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How LGBT Characters On TV Have Helped Queer Culture Become (Almost) Mainstream

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How LGBT Characters On TV Have Helped Queer Culture Go Mainstream (Well, Almost...)

In the last ten years, queer studies and queer visibility have left the elite circles of academia and have infiltrated all facets of life — from Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to the plotlines of mainstream television.

That’s a big change after generations of LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and more) folks being denied basic human and civil rights — let alone queer representation in the media.

Twenty years ago, the hit NBC sitcom Will and Grace featured one of the only queer recurrent plotlines on network television.

Currently there are more queer characters on television than ever.

With the relaunch of The L Word, the Showtime network hit in the mid-2000's, and queer characters such as Stella Carlin (played Ruby Rose) on Orange Is the New Black, we are starting to see an even wider representation of queerness on TV.

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And in the title role of Batwoman in the Arrowverse superhero lineup is Ruby Rose from OITNB. Today's Batwoman is not only an out lesbian character on TV, she is played by a queer woman herself. Casting LGBTQ+ actors in queer roles is critical. Decisions such as these show just how hopeful the future may be for queer representation on cable and streaming networks.

Over on network TV, ongoing queer plotlines on Grey’s Anatomy included Dr. Calley Torres and Dr. Arizona Robbins saga. In addition, Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Nico Kim and Dr. Levi Schmitt’s storyline was one of the first gay male bi-racial storylines on television.

While it may seem normal now to see lesbian and gay characters on TV, the rise of queer visibility has been a long time coming — and there is still progress to be made, especially for accurate portrayals of other queer folks on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and the hiring of queer actors to play queer characters. Representation matters, and it is something society needs to continue working toward.

According to GLADD’s 2018 annual report on the representation of the LBGTQ+ community in media, of the 857 regular characters expected to appear on broadcast scripted primetime programming this season, 75 (8.8%) were queer. This is in comparison to 2016-17, where only 43 (4.8%) of characters were LGBTQ+ identified.

With this newfound interest, queer identity is becoming almost mainstream.

Despite the growing visibility of queerness in social spaces, my own queer identity wasn't fully formed until graduate school.

Prior to this, I had learned to live in a constant state of discomfort. This had to do with not fully understanding who I was and coming to terms with my own queerness.

Last year’s 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots was celebrated widely around the world and resulted in the New York Police Department issuing a public apology to the queer community. Additionally, the city of New York issued two public monuments to be built for Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riveria, two transgender activists who were instrumental in the gay rights movement.

This is emblematic of just how much has changed since the first brick was thrown on Christopher Street.

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In the last decade, there has been a rise in queer visibility and progress on LGBTQ issues outside the media, too.

From several landmark law cases that have afforded the queer community basic human rights, to major corporations sponsoring floats for Pride events, queer issues and LGBTQ lives have entered into mainstream culture. Yes, this is primarily corporate America’s recognition of the buying power of the queer population, but it is a recognition nonetheless.

Recognition matters. But having a space to learn about queer issues and history, along with the opportunity to learn more about myself, was essential.

The tension between being attracted to both men and women and the social pressure to define “what I was” mounted. I never felt completely at ease in situations with men or women. I constantly felt like I was trying to chart two sides of an expansive ocean and could never quite get the navigation right.

photo courtesy of the author

This pressure to choose who I was attracted to, or why I felt how I did was something I grappled with for years. But once I was in grad school, I finally began to get a better understanding of the contemporary history of queer studies and the larger issues that informed gender and identity politics — and ultimately my politics. It was like a light going on, for me.

I can recall spending countless afternoons at NYU sitting around the coveted space of the seminar table and trying to absorb everything that was happening. I had finally found a community of people who thought like me and approached the world in a similar way.

So much of what I was learning resonated with me in a way that I had only experienced the first time I observed art. At the time, I was 14 years old, standing in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT looking at several self-portraits by the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta from her Silueta series. The more I looked at the image, the more details I noticed.

It was like a switch had been turned on and there was a larger awareness of history, energy, and vulnerability that I was able to tap into through those works of art.

The same feeling of familiarity occurred while discussing the works of Foucault, Jasbir Puar, Saidya Hartman, and others. The seminar table in college was a magical place and I loved it there. I wanted to stay there forever.

It was there for the first time I had the terminology, concepts, and history of Gender and Queer Studies and I was able to be a part of the conversation.

Learning about the history and the struggles of those who came before me put things into perspective, and helped add to the layered history of queer identity and what it meant to be queer, even today. It also led me to start thinking about the way history is taught is constructed, by whom, and how, in the process, often people’s specific narratives were left out — especially queer people.

This process of learning helped me acknowledge my own space within the larger LBGTQ+ community. Being able to connect the dots for myself and recognize how I was linked to this larger history was extremely powerful and allowed me to come out as queer.

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Watching Paris is Burning for the first time brought up similar emotions for me, as it has for the queer community for the last 30 years.

Filmed during the late 1980s, this documentary follows the lives of several Latino and Black queer and trans individuals involved in the New York City “ball culture”.

Ball culture came about during the late 1860s and became a safe space for the queer community. In the 1920s it started to become popularized and evolved into a vital aspect of the queer performers where people would dress up, perform and participate in various events.

The movie offers a beautiful, heartbreaking, and often haunting depiction of queer life in NYC during this era. Many of the subjects in the film discuss the hardships they endured to get where they are, and the larger issues surrounding homophobia transphobia, addiction, and what occurred during the AIDS epidemic.

Their stories are powerful. The portrayal of queer kinship and how people within each house take care of one another showcases the love and tenderness between them. This is part of the queer archive and portrays the larger failure of society to accept queer subjects and even to silence them.

In her book, Feeling Backward, Heather Love writes that, “[s]uch utopian desires are at the heart of the collective project of queer studies and integral to the history of gay and lesbian identity. Still, the critical compulsion to fix — at least imaginatively — the problems of queer life have made it difficult to fully engage with such difficulties."

Some of the “problems of queer life” that Love is referring are brought up in Pairs is Burning. It depicts a specific era in the 1980s and early 90s in NYC when many queer people were not being acknowledged by the larger world, and thus they sought to create their own world.

The difficulties with queer life, and for the LGBTQ+ community at large, are the discrimination and harassment many faced at that time and still do today.

People still carry misconceptions about queerness. Queer individuals have been written out of history, and their stories have been erased. But the work of queer studies, and also the queer community, in general, is to gain acceptance and acknowledgment and to continue to fight for basic human rights and the right to be who we are.

Ball culture still has a profound influence on society today — and now that influence is more mainstream and overt than ever.

There is also a newfound interest in ball culture through FX’s breakout hit Pose. Taking on the history of ball culture in a fictionalized way, Pose has also been pathbreaking in its own way. It was the first show in television history to cast 5 transgender actors.

Pose was the first TV show to hire a trans-WOC as a writer for a television series, Janet Mock. The show itself follows the lives of several queer and gender non-confirming POC living in NYC in the late 1980s and 90s and their participation in ball culture.

RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV competition for drag queens, has become incredibly popular, even among mainstream audiences, as has interest into the House of Xtravaganza, one of the original Houses featured in Paris is Burning and portrayed on Pose. AOL recently created a short film about the House of Xtravaganza, inviting people who were previously unaware of the history of the House into their world.

Today, drag and ball culture is still alive and well, especially in New York City.

The Brooklyn-based drag collective Switch n’ Play has been pushing the envelope for more than a decade. The group consists of 7 members and produces and performs in a variety of shows across the borough and are also the subject of a recent documentary.

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28 years later, Paris is Burning has come full circle. For young queers who are trying to figure out where they fit in, this kind of representation is paramount. Seeing people live their truths out loud — no matter what it looks like — is vital and it can help to create a larger sense of community in the process.

States across the US are starting to implement LBGTQ+ history into high school curriculums legally. Queer studies have been integrated into undergrad and graduate programs across the country. It is also an area of study that people are able to both major and minor in depending on the institution and individual is attending.

In 2018, the City College of San Francisco became the first community college in the US to offer students an LBGTQ major. This is in comparison to 2001 when Yale University was one of the first academic institutions to offer coursework on gay and lesbian studies.

The progress of queer representation in the media and institutions like academia is astounding. To go from having initiatives only being offered at elite private Ivy League colleges to people having access to it on the community college level is profound. These changes make access to information and enlightenment, like what I received, more accessible to more people. Of course, there is more progress to be made, and life as a queer person — particularly for trans women of color — can still be dangerous. But progress is being made.

Seeing queer characters in the media and learning our history is vital, and is giving queer youth a voice.

Despite these positive changes, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that queer history and queer visibility continues to be integrated into mainstream society. But I believe our society is ready to handle the task.

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Anni Irish has published cultural criticism, articles, and essays in Bomb Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Marie Claire, Good, Hyperallergic, Men’s Health, The Outline, Salon, Teen Vogue, Vice, and the Village Voice, among many others. She holds a BFA from Tufts University, an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College, and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University as well as one in Gender Politics from NYU. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her 11 year old Mini Lop rabbit, Isabella.

*Editor's note: This article has been updated to better reflect the work of Switch N Play.