Editors' Note: Guest blogger Phil Reese began his career of LGBT advocacy in central Michigan and now resides in Champaign, IL where he teaches Middle School and attends graduate school at the University of Illinois. Phil is passionate about news, social networking, information science and mobilizing LGBT people to become more active in their communities.
Yesterday, GLAAD released its Network Responsibility Index report for 2009, ranking the top broadcast and cable networks on their LGBT inclusivity in programming. ABC led the broadcast networks this year with depictions like Ugly Betty's gay Ken-doll Marc, played by Michael Urie, among other depictions on other shows. HBO led the cable networks with shows like gay-created True Blood, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and Big Love; with over 42% of programming being LGBT inclusive.
We're not surprised that there were so many cable networks that ranked high on the index; #2 Showtime's programming consisted of 24% LGBT-inclusive programming, #3 TNT dedicated 19% of its hours to LGBT-inclusive content, #4 MTV 17% (really, only 17?), and #5 Lifetime--the in-denial fourth gay network--had 14%. This was all while the Network's rankings topped out at ABC's 24% and went down from there to CW's 20%, Fox's 11%, NBC's 8% (way to drop the ball, home of Will & Grace), and CBS (MTV's big sister?) at 5%.
Though it's really fun and affirming to see ourselves represented on television, the important question here is how many positive representations of LGBTs is mainstream America being exposed to? The answer is not a whole lot. Remember, these percentages represent ALL representations of LGBT people, not just positive. This isn't like HRC's Corporate Equality Index where the score goes down when a company gives money to anti-gay causes. This is percentage of total screen time. So while Fox showed us in 11% of programming, plenty of that included problematic depictions like Andrew on Sit Down and Shut Up and the explosive and uncontested homophobia from So You Think You Can Dance judge Nigel Lythgoe.
A second problem with this list is that while HBO, Showtime, ABC and CW all received a rating of "Good" and many others like TNT, MTV, Lifetime and Fox received "Adequate," no networks received an "Excellent." And why should anyone receive an "Excellent?" Calling the networks' depictions 'LGBT' is a little bit misleading, since they really were lGb. Only ABC, CW, Showtime and MTV even made significant forays into introducing Transgender storylines. In addition, most of these predominately gay male depictions were also predominately white--with CW being the only network to feature African American depictions in more than 25% of its LGBT-inclusive programming.
In all, while ABC was the best overall, it was also the whitest of the broadcast networks--only having one hour of original content (out of 1,146) that featured a black LGBT person, 68 instances of LGBT Latino or Latina characters and 19 instances of Asian-Pacific-Islander LGBT people. Though that's not as embarrassing as A&E's 100% gay white male depictions (they only had 1 LGBT depiction overall). TBS, I suppose, tried to make up for A&E by making its SINGLE elusive My Boys instance of LGBT-inclusive programming feature a gay African American man... who goes on a date with a girl.
So while we're seeing LGBT characters on TV more than ever, what are we reaping? Mainstream America is seeing depictions of wealthy gay white men with commitment issues, sexually voracious and unquenchable bisexual white men, sexless and straight-girl-doting gay white men; and every once in a while a deceptive transgender character, a barking cropped-hair lesbian, and--if we're real lucky--the Pokaroo comes around with a gay African American or Latina character for a few moments and then POOF disappears again before any of us are back from the kitchen with our snacks.
Though I don't think that having more rounded depictions of Transgender people, or LGBT people of color is going to help us change everyone's minds and open the door to Equality tomorrow, how the hell are we going to change anyone's minds if all America sees just reconfirms mainstream-held gay stereotypes? These safe depictions of the harmless, sexless, always helpful, trendy, never uppity, sycophant gay white man may be easy for the public to swallow--and thus be a foot in the door for making them realize that they can, in fact, like gay people--but these depictions do us no favors in our goal of changing hearts. Equality will fare best with more allies. Part of a strategy to win Equality needs to include putting greater pressure on the networks to make LGBT characters more complex, more diverse, and more like the other characters--with lives, loves and sex-drives (though not ridiculous and insatiable sex-drives).
What about a sitcom about an African American family with two moms? America loved the Cosbys, what about the Lesbys? However we do it, we have to push networks to treat our lives fairly when they're using us on screen, because there is EXCELLENT potential to get Americans of all backgrounds to buy into full Equality once they've welcomed us into their living rooms.