Why TV Is Making Such Strides on LGBT Representation — But Lagging in Racial Diversity

Something truly fascinating happened when GLAAD released its annual look at LGBT representation on TV this week. Instead of devoting itself to naming or shaming networks that had failed the test, the prominent LGBT media advocacy group announced, essentially, that its regular Network Responsibility Index had outlived its own utility. The results were impressive: this year, every network except two minor ones received an adequate, good, or excellent rating for their inclusion of LGBT characters. Fox, on the strength of shows like the casually diverse Empire, even vaulted from “failing” in 2006 to “excellent” today, emblematic of a more general sea change in representation on TV.

“GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index has helped reshape the television landscape, inspiring LGBT characters and storylines that move acceptance forward,”  said GLAAD CEO and President Sarah Kate Ellis in a statement. “As representations of LGBT people in the media continue to rise in number, pushing television networks to make those representations more diverse is more crucial than ever. This requires a different set of tools than the NRI provides, and as such GLAAD will shift focus to its annual TV diversity and transgender reports.”

In other words, they’re going to stop focusing on pure numbers, on whether there are LGBT characters, and focus instead on who those characters are and how they are portrayed.  What to make of the promising numbers for LGBT representation? This is a trajectory that seems to mimic the relatively speedy path to gay marriage, which in 2004 was winning issue for conservative scaremongers and is now the widely accepted (with the exception of clerk Kim Davis of Rowan County, KY) law of the land. Can these heartening results be replicated with other kinds of diversity which lag behind?

Compare the progress documented by GLAAD to what’s happening in Hollywood, where homophobia and closeted stars are still too much the norm, and it’s a different story. Compare it, particularly, to racial diversity on TV, and it’s also quite a different story. For instance, Women’s Media Center’s annual State of Women in the Media report covers gender parity and racial diversity in both TV news and scripted TV — and often finds very little change from year to year.

First, let’s look at a few other diversity statistics.  According to the WMC compilation, in 2014, “Television network and studio heads were 96 percent white and 71 percent male.” Meanwhile, “Television senior management was 93 percent white and 73 percent male.” The pipeline, meaning new directors being tapped to try their hand at TV, was also a problem:

For five years ending with the 2013-2014 television season, males comprised 82 percent of Hollywood workers who were tapped to direct their first episode of a TV series, according to a Directors Guild of America report. Among those 479 directors, 87 percent were white.

And as Time noted, the top three most powerful agencies in Hollywood are advocating for an overwhelmingly white group of clientele: “In TV, 74% of the creators were represented by those three agencies, and they were 2% minorities. The rest of the creators, not at those agencies, were 24% minority.” So, as Flavorwire TV Editor Pilot Viruet reported this winter, despite the success of shows like Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Empire, and Shondaland’s many delights, television, structurally, remains hostile to people of color behind the scenes.

This is not necessarily the case for LGBT people in the industry, away from the explosion of great roles in front of the camera. If you look at the best companies for black employees, none are in the entertainment world, whereas both Sony Pictures and Disney are on a comparable list of best companies for LGBT people. As this 2013 Pew Social Trends survey shows, “For the most part LGBT adults are in broad agreement on which institutions they consider friendly to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Seven-in-ten describe the entertainment industry as friendly.”

In a friendly enough industry, there were LGBT employees waiting in the wings — or the pipeline. In 2011, a paper in the International Journal of Social Science interviewed “20 key media professionals at the emergence of this new Gay TV industry” to examine how these individuals have “created production structures” which effectively bridge their own lives and their work in the industry: “At the end of the day, these Gay TV players were hired for their media backgrounds, not their activism,” the researcher, Dr. Kathleen P. Farrell, wrote. “The personal lives of LGBT television professionals have become a valuable source of knowledge and experience for this industry. The fact that gay creators and actors are being acknowledged, targeted, and rewarded in both professional and monetary ways for their work shows a remarkable shift in power.”

Based on all this research and a common-sense look at the big-name TV producers and showrunners we know, it seems fair to infer that to a certain extent, LGBT people were already close to many inner circles in the TV world.  People who represented the gay experience were already part of the industry, and they were essentially waiting for it to become publicly acceptable to tell their stories in a mainstream forum, as it now most certainly is.

Again, as Flavorwire reported this winter — and as the numbers consistently show —  racial diversity in TV has less of a foundation to stand on, and past waves of minority-friendly TV have faded out. The infrastructure to sustain them isn’t there yet. That means the entertainment industry needs to be more welcoming, not only to diverse TV shows, but to diverse professionals behind the scenes, in internships, fellowships, and more. People of color need to be given that chance to direct a first TV show, and both LGBT and minority characters need to be given a loving, fully fleshed-out treatment, not a box-ticking, clichéd kind of role.

America’s population isn’t just becoming more accepting of their queer neighbors; it’s becoming less white by the year, with a more vocal contingent of active viewers on social media demanding fair and accurate representation of many different groups of people. Thus, the extent to which the overwhelmingly straight, white, male executives and decision-makers can predict what will appeal to audiences will continue to decrease. Entertainment industries are going to be forced to open themselves up to new backgrounds and perspectives in order to thrive and reach tomorrow’s audiences.