Every year, GLAAD’s annual report card on the state of LGBTQIA+ representation on television illuminates both gains and losses in the industry for queer characters. After last year’s historic decreases due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on production, representation has returned to pre-pandemic levels while making significant gains in some areas. While impactful shows like Pose aired their final seasons, new shows also stepped up like HBO Max’s genera+tion and Showtime’s Yellowjackets.
In our breakdown of the report (which can be read in full here), we’re taking a closer look at the gains and losses in representation and what it means for the LGBTQIA+ community.
A note on eligibility before we dive in: GLAAD counted shows that premiered (or will premiere) between June 1, 2021 and May 31, 2022. Streaming services Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, and Paramount+ joined Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime in the streaming category for the first time. Disney+ and Apple TV+ declined to confirm numbers for GLAAD’s survey. Only scripted series are eligible.
Broadcast Series Reach Record Highs
The broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, and The CW) posted major gains this year. Out of the 775 series regulars across all networks, 12% (92 characters) identify as LGBTQIA+. In addition, there are 49 recurring LGBTQIA+ characters. Lesbian representation saw massive gains, with 40% of regular and recurring characters identifying as lesbians (Billy on the Street said it best: let’s go, lesbians!). Broadcast is the only platform that meets GLAAD’s standard of over 50% of queer characters being people of color, with 58% of of the LGBTQIA+ characters on broadcast also identifying as people of color.
In terms of network-by-network breakdowns, The CW once again comes in first place for the fifth consecutive year. 17% of its series regulars are LGBTQIA+, with Fox in second at 13%. GLAAD specifically noted that The CW consistently prioritizes queer characters on the network in both leading and supporting roles. The CW has the most leading queer characters on broadcast, with Naomi‘s title character identifying as bisexual and Batwoman‘s Ryan Wilder identifying as a lesbian. Not yet counted in the survey is Tom Swift, which is expected to premiere this year and feature the first Black gay male lead on broadcast television alongside a transgender, pansexual series regular.
GLAAD also noted that The CW has many shows with queer ensembles, which has long been a sticking point for broadcast as a whole. Specific series highlighted include Legends of Tomorrow, 4400, and Charmed. However, the overall trend on broadcast is for shows to have one queer character amidst a straight ensemble, which GLAAD is challenging broadcasts networks to change. GLAAD’s priority for broadcast going into 2022-23 is to increase the number of shows featuring queer characters telling queer stories, vs. stories about straight leading characters that happen to have LGBTQIA+ characters in the ensemble.
Cable Gains, But Trouble On The Horizon
Like broadcast, cable saw gains this past year. 87 series regulars and 51 recurring characters were LGBTQIA+, which is an increase of 20 characters. Lesbians once again came in first with 35% of the total characters, and gay men were not the majority for the first time since 2006-07. In a troubling report, GLAAD notes that there were zero asexual characters on cable.
Showtime’s The L Word: Generation Q has created massive gains in lesbian representation specifically, while new series Yellowjackets had four LGBTQIA+ characters alone. Freeform’s Good Trouble once again received special recognition from GLAAD for its diverse ensemble of queer characters and quality of its storylines. GLAAD also highlighted the new Freeform series Single Drunk Female for having one of the few bisexual+ leads on television in Sam Fink.
But there are some trouble spots for cable. Cable has a weakness that both streaming and broadcast do not: the vast majority of its rep comes from only three sources. Showtime, Freeform, and FX have 56% of all representation on cable, with Showtime in the lead this year. Of the 138 total characters, 19% will not return next year for a variety of reasons including shows ending and characters being written off. 9% more appear on series that will air their final season in 2022-23. As predicted in last year’s report, the loss of Pose decreased gains made in transgender representation. The biggest challenge facing cable is its lack of racial diversity, which went down this year after posting a gain last year.
Netflix Leads Streaming Services, But Others Make Big Strides
This year, GLAAD added several streaming services to its annual tally for the first time. However, both Disney+ and Apple TV+ declined to confirm numbers with GLAAD (which is likely due to concerns regarding spoilers), so the number of characters for both platforms could be higher in practice than in the report. In total across all eight streamers, there were 245 series regular characters and 113 recurring. Streaming was the only platform where gay men were the majority, and both bisexual+ women and transgender characters saw gains. Unfortunately, representation for bisexual+ men decreased, and a whooping 25% of the total characters noted appeared on shows that were cancelled or ending. Streaming once again remains the only one of the three platforms to never hit GLAAD’s benchmark of 50% of queer characters being people of color.
Once again, Netflix far and away has the most rep at 150 regular and recurring characters. Netflix also has a lot of extremely popular international content like Young Royals and Elite that helps boost its numbers. However, GLAAD noted that the sheer amount of content Netflix generates on a yearly basis obscures the true percentage of queer characters the streamer has overall. For example, while HBO Max appears to be a distant second at 71 characters, those characters are spread out amongst fewer series, signaling the streamer’s commitment to queer content. HBO Max also received a shout out from GLAAD for having more queer characters in comedies than the other streaming services, like their hit The Sex Lives of College Girls.
In a rare move, GLAAD acknowledged the Dave Chappelle controversy (though not naming the comedian) in this report when discussing Netflix’s gains, specifically stating that, “It would be disingenuous to shine a light on Netflix’s inclusive programming without also being clear on the harm Netflix did to the LGBTQ community this past fall by doubling down on giving anti-LGBTQ content the reach and legitimacy of their platform and brand.” The report tends to focus exclusively on numbers rather than quality of individual representation, so the fact that GLAAD added this disclaimer is noteworthy.
Extra Noteworthy Findings
- Asexual representation is once again far, far too low. There were only two asexual characters across broadcast, streaming, and cable. One of those characters is on generat+ion, which was cancelled by HBO Max.
- Bisexual+ (bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer) characters are still mostly women, contributing to the overall lack of representation for bisexual men. However, bi+ representation was up overall, accounting for 30% of all LGBTQIA+ characters.
- GLAAD also tracks disability as a representation metric. NBC has 14 series regular characters with disabilities, which is the best by far across all platforms. For context, there are only five disabled queer characters across all of cable and five on streaming (with three appearing on shows that are ending or cancelled). Only two characters across all three platforms are living with HIV, a number that decreased after the end of Pose.
- Interestingly, 31% of transgender characters do not have a stated sexual orientation. In the report, GLAAD challenges those shows to demonstrate the difference between gender and sexual orientation by explicitly discussing sexual orientation. While some characters counted are too young to have major romantic storylines, there is room for growth in showing how sex, romance, and gender intersect in the lives of transgender individuals. 63% of all broadcast transgender characters are found on The CW, while on cable, three networks have ALL the trans characters. While streaming has the most transgender characters overall, major streamers Disney+ and Apple TV+ have zero trans characters.
- For the first time, non-binary characters were included on their own and not under the trans umbrella in the survey unless the show specifically confirmed they were also trans. The vast majority of non-binary characters are coming from streaming services.
The Importance of Queer Stories
Representation isn’t just important from a storytelling perspective. Queer viewers are a massive part of creating fandoms for shows, with GLAAD noting that, “LGBTQ people [are] reported to be nearly two times more likely to be heavy social media users.” Characters being explicitly confirmed as queer within canon (like like Marvel’s Loki) does wonders for media visibility while building buzz around the series they appear on. In 2022, not having queer characters on a series will significantly impact its viewership, not to mention limit the potential of its storylines. As the GLAAD report clearly shows, LGBTQIA+ characters and storylines should be a priority, and queer creatives should be given a seat at the table both in front of and behind the camera.