The media’s portrayal of queer and trans people over the years has changed from them being comic relief to being strong, leading roles.
Vanessa Del Carpio
If you turn on the television to any current popular show, it won’t be hard to find a gay or lesbian character. In MuchMusic’s hit show Pretty Little Liars, the character of Emily Fields is shown facing the challenges of being lesbian; Modern Family, ABC’s Emmy-award winning comedy highlights the lives of Mitchell and Cameron, a loving middle-aged gay couple.
There is no question that current mainstream television shows have gay characters and these characters have moved on from playing relatively minor parts.
“The portrayal of gay characters has improved, in the sense that main characters, at least, are presented in more complex and rounded ways as opposed to being merely superficial ‘props’ in the background or used for humorous effect,” says Andreas Kitzmann, associate professor of humanities at York.
One show has risen above many to become one of the most watched shows on television: Glee. When you mention the words “gay” and “media”, Kurt from Glee fits the description.
“Glee stands out as a very robust example, having given us a wonderful, intelligent, creative space with which to explore high school as a cauldron for gender identity,” says Jennifer Peterson, a York professor of communications.
But Kurt is more than a run-of-the-mill portrayal of a gay character. In Glee, the power over representation of Kurt is not in the hands of a distant, heterosexual creator or writer. It is squarely under the control of Ryan Murphy, the show’s openly gay creator. Murphy has even stated that the scene where Kurt comes out to his father was modelled after his own revelation to his father. And because Murphy feels gay characters don’t have “happy endings” in the media, he is seeking to change this and give Kurt one.
It was because of “behind-the-scenes” producers, writers, and directors from the queer community like Murphy that today things have changed. The non-existent gay character in media has slowly grown into a collection of relatable characters.
Raisa Bhuiyan, coordinator of student club Feminist Action and its Queering Disney event, a workshop that will discuss queer representations in Disney movies, notes that those who are part of the queer and trans community help bridge the gap between media representation and gay portrayal.
“With more people from LGBTQTI2 (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Transsexual, Intersex, and Two-Spirit) getting behind running media sources, Bhuiyan says, “a more authentic portrayal will emerge. […] I also think it’s super cool to see how these community members make media to show [how] they see themselves, rather than other people’s representations of their cultural practises.”
On-camera celebrities who have publicly “come out” have also helped change the powerful influence over media portrayals of queer peoples. Recently, countless celebrities have come out as part of the queer community, including Ricky Martin, Wanda Sykes, Anna Paquin, Amber Heard, and Chaz Bono. Not only did they widen public perception of queer peoples to include those beyond the now familiar gay, white male, but they also influenced others to come out.
There are also activist groups who have fought hard to make sure the media’s portrayal of queer peoples changed for the better. Case in point, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which strives to hold the media accountable when they create products that defame and stereotype queer people, and, through its media awards, to reward media and celebrities that promote understanding, equality, and acceptance. As a self-described media watchdog, GLAAD positively sways current and future media representations of queer peoples.
But ultimately, if the media’s portrayal of queer people is to stay positive in the future, they need to broaden their perspective.
“Media production teams would need to shine their powerful lights on the stories of queer people who don’t get represented [in] mainstream depictions of gay people, like racialized queer peoples and indigenous two spirit[s],” says Bhuiyan. “Typically whenever a gay character is introduced on our current TV shows, like Glee and Degrassi, it’s usually a white male, as though [that] is representative of all gay people everywhere. Only recently did we […] start seeing more depictions of lesbian relationships, and queer story-lines finally involving people of colour.”
“North America seems to be making progress in media portrayal of gay characters and issues,” Kitzmann says. “We may wish to view the issue as resolved, but in truth there is still work to be done [for a positive future].”
And in this we may have more power than we realize.
“Mainstream media is usually playing catch-up with social trends and values as opposed to being a vanguard,” says Kitzmann. “So [since] society in general has become more accepting of a diversity of lifestyles and gender/sex roles […] this acceptance is gradually finding its way into the mainstream media.”
When asked how big of a role society plays in media representations of queer peoples, Peterson confidently declares: “More than they seem able to admit or imagine.”