+ story without the damper of homophobia, especially since it sometimes seems it’s just an excuse for writers to show hate crimes on screen.

These are all (mostly) positive stories. The television world has accepted those in the LGBTQ+ community, right? Well, yes and no. Television has started including LGBTQ+ characters because representation makes money, but that representation can be questionable at times. Let’s look at Supernatural. The show is currently in its final season, and episode 18 had a love confession between Castiel and Dean, two characters that fans have wanted to get together since the introduction of Castiel in Season 4. It should be a victory for fans that after 15 years, the two men they think should get together finally do, right? Trouble is, immediately after confessing, Castiel dies and goes to a place that fans have nicknamed “super hell.” Bury Your Gays trope aside, for a show with significant religious imagery, this reinforces the ideology that gay people go to hell. Well-intentioned or not, the episode was, according to Twitter, “the most homophobic gay confession on TV.”

There’s no denying progress, but there’s still much to be done. Putting more LGBTQ+ people behind and in front of the camera is the answer. You cannot write good representation without LGBTQ+ people involved, and many showrunners still haven’t gotten that. They just want the money that representation produces, without giving a share to more LGBTQ+ folks. There is hope with shows like Pose that feature the community and remain wildly popular. One hopes that shows featuring LGBTQ+ characters made by members of the community will become more normalized, to the point it will be normal that a trans woman is cast to play a trans woman or that a gay man actually stays alive after coming out.

Oliver Gullikson is a Grade 11 student at Glebe Collegiate Institute. This is his third year on the Glebe Gazette.

Originally published in the Glebe Gazette, Glebe Collegiate’s student newspaper.

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