Where are the over 30 queer TV characters?

Ella Gilbert 16 January 2022

The breadth and diversity in backgrounds of queer people is unfortunately still not completely captured by characters in film & TV

Representation of the LGBTQ+ community on our screens has come a long way in the last few decades but is still far from accurate. Scripts and casting tend to stick to the same archetypal characters and repetitive plotlines.

Although unintentional, it often appears that the same token gay has been added simply to fill a diversity quota, with less dimension and complexity to these characters than we see in their cishet (cisgender, meaning gender identity corresponds with sex identified at birth, and heterosexual) counterparts.

How is the LGBTQ+ community represented on screens?

The main feature queer characters have in TV and film focuses on the plight of being queer and identity struggles. These topics are undoubtedly important and need to be addressed on our screens but it becomes exhausting when it’s the only representation you ever see of yourself. But there’s so much more to life as a queer person than coming out or tackling homophobia, and it can be frustrating or disheartening when TV and film only ever focus on the same storylines. Queerness is beautiful in its diversity and other sides of our lives deserve to be represented in the media too.

So, what’s missing? The struggles of the LGBTQ+ community should be incorporated into TV and film but addressing more than just the handful of issues that writers currently feel comfortable discussing. Seeing characters being misgendered or queer couples navigating fertility, for example, could provide a breath of fresh air in between the sometimes-overdone classic LGBTQ+ storylines.

"Queerness is beautiful in its diversity and other sides of our lives deserve to be represented in the media too"

Aside from LGBTQ+ specific topics, there is also a distinct lack of queer characters doing everyday things. Being queer is a huge part of my life, but it’s not the only thing in my life. In order to normalise various genders and sexualities, their everyday lives need to be represented.

The tendency of writers and producers to make a queer character’s gender or sexuality their only personality trait is a harmful stereotype that fuels casual homophobia. People who aren’t acquainted with the LGBTQ+ community are often led by the media to think that they won’t have anything in common with queer people, that they are so different that it’s easier to avoid them altogether.

The token camp gay man and other limited queer stereotypes

Few LGBTQ+ stereotypes frequent our screens quite as much as the “token gay”. Typically, this character takes the form of  a young, camp, gay man who is friends with a gaggle of girls, likes to drink fruity cocktails, and loves Lady Gaga. While people like this do exist, they aren’t representative of a lot of the community, and having these interests doesn’t necessarily equate to being gay.

The media reinforces a few specific images of what different genders and sexualities look like, which leaves many feeling that they don’t belong. Sexuality and gender have different expressions and present different experiences for everyone so it’s unrealistic to portray the entire community through only a select few stereotypes.

The constant linking between sexuality and storyline has led to a reliance on stock characters and an unrealistic image of what queer people actually look and act like. If you only recognised the types of LGBTQ+ characters featured in TV shows and films, you’d be baffled when you entered the real world.

As a femme-presenting woman in a relationship with another woman, I have to come out to people several times a week. The default assumption for someone who looks like me is that they must be straight.

Similarly, a man who likes to dance or is expressive of his emotions is immediately assumed to be gay. The media has a powerful platform where they could help change our default perceptions of people or at least make us think. Queer people vary massively in interests and appearance so why are they always presented in very similar ways on screen?

"Queer people vary massively in interests and appearance so why are they always presented in very similar ways on screen?"

Age and the LGBTQ+ community in the media

Queer people aren’t a new phenomenon, not even on our screens. However, the way in which they’re often portrayed makes it seem like they are. Older queer characters rarely grace our screens; you can almost count the amount of explicitly LGBTQ+ characters above 30 on one hand.

The trailer for Supernova immediately excited me because it centered around an old gay couple. It’s saddening, that shouldn’t be enough of a rarity to excite. There are queer couples in our society with adult children, yet we only ever see queer couples in film and TV getting married or beginning to think about starting families.

It should be acknowledged that older characters of any and all sexualities don’t tend to hold spotlight roles, which is part of the larger societal issue of ageism. Older queer people are regularly forgotten or pushed aside in any image of the LGBTQ+ community and film and TV are no exceptions.

It’s frustrating to never see your own future in the media. Production companies have made various attempts to become more inclusive but most keep taking the same steps to include the same few.

"It’s frustrating to never see your own future in the media"

Not every queer person is a Kurt Hummel (Glee) or a Big Boo (Orange Is The New Black) and many are left instead relating to queerbaited characters or feeling ignored entirely. It’s daunting for anyone to think about their own futures but young LGBTQ+ people are going in blind with little to no representation of what their life might look like in the future.

Representation matters

Representation for queer people is expanding rapidly, particularly among younger casts, characters and producers. Laurie Nunn, the young creator and writer of Netflix’s Sex Education, wrote a series that features characters with a multitude of different identities and their explorations of them.

I’m optimistic that this will only improve in the coming years. The world of media is ready to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. To keep up with the world, producers and writers desperately need to diversify their portrayal of queer characters and storylines. Sticking to stereotypes is unnecessarily cautious, continues to isolate the underrepresented and is no longer acceptable.

Representation matters. The joy I feel in seeing characters like myself on screen is both heart-warming and saddening at the same time. It shouldn’t be something to be excited over. I’m a normal person living a normal life, why am I left to feel abnormal within the media? Cishet people see characters of a variety of ages and backgrounds like themselves, it should be no different for anybody else. 

Read more: 3 Films to watch this January

Read more: The evolving language of sexualities

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