Torching the Flamer: LGBT Characters on TV

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Published on May 2, 2015

The limp-wristed lisping man and the hairy-legged, plaid-wearing woman have long been the stereotypes of gays and lesbians in films or television shows. Yet as teenagers and young adults are increasingly open with their homosexuality, are the on-screen portrayals still falling back on tired cliches?

The US advocacy organization the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, was created in 1985 in an effort to bring about awareness and lobby for changes in homophobic or other discriminating content in the media.

In GLAAD’s 2014 Where We Are on TV Report the numbers show that the presence of gay characters has increased from last year. There are 33 recurring LGBT characters on prime time shows like Modern Family, and Downton Abbey. Beyond those, cable shows are slightly more impressive with 64 and counting LGBT characters in series such as Orphan Black, Lost Girl, and The Fosters.

Felix in Orphan Black; Bo in Lost Girl’ and Jude in The Fosters, are just a few of the recent characters the identify as LGBTQ in popular TV shows today. Images from IMDB.

Felix in Orphan Black; Bo in Lost Girl,  and Jude in The Fosters are just a few of the recent characters the identify as LGBTQ in popular TV shows today. Images from IMDB.

At Housatonic, The Unity Club was formed in 2001 as a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) for students, but since then has stepped away from the label and instead is described as all inclusive, “promoting unity. . . diversity [and] awareness. . . between and amongst individuals of various backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles”.

Members of the Unity club weighed in on the ways current LGBT portrayals are succeeding and failing.

One member, Emily Bump, says the most typical LGBT characters on TV shows, “[are] never just there,” and they’re typically, “a punch line to joke.”

Marlene Kinchen, another Unity member, agrees and adds, “[They’re] not taken seriously. [The] gay man [is] characterized as being fashion forward, wearing a scarf and hanging with the girls. Woman always want that gay best friend, but they’re just as human as anyone. They should be friends with them because of who they are not what they are.”

As if that weren’t enough, “gay and trans characters in crime, horror, or non-comedy shows are either the victim or the murderer,” and it’s not going to be a “happy ending for them,” says Unity member Ace Rickers.

In 2011 a columnist Michael Jensen writing for the website critized the lack of gay characters on Disney channel. In an interview with Disney Channel President Gary Marsh it came out that the network refused to address including LGBT characters to any of their shows. They’d rather viewers “interpret’’ them.

Jensen argued, “Why is [it]. . . two of the straight characters [can] go out on a date. Why does the gay kid have to settle for interpreting?”

Yet in 2014 things did take a turn.

“I was very happy with an episode of Good Luck Charlie,” Bump said.  She explained how the titled character, a  female toddler named Charlie, went on a play date with another baby who had two mothers. “It was the first time something like this was ever on Disney Channel.”

A 2014 Harris Poll result shares that 29% of non LGBT American parents would be uncomfortable having their child play with other children in the home of gay fathers or lesbian mothers. By including this scene, the network is making some strides towards normalizing gay characters and families.

When it comes to that topic, Bump explains that The Fosters is a good example.

The ABC Family show follows an interracial lesbian couple with their biological, adopted, and foster children. “They deal with regular things about being a family . . . [and] other things about problems that people who are gay deal with,” but it’s not focused on their homosexuality alone, nor is it for the voyeuristic pleasure of viewers, Bump says. There are also “legal issues, the fact that they’re both women,[and] their co-parenting.”

In 2011 Glee was praised by Entertainment Weekly and featured boyfriends Blaine and Kurt on the front cover of the magazine. EW cited the show as being a  “bold new class of young gay characters . . . [that] is changing hearts, minds & Hollywood.” Yet the Unity members weren’t impressed.

Glee is over the top,” Bump said.

Another Unity Club member, Brandon Ortiz, added that those gay characters are, “more like caricatures” than anything.

However, openly gay HCC English Professor Kirk Hughes weighed in and said while the criticisms are there, he commends Kurt’s relationship with his father and step-brother and says that “makes for effective TV.”

Hughes continued we live in a “very heteronormative society” and says it’s a “big deal to have an out relationship” shown more frequently on TV.

“People’s worlds can be very small, so when we have TV and access to other things [beyond where we live] it’s no small thing.”

Queer baiting is a also common trend on TV shows that’s been rubbing Unity club members the wrong way.

Bump explains it’s when, “Writers make sexual tension and flirting between characters to get audience but they never intend to make them a couple [because] they don’t want to count out big audiences,” and expressed her dislike of the recurrent trend.

Some of the Unity club members went on to make references to Watson’s and Sherlock’s relationship in the BBC show Sherlock as an example.

Yet Hughes had different take on Sherlock and says Sherlock and Watson’s relationship is “much more complicated with much not fully expressed which is true to life.”

Some shows are moving forward and taking a positive angle that doesn’t focus on LGBTQ characters as struggling with being gay, or defined by their homosexuality. Stacey Horn,  a University of Illinois-Chicago professor of psychology,  said in a Newsweek article, this “is a good trend. . . [and] it shows people as complex human beings.”

“The Walking Dead added a gay couple,’’ says Rickers, and while their relationship has been, “consistent, [the show] hasn’t had them together as a couple on screen too often.’’

Kyle Coriza, a trans member of the Unity Club, said on TV trans characters are “ultra feminine or ultra masculine,’’ but Sofia from Orange is the New Black sends out a more positive image. The actress who plays Sofia, Laverne Cox, is a transgendered woman in real life as well.

GLAAD’s 2014 TV report says, “Orange is the New Black. . . contains more lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters than nearly any broadcast or cable series currently on the air.”

Ultimately, LGBT characters are getting more screen time than ever before. They are now leads or side characters in series ranging from family sitcoms, to paranormal thrillers, to teen dramas, and their voices are being heard by more people. Sure there are still plenty of gay panic gags, and the song and dance effeminate gays are the types that are depicted the most often.

But what doesn’t change is that LGBT characters are not only more visible in popular culture, but their own identities, or the relationships they have with others are increasingly being normalized. It might be some time before a more diverse spectrum of LGBT characters is widespread across networks but until then they’re queer, they’re here, and they’re in no short demand.