Arts & Culture Editor
Associate Arts & Culture Editor
LGBTQ+ representation in the media in recent years has reached a cultural peak. With shows like “Queer Eye” and “Brooklyn-Nine Nine” and movies with LGBTQ+ protagonists like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Love Simon” becoming popular among the masses, queer storylines are becoming closer to being normalized.
Even this year alone, the actor, Billy Porter became the first openly gay black man to win an Emmy for the TV show, “Pose.” Our media world wasn’t always this advanced, even if we still have made progress. Just twenty years ago, it was still viewed as taboo to have LGBTQ+ characters, while gay marriage wasn’t even legal in all fifty states. This may seem like quite a departure from the world we know today, yet by looking back at our past, we can also see just how far we have come as a nation in acceptance of LGBTQ+ culture.
In 1994, Ellen Degeneres paved the way for future LGBTQ+ representation with her hit show “These Friends of Mine,” which was later named “Ellen.” In season 4, Ellen’s TV namesake came out as gay, making it the first sitcom with a gay main character. In 1997 when the episode aired on ABC it was a big moment and risk for Ellen Degeneres and the sitcom world.
Yet, she felt like she had to be true to herself. After the episode came on, the TV show and Ellen got backlash from right-wing viewers and the show even got cancelled the season after. Yet, that episode also was the highest ever for the sitcom and was met with critical acclaim. Even today it is viewed as a turning point in LGBTQ+ culture. Ellen Degeneres returned to network television about four years later with “The Ellen Show.”
“The Ellen Show” gave Ellen her worldwide acclaim, and recognition as a much loved media figure and comedian. She also starred in films such as “Finding Nemo” and even was a judge at one point on “American Idol.” These roles didn’t come easy for the comedian. After her show was cancelled due to low ratings, she struggled to find a job because she was the face of such controversy.
“Finding Nemo” was Ellen’s first job for four years. Ellen has emerged since as a pioneer for the community as she was one of the first of many who proved that through staying true to yourself, you can inspire others. Ellen is a trailblazer in every sense of the word for LGBTQ+ representation, that the community is eternally grateful for.
Another show that paved the way in terms of LGBTQ+ media visibility was the series “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy.” Newer generations may be more familiar with the Netflix reboot which shortened it’s title to “Queer Eye,” but “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” did so much for normalizing the LGBTQ+ community.
It made stars of the original Fab Five, particularly Ted Allen who is now the host of Food Network, “Chopped” and Carson Kressley who has been seen as a judge on “Rupaul’s Drag Race” among others. More importantly, it was a chance on television for American audiences to get comfortable with people who are gay, and it most likely had a ripple effect for young people in the community where they could feel seen and validated.
The new “Queer Eye” goes even further than the original by not only having a more diverse Fab Five, but also expanding beyond just helping straight people. While the original’s show setup was about the fab five helping straight guys get their life back together, in the Netflix reboot, the new Fab Five help various groups of people from all walks of life, from a black self proclaimed, “Lumberjack Llesbian named Jess, to two sisters trying to improve their barbecue restaurant.
On one particularly powerful episode, the Fab Five even helped a young Trans Man named Skyler get more comfortable in his queer identity. By extending its episode subjects to all walks of life, the reboot exists in an age that is ultimately more accepting and giving.
This even extends within the Fab Five members themselves on the reboot. Jonathan Van Ness, the grooming expert on the show, this past summer came out as Non-Binary, increasing visibility for those outside the cis norm. Although in different points of pop culture, both versions of “Queer Eye” opened up our nation’s eyes to queer culture, and as with “The Ellen Show” proved that by living proudly, things just keep getting better.
While many TV shows and movies feature bisexual supporting characters, it’s not as common to see them as the main character. The shows, “The 100” and “Orange is the New Black” both star a bisexual lead. Representation in the mainstream media is important for all members of the LGBTQ+ community, making both of these shows stand out. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a movie brings it to a wider audience by putting a bisexual story on the big screen. Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, is a name that people know. Name recognition alone could bring viewers into the theater.
LGBTQ+ cinema has reached its own peak for representation. In the early 2000’s and even now, LGBTQ+ films in the mainstream are largely Academy Award dramas. This trend really started in the 1990s with the film, “Philadelphia” which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and opened America’s eyes to the first time to the AIDS crisis. By casting the much loved, Tom Hanks as a widely sympathetic gay character, for the first time the mainstream had a complex gay protagonist on the big screen.
Then in 2005, the film “Brokeback Mountain” which followed in the footsteps of the 1990s, “Philadelphia” in casting the well known names of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as two gay cowboys. Yet unlike “Philadelphia” which told it’s story in broad strokes, “Brokeback Mountain” went for a decidedly more nuanced style that also happened to be a big box office success. It became a cultural landmark as it was an instance where a Hollywood LGBTQ+ film actually struck a chord with the audience. In portraying the love story between two protagonists with honesty and respect, in turn it opened minds of viewers in turn.
After the success of “Brokeback Mountain” more LGBTQ+ Oscar contending films began being released. Some of the most memorable include the 2015 hit, “Carol” which starred Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a 1950s era Lesbian romance that gave lesbian characters their moment in the spotlight. Not only did “Carol” show that gay people have always been around, it also has a happy ending, one that doesn’t close with heartbreak or death. Most often, movies featuring these characters end in a downhearted way. “Carol,” separated from her husband and facing a custody battle over their daughter, gets painted as an unfit mother due to her relationship with Mara’s character, “Carol” gives depth to characters while also bringing light to a situation that could have been realistic in the 1950s.
Coming out of the time with the original “Queer Eye for The Straight Guy” and Ellen’s sitcom, we are now entering a point where LGBTQ+ stories and relationships are finally becoming normalized. In shows like “One Day At A Time,” a family sitcom on Netflix, there is a young character named Elena who’s character was lesbian, but the show never made a spectacle of it. After the characters’ initial coming out, the writers let the character be proudly herself free of spectacle and fan fare.
This even extended to the character, Syd on the show who is Non-Binary. This even extends to the show, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” which has a police force captain who so happens to be gay, and a Bisexual character who is Bi and still is able to get her happy ending. A number of other notable sitcoms such as “Schitt’s Creek” and “Fleabag” have been moving forward in realistic queer characters.
Most recently in film, Olivia Wilde’s movie, “Booksmart,” made major progress in it’s representation of queer teens with the character of Amy who is never once looked down upon for her sexuality, but instead is viewed as someone with hopes and aspirations and is able to just be herself. Normalizing LGBTQ+ characters makes those in the community out in the light of universal members of society, and most of all as human beings instead of just an archetype or a trope.
In today’s time, transgender representation is as important as ever. Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, rose to fame with her role in “Orange is the New Black” as a transgender character. Casting like this doesn’t always happen with television shows and movies. Most recently, the TV show, “Pose,” which chronicles the early ballroom drag scene of the 1980s, made much acclaim for casting trans actors in trans leading roles.
This was especially notable as those outside the gender binary tend to get erased in media, having mainstream trans visibility normalizes the trans community. The 1980s ball scene shown in “Pose” is a precursor for the drag culture of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” that we know today. Besides increasing visibility, “Pose” also educates on a period in LGBTQ+ culture others may not be as familiar with. Education and representation go hand in hand in normalizing not just the LGBTQ+ community but any marginalized group.
This idea of normalization of the LGBTQ+ community extends past film and television, but into the world of music as well. Most recently, popular artists such as Brendon Urie from the band, Panic at The Disco, Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Todrick Hall have actively openly included LGBTQ+ positive messages and visual imagery into their art.
Taylor Swift in her recent music video for the song, “You Need To Calm Down” featured notable queer celebrities such as the new Fab Five in “Queer Eye” and even Ellen Degeneres. In Swift’s video, she imagines a world where being LGBTQ+ is the mainstream. Although we still have a long way to go, we have come far from the days of the Ellen Degeneres controversy where your job could literally be on the line for being who you are.
We are now entering a time where being LGBTQ+ is being viewed less as a taboo or oddity but as something natural and mainstream in our media and therefore world. The LGBTQ+ community is one of resilience starting at the Stonewall riots and have fought and persevering through good times and bad. In 2019, it is about time that the queer community is finally getting their moment in the limelight.