Not all representation is helpful representation. Below, I list a few of the ways we can improve LGTBQIA representation in visual media, as well as a suggestion for each category.
- Center LGBTQIA identities as one part of a normal and lovely aspect of our identity, not some “deviant” alternative identity that occupies the entirety of a person’s life. People are far more nuanced and interesting than just our sexual or gender identity. Several reality shows do this well, namely, many seasons of Great British Bake Off and every season of Glow Up.
- Portray character development in more complex ways than just coming out. While it is important to portray the reality of coming out, showing how characters grow in multiple ways will allow for deeper audience connection. Schitt’s Creek does this beautifully.
- Accurately show Black, Indigenous, Latiné, and Asian LGBTQIA people. The Watermelon Woman is a complex and gorgeous example of how this can be done. Reservation Dogs is another of my favorites and I can’t wait for the new season.
- Accurately show disabled and neurodivergent LGBTQIA people. Special is written by and stars Ryan O’Connell, a gay man with cerebral palsy. It’s funny and real, a difficult combination to get right.
- People in the LGBTQIA community need to tell and act the stories. LGBTQIA identities aren’t just re-writes of cisgender/heterosexual identities, and that sort of intimate, real-world writing can only come from someone in the community. Fortunately, this is happening more and more. Umbrella Academy and Steven Universe are two powerful examples.
- Fight bi/pan conversion therapy. Being bi/pan doesn’t mean someone becomes straight if they have a relationship with someone of the opposite gender. First of all, because there are so many genders that there really isn’t an “opposite” gender. Second of all, that isn’t how being bi/pan works: it’s an identity, not a t-shirt. Owl House handles this topic (and many others) in a fun, age-appropriate way. Heartstopper is another good source for bi-discovery.
- Quit outing LGBTQIA characters as a major plot point. The consequences for an LGBTQ person being outed range from a minor shoulder shrug to the literal death of the LGBTQ person. We don’t need more movies that show a traumatic outcome for LGBTQ people. Additionally, repairing a friendship after being outed takes more than a smile and an invitation to reengage. The relationship may never be repaired. All of these issues, which are very real and important, are so focused on in the context of LGBTQ representation that it’s become cliche. Not only is it boring, but it’s a form of trauma porn and we don’t need it. She-Ra Princess of Power and Better Things are two examples of doing this better.
- Show characters who know who they are from a young age and live openly as well as characters who are going through the process of learning about themselves. Both are valid, and both show the reality of how we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world. Young Royals, Sex Education and Hearstopper have lovely plot lines around the complexity of knowing gender/sexual/romantic identity. If I’m honest, I would recommend these three for every category because I love them so much.
- Model friends and family maintaining strong relationships with the LGBTQ character. Modeling better behavior encourages people to do better. On a hopeful note, the younger generation is less likely to abandon a friend for “coming out.” Many LGB teens now don’t have an official “coming out.” They date who they date and they don’t grill each other about it. For trans youth, the situation may be different depending on when they start living their authentic gender. If a child knows when they’re 5 that they’re trans or non-binary or gender fluid, they don’t need to have a big coming out moment because their peer group has always known them in that context. Show this path, too. Star Trek—Discovery rocks at this. I also recommend the reboot of One Day at a Time. They also show love and support for each other in ways that some shows don’t.
- Just as a straight person isn’t responsible for someone else’s romantic feelings for them, it is not the job of the gay character to know when their straight friends are in love with them. Nor should they be responsible for how a straight person responds to being rejected. In fact, can we just stop with the trope of “straight character/gay character in love?” Crush and Single All the Way demonstrate this.
- Gay people do not need to perform romance for straight people. At the end of Love, Simon, there’s a sweet, but very public, kiss. And it is adorable. It gives me all the feelings. However, gay people have been physically attacked for refusing to kiss each other in front of straight people. Gay people are not here to entertain straight people. They do not owe anyone a performance of their sexuality or romantic attachment. How to Get Away With Murder and Our Flag Means Death are pretty cool and, as far as I remember, there’s no “public performance LGB sexuality for the entertainment of straight folks” plot line. And with Viola Davis in HTGAQM and Taika Waititi in OFMD, they’re glorious shows to watch.
- LGBTQIA people don’t need to be rescued by cisgender, heterosexual people, so let’s stop showing that entire theme. That isn’t good allyship and it reinforces a false narrative that LGBTQI people need be saved. Relatedly, while cisgender, heterosexual people shouldn’t rely on the LGBTQIA community to solve all our problems, there are amazing ways the LGBTQIA community has shown up for other historically oppressed people. While I haven’t seen a movie about it, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers worked (still work) for the liberation of gay people. If you know a movie about it, I would love to have some recommendations. Another example is Pride, a movie which portrays the true story of the lesbian and gay community’s support for the British miners’ strike in 1984.
- If LGBTQ people are the antagonist, it should not be because of their LGBTQ identity. And it should never, ever be about pedophilia. We’ve had enough of that grotesque myth and it literally kills LGBTQ people. Pose handles this well. The characters are nuanced, sometimes showing up in amazing ways and sometimes failing. Just like real life.
Sense8, Shadow and Bone, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton Cafeteria; The Other Two.