Broadcast TV Increases LGBTQ Regulars and Lesbian Representation, Study Finds

Batwoman - Pilot -Ruby Rose as Kate Kane -The CW Publicity-H 2019
Elizabeth Morris/The CW

Broadcast television is including a record number of LGBTQ series regulars and featuring an increased offering of lesbian representation and characters who exhibit racial diversity, according to media advocacy organization GLAAD's annual "Where We Are on TV" report examining the 2019-20 season. 

The report, published Thursday, indicates overall significant growth in diversity, with LGBTQ characters comprising 10.2 percent of all series regulars on primetime scripted broadcast shows. (That is a 1.4 percent increase from last year's 8.8 percent.) The updated figure signals the highest percentage that GLAAD has uncovered since it began tracking such data in the 2005-06 season.

Among those characters, 22 percent are black, 13 percent are Latinx and 8 percent are Asian Pacific Islander, which represents an equal high for black and Asian Pacific Islander characters since last year and a new high for Latinx characters. Of all the broadcast networks, ABC offers the most Latinx representation, largely due to the cast of its upcoming comedy The Baker and the Beauty and the recently cancelled series Grand Hotel.

On broadcast TV, the representation of women has hit a new high of 46 percent of the 879 series regular characters counted on primetime television shows; however, the report emphasizes that this figure still underrepresents the reality that woman make up 51 percent of the U.S. population. 

For the first time in the report's history, LGBTQ regular and recurring women outnumber LGBTQ men on broadcast TV, with 53 percent women and 47 percent men. "This increase is exciting to see, given that LGBTQ women have been historically underrepresented in media," states GLAAD in its report. 

Lesbian representation is seeing a notable increase, with 33 percent of series regular and recurring characters falling in that category — an 8 point increase from last year. Notably, The CW's Batwoman is set to make history when it debuts this fall with the first lesbian superhero lead character, played by Australian actress Ruby Rose. 

Bisexual representation has dropped to 25 percent, a decrease of 4 percentage points. "In the real world, bisexual people actually make up the majority of the community," states the report, elaborating that UCLA's The Williams Institute has collected data which shows that bi+ people comprise 52 percent of LGBTQ people. Indicating a pattern, gay men continue to make up the majority of LGBTQ characters on broadcast TV with 38 percent of the total 120 regular and recurring LGBTQ characters.

This is the third year that GLAAD has counted asexual characters in its report, finding that their representation in primetime scripted television remains insignificant. The only existing asexual character is Aaron Paul's Todd Chavez on Netflix's Bojack Horseman cartoon, which is in its final season.

“Last year, GLAAD called on the television industry to increase the number of LGBTQ characters and more accurately reflect the world we live in, and they responded by exceeding this challenge,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement. “At a time when the cultural climate is growing increasingly divisive, increased representation of LGBTQ stories and characters on television is especially critical to advance LGBTQ acceptance. Shows like Pose, Schitt’s Creek, Batwoman and Billions demonstrate that not only are LGBTQ stories and characters on TV becoming more diverse, but that viewers everywhere continue to respond with extreme positivity.” 

The report additionally finds that representation is up half a percentage point this year with regard to the total number of transgender characters, landing at 5.8 percent, or seven characters. Ellis underlines the importance of trans representation in the report by noting that the Public Religion Research Institute found that less than one quarter of Americans have a close friend or family member who is transgender, "so the overwhelming majority of Americans learn about trans people from what they see in television, movies and news."

As the organization finds a slight increase in the number of characters with HIV/AIDS, it also takes the opportunity to highlight the "stigma and harmful stereotypes" surrounding those who live with HIV and AIDS, urging storytellers to consider complex character studies instead of defaulting to negative stereotypes. Characters with disabilities have also increased, now up to 3.1 percent; this figure, however, pales in comparison to the actual number of the U.S. population with disabilities.

Repeating its position from last year, The CW sits in first place among the broadcast networks that offer LGBTQ inclusion, with Black Lightning, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow highlighted for their diverse casts. NBC follows, with ABC, Fox and CBS completing the top five. Showtime and Netflix lead across cable and streaming, respectively.

GLAAD director of entertainment research and analysis Megan Townsend indicates that the general results are positive, with "great progress" toward a more inclusive television landscape along with "a welcome increases of transgender men and queer women in upcoming programming." But there is still work to be done, she emphasizes. "Programming from four dedicated producers and creators who prioritize inclusion, Greg Berlanti, Lena Waithe, Ryan Murphy, and Shonda Rhimes, accounts for 14 percent of total LGBTQ characters across broadcast, cable, and streaming originals. We hope to see all networks follow their lead, and work towards reflecting the reality of their audience and the culture.”

Since GLAAD began its annual "Where We Are on TV" report 24 years ago, the number of LGBTQ series regular and recurring characters on broadcast television has risen from 12 to 120. "Yet, our community finds itself in 2019 facing unprecedented attacks on our progress," says Ellis. 

In concluding the report, Ellis issues a new challenge to creators: "GLAAD is calling on the industry to ensure that 20 percent of series regular characters on prime scripted broadcast series are LGBTQ by 2025." Further, GLAAD would like to challenge all platforms to make sure that in the next two years, half the LGBTQ characters on every platform are people of color.

"The role of television in changing hearts and minds has never been more important," urges Ellis. "Indeed, our nation's cultural institutions are being called to stand in the gap at this tumultuous time in the history of our movement for full acceptance."