At the 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards, Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win the award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series.
The Emmy was awarded for an episode of Netflix’s show Master of None. She co-wrote the season two episode titled “Thanksgiving” with show co-creator Aziz Ansari, which chronicled her experience coming out as a lesbian to her family.
An episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror that focused on the romance between two women—one of them a woman of color—won for Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series, Movie or Drama. The episode titled “San Junipero” also took home the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
Kate McKinnon, who is openly gay, won an Emmy for her performance on Saturday Night Live for the second year in a row.
Awards do not represent a people as a whole. Visibility and support, however, have been proven to change the lives of people in the LGBTQ community, especially when it comes to TV.
GLAAD, an American media monitoring association that focuses on the LGBTQ community, compiles an annual report about the LGBTQ representation on television. The 2016 report found that 43 of the 895 series regular characters expected to appear on scripted broadcast television in 2017 were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer. That is 4.8 percent, and it is the highest number that GLAAD has ever reported.
Within that percentage are shows like Modern Family, American Horror Story and even Game of Thrones. Will & Grace, a show that is considered a pioneer of gay representation in the 1990s on TV, is back for a new season on NBC.
Many LGBTQ people are realizing this growth in characters like them on their own screens. Shane Howell is an acting student at Florida State University who hopes to be on TV one day. He identifies as gay and is hopeful both for himself and for acceptance in the industry, especially with the increase he sees in LGBTQ characters.
“I think that there’s been better representation in the last couple years,” Howell says. “It’s also becoming more popular for people who are in the LGBTQ community to play gay characters, which is great.”
Howell grew up watching TV, and seeing gay characters not only made him want to act, but gave him confidence to be who he is.
Rollins College assistant professor of critical media and culture studies, Steve Schoen, teaches a course on media representations of gender and sexuality. Schoen, who has a doctoral degree in media studies, says that representation is more important than many people realize.
“Almost everything that we know about the world that isn’t from a direct experience is shaped by the media,” he says. “The stories that we see about people not only influence social attitudes, but they can also affect how we feel about ourselves.”
The return of Will & Grace has been met with excitement by many members of the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ gathering spaces across the country hosted watch parties for the premiere of the encore season Sep. 28, including locally. Viewing parties took place across Central Florida and Tampa Bay at places like Stonewall Bar, the Parliament House, Hamburger Mary’s Pub House and Southern Nights to name just a few, as well as in the living rooms of LGBTQIA people across the country.
In 2012, then Vice President Joe Biden went on Meet the Press to announce his complete support for same-sex marriage. This was during a time when then President Barack Obama still described himself as “evolving” on the issue. Biden cited the sitcom that had then been off-air for six years as one of his main influences on his opinion.
“I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes,” he said. “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
Will & Grace opened the door for more TV shows than ever before to feature LGBTQ characters.
There are the shows coming back or currently in production with the same prominent characters – shows like Modern Family, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and How to Get Away With Murder. These shows are not only critical successes with multiple Emmy, Screen Actor Guild and Golden Globe nominations and wins, but they are also big commercial hits with huge, rabid fanbases.
This season of FX’s American Horror Story subtitled Cult stars Sarah Paulson and Allison Pill as a married couple. AHS has had LGBTQ characters in previous seasons as well, ranging from Denis O’Hare’s trans woman Liz Taylor in Hotel to Paulson’s Lana Winters in Asylum.
The new season of CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery features Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz as the series’ first ever gay couple. Rapp talked about how important the pairing is on CBS News.
“It’s the first time two human beings were born themselves and in love with each other as the same gender,” he said. “Even that he’s Latino and I’m white. We are also colleagues. It’s part of the fabric of it.”
CBS’s show The Good Fight, a successor to The Good Wife, just aired its first season. Rose Leslie, of Game of Thrones fame, plays Maia, a woman in a stable relationship with her partner Amy. Leslie is one of three actresses, one of whom is a woman of color, who lead the show.
The Bold Type, currently airing on Freeform, has a character named Adena El-Amin, a lesbian hijab-wearing Muslim who is proud of her sexuality, played by Nikohl Boosheri.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which airs on The CW, will be returning for its third season. In season one, the character Darryl, played by Pete Gardener sings the triumphant bisexual coming out anthem “Getting Bi.” In season two, Darryl is in a relationship with another series regular, the buff gym rat White Josh. They’re still together at the end of the season and are sure to come back for season three.
These shows don’t just carry a cult following with small audiences. All of these shows, and more, are watched by enough viewers to be on major networks and make enough money to stay in production.
The television-viewing audience will also get a plethora of new LGBTQ characters coming to the small screen in 2018. ABC is rebooting the ‘90s sitcom Roseanne, which is set to feature Darlene and David’s (played by Sarah Gilbert and Johnny Galecki, respectively) nine-year-old son, Mark. He is described as “gender creative” who “displays qualities of both male and female young child traits.”
The cable network Spike (set to become the Paramount Network on Jan. 18, 2018) announced they will debut a modern day retelling of the 1988 cult film Heathers with a gay twist. In the remake, the Heathers will include a black lesbian, a plus-size woman and the leader-of-the-pack will identify as gender-queer.
AHS creator Ryan Murphy will return with a new season of American Crime Story featuring Paulson and taking on the topic of Hurricane Katrina. The two are also collaborating on a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel for Netflix expected sometime in 2018.
LGBTQ talent is appearing all over broadcast, cable and streaming television—in front of and behind the camera—and the mass American viewing audience, not just LGBTQ people, is to thank for that.
Americans do love their TV. A June 2016 study conducted by Nielsen found that at least 50 percent of Americans now have a subscription to a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. That same study says that, on average, Americans are watching just over five hours of both live and streaming television per day.
Americans’ TV habits coupled with Biden’s comments reveal that people are influenced by what they see on their TV screens. Audiences can form opinions on groups of people because of characters that belong to those groups.
Rachel Silverman, who has a doctorate degree in communication, is an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She teaches a course about gender and sexuality in which students learn about the intersection of pop culture and media in the LGBT community.
“People often don’t want to admit it, but people learn about others who are different from themselves through television,” Silverman says. “When you grow up in a community where everyone else is like you, oftentimes your knowledge of other people is from TV shows.”
For the LGBTQ community, this can have far-reaching effects.
A study conducted this year by the University of Southern California Annenburg researched the effect of a transgender character’s appearance on one episode of the USA show Royal Pains. They surveyed a group of people who regularly watched the show. It is not clear how many of those viewers are members of the LGBTQ community.
The study concludes that viewers had overall more positive attitudes toward transgender people after watching the episode. It also goes on to say that the fictional storyline influenced these people more than actual events.
Many people, including Silverman, say that a breakthrough for transgender people on television came with Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Laverne Cox’s character Sophia Burset. Cox is a transgender actress of color who plays Sophia, a transgender woman. She’s been a supporting role on the show for all five seasons.
Cox later starred in the new CBS show Doubt as a trans character. While the show only lasted one season, this was the first time in American television history that a transgender actor had a series regular role on broadcast television.
Another example is Amazon’s Transparent. The program is about a retired college professor’s transition into becoming a woman and her new life. The show first aired in 2014, a year after OITNB began. It won a Golden Globe award for best series in 2015, the first TV show centered on a transgender person to do so.
These shows are innovative in that they not only show thoroughly thought-out transgender characters, but also don’t align with TV’s typical portrayal of LGBTQ people.
Schoen says “when it comes to gay people, often what we see are young, professional, white cisgender couples who are ‘hot’ by conventional media standards.”
Silverman says that there will continue to be shows like this as long as there are writers who can tell the stories and consumers who want to watch them.
If this year’s Emmys are any indication, there are. In Waithe’s acceptance speech, she thanked the community that supported her and vowed to keep writing for them.
“And last but certainly not least my LGBTQIA family, I see each and every one of you,” Waithe said. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”