Post-Ellen Blues: (Or Lack of?)

I recently attended a panel discussion at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles, entitled “Playing Gay in Prime Time”. Co-sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the evening featured six actors who currently play (with one exception), a gay or lesbian character on a prime time series on a commercial or a pay cable network. The panel, led by GLAAD Entertainment Media Director Scott Seomin, included Bill Brochtrup (N.Y.P.D. Blue‘s John Irvin), Laura Innes (ER‘s Dr. Kerry Weaver), Matthew St. Patrick (Six Feet Under‘s LAPD Officer Keith Charles), Peter Paige (Queer as Folk‘s Emmet), Sonja Sohn (The Wire‘s Detective Shakima Greggs), and from the cancelled action series Dark Angel, Valerie Rae Miller (Original Cindy). The evening started with clips of the six actors in action, followed by a roundtable discussion in which the panelists discussed the evolution of their respective characters, the positive and negative reactions they have received from family, friends, colleagues, and fans; and the amount of input, if any, they have with the producers and writers about their characters.

As I was listening to the actors share their experiences, it struck me how much progress has been made in regards to the inclusion of regular and recurring gay and lesbian characters on television. As Seomin pointed out in his introduction, half of the panelists are African-American. More importantly, in my mind, each of their characters is well-developed and integral to the show’s central storylines. This is definitely a far cry from the days of Dynasty‘s sexual switcher Steven Carrington and Melrose Place‘s resident victim Matt Fielding, whose roles were limited by their status as the “sexual other” within the hyper-heterosexual worlds of prime time soaps.

The seminar also raised questions about the bleak picture that is being painted by the gay and mainstream press about the lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) TV characters in regular, supporting, and recurring roles at the start of the 2002-2003 TV season. Stories that recently appeared in The Advocate, The Washington Blade, and The Los Angeles Time all seem to be posing the same question: Where have all the gay TV characters gone?

Ironically, the same question was the title of a GLAAD press release that the organization issued in conjunction with their annual fall TV season ““>Scorecard“, which is a count of the number of LGBT characters for the 2002-2003 season. The press release points out that while the 2001-02 season had 20 LGBT characters, the 2002-2003 season “includes only seven lesbian and gay characters in prime time — all of whom are white.” Unlike last season, there are no bisexual or transgender characters on any of the new or returning programs. The release directs you to the Scorecard itself, a chart that also includes a season-by-season comparison (2001-02 vs. 2002-03) of LGBT characters and a breakdown of each season by the number of male/female characters, their ethnicity, and their status on the show (lead, supporting or recurring character).

The central purpose of the memo is to demonstrate how the overall number of LGBT characters has decreased significantly and the lack of non-white characters on broadcast television. Scott Seomin finds the latter particularly problematic because the “diversity of the gay community cannot be conveyed through seven characters, especially when all of them are white.” Karen Narasaki, Chair of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition, and Suzanne Walters, author of All the Rage: the Story of Gay Visibility in America, agree and express their concerns for the lack of diversity. Naraski believes the broadcast networks are not living up to their responsibility to “portray the cultural landscape realistically, which includes gays and lesbians of color.” Likewise, Walters calls for “sustained, complex, rich representation of the fabulous diversity of our community. And we need it now.”

Do we need more diversity in the representation of the LGBT community? Of course. But GLAAD and the press are only telling you half the story. There is no reference in GLAAD’s statement to the LGBT characters on commercial cable and pay cable television. There is no doubt GLAAD is aware of them. The “Scorecard” section includes a separate chart listing the “2002-03 LGBT Characters on Cable Television” as well as a breakdown of their stats. Several of the cable series are even listed at the bottom of the press release promoting the upcoming “Play Gay in Prime Time” panel.

So why is there no mention of LGBT characters on cable? Clearly by separating commercial cable channels (like F/X) and pay cable channels (HBO, Showtime) from the major commercial broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, etc.), GLAAD can make its case about the lack of diversity on the latter. While networks shows still have the larger viewing audience, overall network ratings are down considerably due to the competition they are receiving from both the commercial cable and pay cable channels. But due to the success of recent cable shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, the gap between the number of viewers turning into the networks vs. cable size of network is starting to close in. So rather than treating cable programs like HBO’s The Wire and Six Feet Under and F/X’s The Shield, which all feature African-American gay and lesbian characters, as a separate entity, why doesn’t GLAAD hold them up as examples to the commercial networks of how and why such characters can be successfully integrated into an ensemble cast?

The lack of diversity on network series is hardly a new phenomenon. Of the 20 LGBT characters featured on the broadcast networks in 2001-2002, there were only two African-Americans and one Latino. Two of these characters, Spin City‘s Carter Haywood (Michael Boatman) and Felicity‘s Javier Clemente Quintata (Ian Gomez), disappeared because their shows ended their runs. The third, Dark Angel‘s Original Cindy was cancelled after its second season. Two other victims of early cancellation were That 80s Show‘s bisexual Sophie (Britany Daniel) and The Education of Max Bickford‘s Erica Bettis (Helen Shaver), who was the first transsexual on a prime time series. If three out of the 20 LGBT characters in the 2001-2002 were people of color, is it really surprising that out of seven, there’s none?

If GLAAD is so concerned about the lack of diversity, perhaps they should concentrate more on the two most “gay-identified” series on prime time, both of which have all white casts: Will & Grace and Queer as Folk. Next to ER, Will & Grace has the largest viewing audience. Queer as Folk boasts a roster of 10 gay and lesbian characters — the most of any series. But then it would make it difficult for GLAAD to bestow their annual awards every year for Outstanding Comedy Series to Will & Grace (which has deservedly taken home the trophy four years in a row since its debut) or host a “Cocktails and Dinner” GLAAD fundraiser with cast members of Queer as Folk, like the one was held in San Francisco this past September.

The real issue here is not quantity, but quality. I whole-heartedly support GLAAD’s demand for more diverse LGBT characters in prime time so we can, to quote Naraski, “portray the culture landscape realistically”. But we also need to take a closer look at the bigger picture, particularly the context in which LGBT characters appear on TV. Like other minority characters on television, are they marginalized in relation to the character’s central white characters? From a creative, social, and political standpoint, are there any major differences between dramas on commercial/pay cable channels and the networks? Is the fact pay-cable channel demand on subscribers as oppose to advertising revenues a factor in determining if and when LGBT characters are includes. Now that the new TV season is underway, these are some of the questions I will be addressing in future columns.

As for now — keep watching!