I remember the first gay couple I saw on the small screen, Ben and Derek from season two of “Parks and Recreation.” They played out every stereotype of the time. They were rude, judgmental, sexist and overtly work-adverse. Sure, they were being shoved into a blasé box because of the nature of the character they were interacting with. Still, being the first primetime example of the LGBTQ+ I’d seen, it set a tone and likely regressed my own journey. They weren’t liked, and they set a horrid example for me, as I was just sorting out what being gay even meant.
Growing up in a small town, media like primetime TV and social outlets like YouTube were where I saw representation of myself. It wasn’t until the mid 2010s that I started to see healthy, queer relationships in mainstream media, even if it was few and far between.
As time crept on, we were seemingly gaining positive ground, but according to the numbers this year, that’s not the case.
The 2023 “Where We Are on TV” report from GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization, found that an alarming number of LGBTQ+ inclusive programming and characters have or will exit our TVs from cable, broadcast and streaming this year. 54 inclusive programs have faced the chopping block for the fall 2022 to spring 2023 TV season, causing an astounding 140 LGBTQ+ characters to exit TV. That’s just shy of 25% of the overall LGBTQ+ representation on TV. 52% of the LGBTQ+ characters lost were women, and 56% of them are non-white.
Further, other forms of representation are losing massive amounts of their tiny footholds, like 100% of the representation of those living with HIV and AIDS and 63% of the queer disabled representation vanishing from cable, broadcast and streaming.
From a consumer perspective, it feels like the only queer content that studios are willing to make is if it’s based off white, gay men. It reads like the only way that it will be accepted in the mainstream is if only one toe is dipped into the waters of change and evolution. For instance, in 2023, HIV is highly treatable, and people can live with it undetectable for the rest of their life if they stick to a medication regimen. Yet, the only way you’d able to learn that from the mainstream media come fall of 2023 is medication ads.
This trend must be a blip in history. We cannot lose the little footholds we’ve gained for two main reasons. First and foremost, seeing yourself in the media, normalized and mainstream, is affirming. Having someone to look up to whom you see yourself in feels like a way out, a means of being less alone when you don’t see yourself in others in your daily life. Further, it can exemplify positive narratives surrounding queer people, where some may only get negative ones due to the nature of their situation. The stats don’t lie, either. 89% of LGBTQ+ youth responded that they felt good about being LGBTQ+ when they saw themselves represented in the media.
Finally, representation like this normalizes it outwards. With a record number of state legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community, clocking in at north of 500 as of last week, according to Human Rights Campaign, education is more necessary than ever. While only 34 of those passed, they ban gender-affirming care, target drag performances, allow discrimination, alter curriculum and allow for the banning of books due to what from the outside looks like fear and ignorance. Showing that we’re just regular people, loving who we love or living as the gender we feel can go a long way in paving the path for acceptance to those who don’t have the exposure to be able to look through this lens.
In a time where it’s so scary and genuinely unsafe for the LGBTQ+ to exist in some parts of the country and with LGBTQ+ youth suicide rates so high due to ostracization, media that elevates positive queer stories is more important than ever. The downtrend in 2023 must remain an outlier.