GLAAD, Gay Characters Continue to Make Strides

Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC

“There are more and better portrayals ever year in Hollywood,” says group president Jarrett Barrios.

"It's really romantic, it's not about the politics," Grey's Anatomy co-star Jessica Capshaw says of an upcoming wedding on the medical drama. The wedding she's referring to, however, could have been a political story as it's between Capshaw's Arizona Robbins and Sara Ramirez's Callie Torres and gay marriage isn't legally recognized in Washington.

While programming like ABC’s Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy as well as Focus Features’ The Kids Are All Right serve as strong examples of how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters have evolved, there are great strides still to come for entertainment fare that tells the story of LGBT individuals.
As LGBT characters in film and television have grown in number and scope, so, too, has the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s annual awards. This year’s 22nd annual GLAAD Awards - part of the organization’s 25th anniversary - sees prizes handed out in a slew of categories recognizing film, TV and new media, a far cry from the lone TV category that existed in 1990, when L.A. Law, As the World Turns and The Tracey Ullman Show were among those honored.
“The room was a lot smaller and the nominee list was a lot shorter,” GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios says of those early awards, the first of which didn’t include a film category. “Perhaps the greatest change over the years is that there are more and better portrayals every year in Hollywood. We’re seeing more deeper and complex story lines involving LGBT characters.” 
Barrios noted that early GLAAD Award winners today might not even earn a nomination as the inclusion of LGBT stories has grown. He cites HBO’s True Blood — which picked up this year’s GLAAD Award for best drama — and Fox’s Glee — last year’s comedy winner — as standouts in promoting the growth of LGBT characters.
“We’ve seen individual shows raising the bar to new levels,” says Barrios, who has topped GLAAD since September 2009. “Shows like True Blood or Glee where there are multiple characters telling stories that have been untold: like the story of Kurt [Chris Colfer] on Glee. His aspirations in life and challenges with bullying; you see his love life told just like other teens on the show on equal footing with the other characters. That’s what’s average.”
The evolution of LGBT characters has also made its way to film, most notably this year with The Kids Are All Right, the story of a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose kids meet their biological father. Out writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s film picked up four Academy Award nominations, including best picture.
“Gay and lesbian families have really become visible in the past year or two with Modern Family, now in its second season, going deeper into the lives of its gay characters with their daughter, and then with the story line in The Kids Are All Right and its two middle-aged women raising their teenage children and encountering many of the same challenges that so many families face,” Barrios says. “[The film] doesn’t paint over the challenges we face nor does it leave them in a stereotypical box.”
“It’s important to tell these diverse stories,” he adds. “To tell the story of gay and lesbian families, the stories of our kids, the story of our values or our difficulties not being able to get married. Telling the story of gay and lesbian homes of different economic classes and different racial and ethnic groups. These are stories that will help America understand who we are and the fullness of our diversity and the fullness of our aspirations and challenges.” 
But while the LGBT community has made significant gains, there’s still work to be done, according to NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who this month receives GLAAD’s Stephen F. Kolzak Award, which is presented to an openly LGBT media professional who has made a difference in promoting equality for the community.
“There are advances and backtracks,” says Greenblatt, who as former president of entertainment at Showtime - and before that as executive vp primetime programming at Fox - helped bring numerous LGBT characters to the screen in fare including The L Word, Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara.
“When I was at Fox, I was involved with Aaron Spelling in the very first incarnation of Melrose Place,  which had a gay character on it and in 1993 and ’94 was kind of revolutionary,” he says of MP’s Matt Fielding (played by Doug Savant). “We had issues about if Matt could have an on-screen kiss, which wasn’t commonplace on ABC and other broadcast networks.”
“[LGBT representation] has been slowly advancing, but I think there’s still a lot of work to do. The different networks have different kinds of approaches to this sort of thing. The cable networks are very, very open to advancing LGBT characters. It’s much harder to get done on the broadcast networks.”
“Every now and then there’s a Modern Family -- a big hit show with gay characters in it and everything moves forward,” he says. “Yet I still don’t think the broadcast networks do enough at the end of the day.”
Greenblatt notes that programming for conservative areas of the country is part of the problem when it comes to including dynamic LGBT characters in broadcast fare.
“You’re trying to program things to areas of the country that are more conservative - the South and things like that,” he says. “I think the more narrow the characters seem, the harder it’s going to be to embrace the largest audience. Modern Family has something for everyone: they have straight characters, gay characters, Latino characters, white characters and young and old. It’s a really genius way to embrace everybody.”
Greenblatt, who also produced Alan Ball’s HBO’s Emmy- and GLAAD Award-winning drama Six Feet Under, inherited Queer as Folk when he arrived at Showtime and had hoped its success would have caught on.
“I wish that the success of Queer as Folk and The L Word had spawned dozens and dozens of shows all across the TV landscape that had all kinds of gay characters,” he says. “I think there’s been some progress. You see Brothers and Sisters on ABC; there are gay characters in various shows here and there, but I think it’s a process. Some years it sort of pushes forward and some years it doesn’t.”
“I think it’s always going to be more organic to shows created by gay and lesbian writers and producers,” notes Greenblatt, whose pilot orders include writer Jhoni Marchinko’s I Hate That I Love You, a comedy revolving around two lesbians.
“At the end of the day I feel very fortunate to be in a place where I can say to Jhoni Marchinko, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make that pilot,’ ” he says. “It didn’t have to go through rounds and rounds of people convincing somebody to do a show with two lesbian characters. Hopefully it will get on, but it didn’t have to go through any real hurdles in getting toward the pilot.”