“We need to see more”: 5 queer TV creators discuss the present and future of LBGTQIA+ representation

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images, Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images, Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

This piece was originally published June 21, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018

On a recent Sunday night (June 10, to be exact), primetime viewers found themselves with multiple options for LGBTQIA+ stories: Pose, Vida, and Claws. And not only are all three on major cable networks, but they were all created by queer people.

This convergence was organic, and not remarked upon much at the time, which suggests that LGBTQIA+ representation on TV has grown enough to make it a matter of course. But a look at the big, rainbow-colored picture proves otherwise. For the last 12 years, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has conducted an annual “Where We Are On TV” study that tracks the progression of LGBTQIA+ representation on the small screen. And the latest installment found that while the overall number of queer characters has increased, they remain mostly white and male (and overwhelmingly cisgender).

For every heartening development, such as the growing number of bisexual characters or Black Lightning introducing TV’s first black female queer superhero, another LGBTQ-centered show signs off for good, or the gay drama teacher who inspired NBC’s Rise is straight-washed for the show. It’s hard to tell just how much the needle’s moved, so we interviewed five queer creators to get their thoughts on the expansion of LGBTQIA+ stories, what makes them optimistic about the future of queer TV, and what’s currently standing in their way.

Illustration for article titled “We need to see more”: 5 queer TV creators discuss the present and future of LBGTQIA+ representation
Photo: Starz

Tanya Saracho: Playwright, TV writer and showrunner of the recently renewed Vida on Starz.

The A.V. Club: What are your thoughts on the progression of LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

Tanya Saracho: I just finished watching Pose last night with glee, with such joy. Last night was a special night because queer people of color were being represented in multiple shows [including Vida]. I hope this moment is really heralding a time where we will all get to tell our own story, because Pose has Ryan Murphy behind it, but it also comes from a queer Afro-Latinx creator, so that’s exciting. As a queer brown creator, I can say that it’s only when we get to control and manage our own narratives that exciting shows like this happen. I hope it keeps going because I don’t know right now if it’s just a trend or an actual movement.

AVC: It often feels like creators from underrepresented groups feel a greater responsibility to ensure authenticity. Was there any particular part of Vida—whether on screen or in the writers room—that you were concerned with getting right?

TS: True-to-the-life representation is so important. You don’t ask a dominant culture to just exclude one part of itself and only include what’s acceptable or what’s user-friendly, the way we have had to for so long so that we maybe don’t come off as threatening—or, when other people are handling our narratives, we come off as a stereotype. I don’t like the term “authentic” because I feel like that’s for Mexican food. We wanna reflect what is true-to-life to us, and I think that’s what it is—so our shows have pain, humor, all of it.

My writers room is mostly queer brown women. We exist, so we want to exist on television how we exist in real life. So there are trans characters on my show, but I don’t single them out. They just exist. I have a high femme, I have a Mexican butch, a lesbian with lots of gender-queer friends, but that’s never explained or used as an educational moment. So often, marginalized people take the time to teach the dominant culture, and I like that we don’t do that. We just exist.

AVC: What, if anything, do you see as an obstacle to expanding LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

TS: Oh, it’s so systemic—the machine is so big because it’s not just who’s in front of the camera or behind the camera, it’s who manages and champions the project, and then it’s the people who like them, and then it’s the people who fund them. Everything has to line up, and everyone has to believe in the world and the people they’re representing. But guess what? We do want a show about ball culture from 1987, and yes, we want to see millennial Eastside Los Angeles queer girls. So you have to really stand by the world you’re creating, because you’re up against a whole system. But our narratives are important, and we matter at every level of this game.

AVC: What’s another step you or the rest of the industry can take to increase LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

TS: I think we just need to see more. There’s a show, This Close, which is about a deaf gay man, and it’s made by Josh Feldman, who is deaf and gay, that I am just so excited to see. There’s never been anything like that on TV. We’ve [seen] so much of the same for so long. And I just think we need more of these new and inclusive stories. There is great power in the media, and I think it can affect culture—when you introduce these stories that seem so specific, you learn just how universal they are, and that they’ve gotta get in front of people in order for people to see that they relate.

Illustration for article titled “We need to see more”: 5 queer TV creators discuss the present and future of LBGTQIA+ representation
Photo: Frederick M. Brown (Getty Images)

Steven Canals: Co-creator, writer, and producer of Pose, whose first season is currently underway on FX.

The A.V. Club: You recently brought a groundbreaking series like Pose to FX, but what are your thoughts on the overall progression of LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

Steven Canals: It’s been slow, but there has been progress. I don’t want to minimize the contribution and the shoulders of all the work that Pose stands on. But going all the way back to Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her half-hour sitcom, and then quickly being fired. You know, being let go. I’m thinking about shows that were important to me when I was coming up in the late ’90s and sort of for the first time acknowledging and accepting my own queerness. So Will & Grace, Queer As Folk on Showtime, The L Word. We’ve always had these pockets, these moments with one or two narratives, and then we just go away. In the early 2000s, you had Queer Eye For The Straight Guy on Bravo. We’re always looking for the next big thing because we just don’t get enough representation happening consistently.

I think more often than not, queerness, and maybe even more specifically trans-ness, when it comes to representation in film and TV, feels like the way to be subversive is to include a character who happens to be queer, happens to be trans. The problem with that is then you wind up only ever having one character on a show, and then they wind up having the burden of representation. What I think is really lovely about what’s currently happening is that we have more representation, and we’re also unpacking intersectionality within the queer community. Thinking outside of Pose, there’s Tanya Saracho’s Vida, which has gender non-binary and queer characters who happen to also be Latina. And you know, how lovely it is that for two weeks, you could watch a show like Vida on Starz at eight o’clock, and then you could switch over at nine o’clock to watch Pose on FX. If you are someone who’s living in that intersection, you don’t have just one show to go to, you have two. And you don’t just have one character on a show, you have multiple characters. So hopefully somewhere within those narratives you’re going to find someone whose experience relates to your own.

AVC: Cis men are still being cast to play trans women on TV and in films, purportedly over concerns of bankability and access to trans actors. But Pose features the largest trans cast in a drama—and they’re all fantastic. What do you have to say to producers or studios who are still equivocating on this?

SC: I have a lot of thoughts on this. I think that the inherent problem with hiring cis individuals to play trans is that you then are implying that trans-ness is just a role that someone plays, when in fact it is an identity. So, it was essential to us to cast authentically, to cast actors who that is their lived experience, and that is their identity. First, because it would help create a more authentic story, and it certainly will ring true to the audience who is watching us. But also it’s just an acknowledgment of a particular lived experience. You know, I think in this day and age we wouldn’t be okay if there were white actors putting on blackface to play black characters, so why it’s okay for us to continue to hire cis actors to play trans, I don’t understand. You know, I don’t see a distinction between the two at all—it is someone’s identity, so I think we need to be careful about the messages that we are sending out into the world.

What ends up happening when you have cis actors playing trans is that it then gets conflated with drag, though there’s obviously a very clear distinction between drag, which is performative, and trans-ness, which is someone’s actual identity and lived experience. And so I think we were just hyper-aware of that when we went into the process of casting. You know, early on in this process of Pose prior to meeting Ryan [Murphy], I often had executives who would ask, “Who is supposed to play these characters?” And my response was always, “I don’t know because I haven’t met them yet.” And obviously that answer didn’t bode very well for me going in and out of rooms. But then I meet Ryan, who’s like, “Well, yeah. Obviously.” And so we have the most amazing casting director in Alexa Fogel, who knew that there was just a wealth of trans talent out there. Well, let me rephrase that. It’s a wealth of talent, period, of actors who happen to also be having a trans experience. And we brought them in, and we met with them. And so to any executive who’s saying there aren’t enough actors who happen to be trans out in the world, I would just have to say that that’s wrong. You are incorrect. You aren’t looking hard enough. You aren’t doing the work.

AVC: What, if anything, do you see as an obstacle to having greater LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

SC: Well, I think one of the obstacles is that our stories, the stories of the LBGTQ community, are viewed as niche. And that is certainly I think an obstacle for the community. You know, our stories and our narrative have value, and are equally as important for a multitude of reasons. I think one of the most important [things] I would say is that media has the ability to affect how we view ourselves. It can affirm identity. So I think about myself as a young, closeted queer brown boy growing up in the The Bronx who never saw himself reflected in film and TV, and I think about all the years that I spent in that closet. And had I seen myself, my experience, and the experience I was having, I would’ve been normalized. I wouldn’t have spent so many years battling internalized homophobia, you know? And I’m sure that there are plenty of people who feel the same way about their trans identities. So there’s inherent value in having those stories out there. But we cannot see them as niche.

I think the other problem is the LGBTQ community is often, because of the alphabet soup, we’re seen as a monolith and we are not a monolith. So there are periods between each of those letters, and we need to acknowledge the differences, the nuances, and the intricacies of what it means to be L, or G, or B, or T, or Q. And that within each one of those letters there’s a whole additional subset of identities, right? So my experience as a queer man, who happens to also be Afro-Latino, is going to be very different from someone who’s queer and happens to also be Asian, or happens to be white, you know? And so we need to acknowledge that there is a beauty and a breadth to both the trans and queer experience, and not assume that just because we have a show like Pose, for example, on the network, and even though it does admittedly center five very different trans women of color, that somehow that’s enough. There are still so many more stories and narratives to be told. And if we can have a plethora of shows that center law enforcement, or doctors, or lawyers, then I think the LGBT community can stand to have more than just a handful of shows on the air.

AVC: GLAAD’s 2017 “Where We Are On TV” study once again found that LGBTQIA+ representation remains mostly white and male. But shows like Pose, Dear White People, and This Close are giving us narratives focused on queer people of color and queer people with disabilities. How optimistic are you that this expansion will continue?

SC: Oh, I’m so hopeful, and I’m very optimistic. I’m a bit of an idealist and a dreamer. I think we are seeing so much more content today partly because there’s just so many places for content to live, right? So we don’t have to rely just on the networks. We have network TV, we have cable, we have all the streaming. There’s so many more places for content to live today, so I think as a result we’re seeing so many more stories being told. I look forward to seeing the proliferation of more LGBT narratives being told. You know, Tanya and Josh [Feldman, creator of This Close] are both two people who I admire, and who I’ve been able to spend time with. I’ve had face time with these creators, and I think that all the work that we all are doing is so important and so essential.

You know, I’ve spent nearly 10 years working in higher education as a college administrator, and one of the first lessons that I learned while I was working in ed was that, as a practitioner, my first responsibility is to assess the landscape, and then identify where there are gaps in resources, and then use my position to implement change. And obviously I brought that with me into my storytelling practice. So my overall goal through my work is always to use storytelling to make change—but obviously in a way that isn’t super didactic. You don’t want all of your work to constantly be a history lesson. You don’t want to thump people over the head. But I do think that there is a space for work to live in between both entertainment and education. And I think that the work that is happening right now with all of our respective shows is that we’re not simply creating entertainment. We’re also educating and illuminating our audience, and so I think because of the current landscape and the fact that all of these shows exist today, that they’re all airing right now, and have found audiences, I’m hopeful that this is just the beginning of a groundswell.

Illustration for article titled “We need to see more”: 5 queer TV creators discuss the present and future of LBGTQIA+ representation

Josh Feldman: Co-creator, writer, and star of This Close, which was recently renewed by SundanceNow

The A.V. Club: What are your thoughts on the progression and/or direction of LGBTQIA+ representation?

Josh Feldman: I think we still aren’t where we should be. A lot more progress should have been made by now, so I do think we are “behind”—and we need to be making up for lost time. But I am cautiously optimistic because the new wave of LGBTQIA+ representation is beginning to not look very white, and the narratives are starting to feel dynamic and more modern.

AVC: GLAAD’s 2017 “Where Are We On TV” study found that queer characters remain mostly white and male. But in addition to your series, shows like Pose and Vida have added narratives centered on queer people of color, as well as queer people with disabilities. How optimistic are you that this expansion will continue?

JF: I want to be optimistic, more than anything, but that really comes down to the kinds of storytellers that networks and streaming services seek out. We have to tell our own stories, so networks and streaming services need to be actively searching for queer storytellers who haven’t quite been seen on television before or had their stories told. It’s usually been the case that people in positions of power seek out stories they want to see, and it’s usually stories they’re already familiar with, but I do feel a sea change lately, with the expansion of female-led programming both in front and behind the camera, and I just hope our LGBT community jumps on that wave as well.

AVC: What’s one thing you absolutely had to get right about This Close, which is the first show centered on a queer character who’s also deaf?

JF: We had to make sure that our characters’ signed dialogue was captured in a realistic way, because so often in past film and television projects, the directors, their cinematographers, or their editors weren’t familiar with deaf culture and sign language, so signs would often get cut off, or they’d be filmed from weird angles, which led to deaf people not understanding what deaf characters were saying.

For our show, we had a great conversation about that with our director, Andrew Ahn, as well as our director of photography, Bruce Thierry Cheung, so they were very aware about that before we even shot our first scene. We also had a deaf director of artistic sign language, someone whose complete and total responsibility was watching the monitors in Video Village to ensure lines delivered in sign language, whether by deaf or hearing actors, were fully visible and understood.

AVC: What, if anything, do you see as an obstacle to expanding LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

JF: I think we need more LGBTQIA+ people in positions of power, as well as disabled people. In all the offices around town I’ve entered, and all the studio or network executives I’ve met—a rough number I’d use would be between 40 to 50—I have yet to meet a deaf executive. That says something. We’re the first show on television to be created by and written by deaf people, so we’re the first wave. It may be up to us to ensure we aren’t the last.

AVC: What other steps are you taking to expand LGBTQIA+ representation on TV? And what can Hollywood do to help?

JF: Personally, I’m going to find more stories to tell other than the narrative we have on the show, which is about twentysomething deaf people coming of age in a big city. There are many more narratives to be told within the deaf and queer experience, and I’m excited to bring more experiences to the table. As for the industry, this may be like screaming at the sky, because I don’t know who will listen, but people who are already very established within the industry—whether they are writers, directors, or producers—need to take more LGBTQIA+ people under their wings to use their power to help them tell their stories. We can’t do it all on our own.

Justin Simien
Justin Simien
Photo: Rick Proctor

Justin Simien: Writer, director, and creator of Dear White People, which is now in its second season.

The A.V. Club: What are your thoughts on the progression or current direction of LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

Justin Simien: I think that it’s getting better, but I don’t know. I think because LGBTQIA people, we’re at the intersection of so many other things, and those other things are slightly more palatable to popular culture. For instance, the amazing growth in black voices and imagery on television. We’re not anywhere near parity. I have to keep saying that, but it’s exciting to have multiple shows on at the same time, and there’s no conflict. They’re all avant-garde and weird and about young black people, and that’s fine.

I haven’t really seen that happening in the LGBTQIA space. We have these amazing pops like Love, Simon, and obviously like the characters in Pose or Queer Eye, etc., but I can’t say that it’s sort of at the same clip as everything else. And that’s a little disappointing, because not only have gay people and queer people made so many strides in this country over the past decade or so, but I just feel like, I don’t know. There’s people of color, like LGBTQIA+ people of color who are also having a slightly different experience of this country, and I don’t feel like their voices are really out there as much as I’d love. I’m a big fan of My House, and I just started watching Pose. But there’s so much there to mine. It’s just surprising that it hasn’t gotten out there with the same pace that female-centric stories or black stories have gotten out there.

AVC: When GLAAD released its latest “Where We Are On TV” study, it found that queer characters are still mostly white and male on TV. But new series like Vida, This Close, and Dear White People are adding narratives that are centered on queer people of color and even queer people with disabilities. Are you optimistic that that expansion will continue?

JS: I’m optimistic, but here’s my concern: I do feel like white gay men sort of are the captains of gay culture still. That’s the nature of the country, so it’s not a dig at them. It’s just that when you look at the gay storytellers that are out there, the ones with the most power tend to be white men. Obviously you have me, you have Lee Daniels. It’s not like we’re not there at all. But for instance, I love that Ryan Murphy is using his power to bring characters of color, like in Pose, to the screen, but there’s not the same investment in the stories. I do feel like it’s almost like what happened when the Irish or the Italians sort of were finally integrated into white popular culture. Now that we have marriage equality, it’s almost as if the urgency of the stories has died down a little bit, which is disappointing, because then it leaves the mantle to the lesbians and the black folks and all the other intersections to sort of figure it out. For whatever reasons, and I think we can all speculate as to what those might be, there’s less of us in positions of power to tell these stories. There’s a stigma that these stories won’t even work, and that people aren’t ready for them. When you’re a gay man who has sort of built a career and you live and die by the numbers, who’s really going to take that chance on queer stories of people of color? That’s just a rare person to find.

But there’s exciting things on the horizon. We’re slowly making headway, but it feels more dire than it should. It’s such a shame that I don’t have an abundance of shows with gay characters to watch. I mean, that feels really weird to me, because just like black folks or any marginalized group, gay men are so—gay black men, especially—are so relied upon to give culture its meaning, its language. I mean, you can just see all of the words that have infiltrated our culture from “yas queen” to “read” and “shade” thanks to RuPaul sort of bringing that up from the Paris Is Burning days to network television, but they don’t want to see us, and that feels odd. It always feels odd.

AVC: Is there anything in particular that you see as an obstacle to expanding queer representation on TV?

JS: I think the queer community is sort of stuck in the place that black folks have been for a while, which is like you’re either a sinner or a saint, or you’re exotic, or you’re… it’s always a thing. The entire show has to be gay, or there’s no gay people in it, or there’s one gay character, and everything about their storyline sort of revolves around being gay. To a degree, Dear White People has this. I have 10 episodes a season, so one of the characters in my ensemble is gay, and we get a sense of his world through his point of view, and I don’t think there are any other gay characters like him anywhere, and the places that he goes and the conflicts that he has, I think, are unique to the series, but could I get away with two or three queer characters? Would everyone be okay with that if a third of the show was devoted, a third of the cast was devoted to that story? I don’t know. I think the next move is to integrate queer people into storylines that maybe have nothing to do with their queerness. As much as we do need shows that tackle it head on, I think the easiest thing to do, frankly, is to craft characters where that’s just an element of who they are, and it’s just another opportunity to bring somebody interesting to the screen.

AVC: Is there a particular project that makes you optimistic about moving the needle even further?

JS: Yeah, I really think that what RuPaul has done with Drag Race is, it’s a really fun and entertaining show, but there’s a profundity to that. Not only did he really bring these rather outrageous and flamboyant aspects of gay culture to literally the mainstream—and I mean, we are using these words in our vernacular in a way that we did not before Drag Race. It’s a bit of a Trojan horse, because in the guise of fashion, fun, glamour, and sarcasm, and being witty and reading and drag queens, he’s sort of taking the most extreme aspects of the culture and getting people really comfortable with it, so that the more subtle aspects can come through without having a fight. I think the reason why something like Pose and something like My House can happen is because all of these phrases and these cultures and these things that the shows represent, they’ve already made it into our language. They’ve already made it into the zeitgeist or the psyche.

I’m very curious about how those shows do, and I’m very curious about how effective it is to walk in the shadow of RuPaul, who I really… I don’t think that [Drag Race] gets enough credit for how much it’s really broken open the popular culture to not only embrace but sort of obsess over gay culture. It’s exciting. The danger, of course, is that we then become novel, and we become exotic, but it’s a step. You got to take the steps where you can get them.

Illustration for article titled “We need to see more”: 5 queer TV creators discuss the present and future of LBGTQIA+ representation
Photo: Roy Rochlin (Getty Images)

Cameron Esposito: Actor, comedian, and co-creator of Take My Wife, which recently released its second season on iTunes

The A.V. Club: What are your thoughts on the progression and/or direction of LGBTQIA+ representation?

Cameron Esposito: Compared to the landscape when I grew up, TV has obviously shifted to include better representation for all types of people. Compared to my actual life and the real people in it, TV still looks pretty dang male, pretty dang straight, pretty dang cis, pretty dang white. We’re still in the token character, token show timeline. I look forward to the time when groups of friends on TV don’t default to five white men, one white woman with long hair, and a black man.

AVC: GLAAD’s 2017 “Where Are We On TV” study found that queer characters remain mostly white and male. But series like Take My Wife and Vida focus their narratives on queer women, while Pose is centered on trans women. How optimistic are you that this expansion will continue?

CE: As long as I’m making TV, I’m gonna push. And I know folks involved with those shows, too. It’s about casting a wider net for creators and showrunners. Folks from underrepresented groups which naturally show our worlds. Give us the shows and the money!

AVC: What do you see as an obstacle to expanding LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

When in doubt, folks still default to straight white men, who are deemed neutral, low-risk, and identity-less. It’s not about one queer or black or female person getting on TV (or any combo thereof). It’s about television actually reflecting our real world and straight white maleness not being assumed neutral.

AVC: What’s another step you or the industry at large can take to increase LGBTQIA+ representation on TV?

CE: Hire me. I’ll do it for you.