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LGBTQ Representation on TV Hits Record High, But There's Still a Way to Go

GLAAD's annual Where We Are on TV finds big advancements in LGBTQ representation -- and trouble spots.

Malcolm Venable

If you thought you've seen more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer characters on TV recently, you're right: media monitoring group GLAAD said in its latest report that the 2016-17 season featured more LGBTQ characters on the small screen than the group has ever counted in the 21 years it's tracked the data.

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In its annual Where We Are on TV research, which looks at overall diversity on primetime scripted shows as well as LGBTQ characters on cable and streaming services, GLAAD announced Thursday that this season's crop featured the highest ever percentage (4.8 percent) of LGBTQ regular characters on broadcast television. The number of transgender characters more than doubled too, going from 7 to 16 across all platforms.

Despite the good news, the group also found troubling developments, including a widespread killing off of gay and bisexual women. As exemplified by the death of characters including Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) on The CW's The 100 and Dr. Denise Cloyd (Merritt Wever) on The Walking Dead, the "Bury Your Gays" trope wasn't just anecdotal hype: more than 25 lesbian and bisexual female-identifying characters were killed off since the beginning of 2016, the report said -- and often killed in cartoonish, demeaning ways that GLAAD said "sends a toxic message about the worth of queer female stories."

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"While it is heartening to see progress being made in LGBTQ representation on television," GLAAD president and CEO said Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement, "it's important to remember that numbers are only part of the story, and we must continue the push for more diverse and intricate portrayals of the LGBTQ community."

Where We Are on TV takes into account scripted primetime series airing from June 1, 2016 until May 31, 2017, and examines regular and reoccurring characters -- a distinction that recognizes how much a character is integrated into a show's season. Among the findings for broadcast TV:

-Of 895 series regular characters on 118 primetime scripted shows, 43 characters are LGBTQ. That's up from last year's 35.
-ABC has the highest percentage of regular LGBTQ characters (7.3 percent); followed by Fox (6.4 percent), The CW (4.3 percent) and NBC (3.9 percent). CBS came in last at 2.2 percent.

-Gay men still make up the majority of regular and recurring LGBTQ characters (49 percent). Lesbian representation went down to 17 percent of regular and reoccurring LGBTQ characters -- a 16 percent drop from last year.

Several transgender characters had regular or recurring roles this year, the report noted -- a big improvement since there were no trans characters on broadcast TV last year. "It's heartening that the number of trans characters has more than doubled since last year," said Nick Adams, director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program. "Now, GLAAD really wants to see those characters become an integral part of the shows they're on, with storylines that go beyond focusing on their trans identity and instead portray transgender people who are part of the fabric of everyday life." Laverne Cox, who'll appear as a lawyer on CBS' Doubt, was held up as a positive example.


Laverne Cox as Cameron Wirth on Doubt

Laverne Cox as Cameron Wirth on Doubt

Cable, perhaps not surprisingly, featured more LGBTQ characters than broadcast did this season, with 142 total (regular and recurring) on shows including MTV's Loosely Exactly Nicole, Greenleaf on OWN, Pretty Little Liars and the now-canceled Roadies on Showtime. That 142 characters, though, is the same number as last year, accounting for a drop in recurring characters. Which cable network had the most LGBTQ characters? If you thought it was HBO guess again: it's Freeform (formerly ABC Family) with 27, although the report raised concerns with what it called "harmful tropes."

Streaming services, which include Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, featured 65 total regular LGBTQ characters, the report said; here, lesbians make up the majority (43 percent) of LGBTQ characters, which is higher than broadcast or cable. With seven transgender characters, streaming also has the highest percentage (11 percent) of all programming. But that list includes four characters who were killed off, including Poussey (Samira Wiley) on Orange Is the New Blackand Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) on Wentworth.

The rich report addresses much more: deep dives into representation of women (44 percent of series regulars on broadcast series are women, though they're 51 percent of the population); racial minorities (20 percent of regular characters are black, a record high since GLAAD began gathering data 12 years ago) and people with disabilities -- also at a high of 1.7 percent since tracking of that metric began in 2010.

At 30 pages, the comprehensive Where We Are on TV holds up a mirror to the programming that holds up a mirror to society, while working to hold everybody accountable too.