GLAAD: Still a long way to go for LGBT characters on TV

October 27, 2015, 8:45 PM UTC
Laverne Cox in Netflix's "Orange is the New Black"
Laverne Cox in Netflix's "Orange is the New Black"
Courtesy of Netflix

Primetime broadcast television still lags behind its competitors on cable and streaming media in terms of the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender characters on its shows.

In its annual “Where We Are On TV” report, non-profit advocacy group GLAAD tracked all scripted television series airing between June 2015 and the end of May 2016, and found that the number of regular and recurring LGBT characters on primetime broadcast television shows only improved by one-tenth of a percentage point from last year.

Out of 881 regular characters on broadcast television primetime shows this year, only 35 identified as either gay, lesbian, or bisexual, according to GLAAD. That comes out to 4%, which is a very slight improvement over the 3.9% the group found on broadcast primetime shows last year. GLAAD also counted an additional 35 recurring LGBT characters (those who appear multiple times but are not series regulars), though the study actually found no regular or recurring transgender characters on broadcast primetime shows.

The numbers get a little bit better on primetime cable and streaming television shows. The number of regularly-appearing LGBT characters on this year’s cable programs increased to 84 this year, up from last year’s 64, while the number of recurring LGBT characters increased from 41 to 58.

Overall, LGBT representation among cable TV characters was up by roughly 35% this year. GLAAD notes that CBS-owned (CBS) premium cable channel Showtime and ABC Family (DIS) are the most LGBT-inclusive networks this year, with 18 regular or recurring LGBT characters on each network. ABC Family’s The Fosters leads the way with seven LGBT characters, including the only transgender man on any of the shows tracked by GLAAD, while Showtime programs like Shameless and Penny Dreadful feature several LGBT characters.

This is the first year GLAAD has tallied LGBT characters on programs from streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu. The group found 43 regular LGBT characters, along with another 16 recurring characters, on 23 streaming series. Netflix (NFLX) original programming is especially LGBT representative, with Orange Is The New Black leading the way, while its new series Sense8 also counts multiple LGBT characters among the regular cast.

Cable and streaming shows are also a little bit better about representing the transgender community than primetime broadcast shows, according to GLAAD’s numbers with three recurring transgender characters on cable and four transgender characters on streaming TV, including two series leads: Nomi on Netflix’s Sense8 and Maura on Amazon’s (AMZN) Transparent—a role that won actor Jeffrey Tambor a lead-actor Emmy for a show that has been Amazon’s lone streaming hit so far.

Transgender actress Laverne Cox was also nominated for an Emmy for her regular character on Netflix’s highly successful Orange is the New Black. GLAAD’s study only looked at scripted television shows, a category that does not include a reality show like Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait.

While GLAAD’s report highlights the strides that scripted television shows have made in better representing the LGBT community, the organization notes that there is still a lot of room to improve. The group points out that Hollywood not only needs to continue increasing the number of LGBT characters on television—especially transgender characters—but diversity needs to be increased among the LGBT characters on TV. For instance, gay men still make up the majority of regular and recurring LGBT characters across all platforms GLAAD checked for its study, while nearly three-quarters of the LGBT characters across broadcast, cable, and streaming television shows were white.

“We’ve witnessed tremendous progress in television since GLAAD began tracking the presence of LGBT characters 20 years ago, but there is still a great deal of work to be done and many new and exciting stories to be told,” GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis wrote in the report.