GLAAD President Challenges TV Creators to Boost Diversity: "LGBTQ People Are Everywhere: We Need to Be in Every Story"

Sarah Kate Ellis - GLAAD - H - 2019
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for GLAAD

Following the release of GLAAD's 15th annual "Where We Are on TV" report measuring the representation of LGBTQ characters across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms, the media advocacy organization held a panel Thursday at the UTA Theater in Beverly Hills to dive deeper into the findings.

The report, which also includes racial, gender and disability benchmarks to measure diversity, found a record number of LGBTQ regular and recurring characters, along with an increase in lesbian representation in the 2019-20 season. 

UTA Television agent Lucinda Moorhead greeted the guests and shared that, for her personally, finding diverse characters on TV was critical in providing support for her to come to terms with who she is. Taking the podium to give an opening address, GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis emphasized that inclusion in entertainment is impacted by the work of producers and creators. She named those who are leading the charge: Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti and Lena Waithe.

"This must be on the minds of every programmer and network head," said Ellis, adding that one in five Americans identifies somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum. She went on to clarify that "LGBTQ people are everywhere": in our post offices, grocery stories, agencies; they are in every family. "We need to be in every story," she said. "Entertainment must reflect the world in which we live."

Moderated by Dino-Ray Ramos from Deadline, the panel consisted of One Day at a Time showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett, Carol's Second Act actor Sabrina Jalees, Supergirl actor Nicole Maines, The L Word: Generation Q actor Brian Michael Smith and UTA television talent agent and partner Jacob Fenton.

Beginning the conversation, Ramos asked the panelists if they see their lives reflected on screen, and what we can do to increase representation. Kellett said that we can empower queer voices and encourage queer writers — who may eventually become showrunners — to share their voices. Identifying herself as a straight Latinx woman, Kellett spoke about the lack of Latinx representation on television when she was growing up. "I had to create a show to be represented," she said. Smith further encouraged executives to bring more queer people into the room, noting that it makes a huge difference in content. 

Jalees emphasized that an understanding of the value of queer voices is important; that the need for realism in storytelling, adding that emotional stories, told from the perspective of diverse characters, really resonates with viewers. Maines highlighted that networks must not stop when they have one or two queer characters, since LGBTQ people do frequent every real-world location. She recalled her college dorm being full of gay people. "I wouldn't see a straight person for days," she said.

Opening up about her home life, Ellis said that she feels her children "live in a straight world," because although she herself is married to a woman, her kids get excited when they see a child on TV who has two mothers.

Moving on, Ramos was curious to know if "the current moment of resistance" [a reference to post-election and the Trump era] has led to more representation in Hollywood. Jalees jumped in, saying that "it woke people up" and allowed people to focus on building their own stories. Maines agreed that there has been a "desire for resistance" since the election, in which the LGBTQ community has seen attacks from the highest office. She described people identifying a "call to action" to push against it — "battle negativity with visibility" she concluded.

Michael Smith noted that creators saw an opportunity to "show the truths" and offer an increase in representation for middle American households that need diversity exposure. "Showrunners have a platform to make changes," said Fenton, highlighting how the pilot for The Good Fight was written when the team anticipated Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election. When she didn't, they had to pivot, and the result provided an opportunity to talk about the changes that need to come in society.

Sharing more about her life, Jalees said that she was hesitant to "come out" during her stand-up comedy sets, worried that it would ruin her career. With the current representation that does exist on TV, she feels grateful to play a doctor who's gay — "I play myself really" and to know that young people are watching these stories and feeling better about who they are.

Referencing the statistic that LGBTQ women outnumber LGBTQ men for the first time in the history of the report, Ellis sees "a merging of women's movements and the #MeToo movement," where many changes are at play. One of them is that women are writing themselves, not through the male gaze. She highlighted Olivia Wilde's film Booksmart as a project that championed representation this year. "It's not about who has representation," said Maines, "it's about all the queer people being represented."

Touching upon his work in The L Word: Generation Q, Smith shared that the creative team recognized the diverse nature of people's queer experiences, especially trans-masculine men. "I'm excited to be a reflection of a trans man that I didn't have growing up," he said. He added that — before his transition — an acting teacher once criticized his decision to use a scene from Clerks for a class assignment, telling him, "As a black woman, you'd never be cast in that." The comment initially set him back from pursuing his career to its full potential, but eventually fueled him to take his ambition further.

As network TV's first trans superhero, Maines said that she is shocked by the amount of support she's received from the cisgender community. "It's heartening to see that our characters are resonating with those outside [of the LGBTQ community]," she shared, noting that there's still a long way to go. 

During a question-and-answer portion of the program, an audience member noted the lack of nonbinary people on TV. Megan Townsend, the primary author of the report and GLAAD's director of research entertainment and analysis, highlighted the need for creators to seek out the voices of nonbinary individuals and "bring them into the room." Ellis shared that GLAAD is currently conducting research on trans and nonbinary people and finding "a lot of confusion" around the latter term. "Confusion is weaponized into fear," she said, emphasizing that "we all live on a spectrum" and there is a necessity for diverse experiences to be shared in order to come to a firmer understanding. 

As the panel drew to a close, a topic for "another day" came into focus: the idea of LGBTQ people — specifically those who are trans — playing cisgender characters on TV and vice versa. Kellett identified this as a "tricky" thing, due to the fact that TV creators are legally not allowed to ask the sexual orientation of actors when they are pursuing roles. Often, they approach actors who are "already out" to curb this issue.

Summarizing the matter simply, Smith said: "Who's the best actor for the thing?"