GLAAD released its annual Where We Are On TV report last fall and while LGBT characters as a whole have increased, black LGBT characters are still severely lacking. Even without concrete statistical evidence, flipping through major network channels during prime time hours shows the lack of queer black characters on television.
Ronald Matters, the gay blogger behind pop culture blog RonaldMatters.com, says his favorite show of all time is LOGO’s “Noah’s Arc,” which aired in 2005.
“It came out my freshman year of college. My university didn’t have LOGO in the dorms at the time but I rushed to iTunes every week and watched every episode the very next day after it aired,” Matters says.
“Noah’s Arc” followed the lives of four gay black friends living in Los Angeles. Despite being the network’s highest-rated original series at the time, the show was cancelled after two seasons.
Since then, diversity has improved but is still severely lacking. GLAAD reports that 71 percent of characters on cable shows are white. Although 16 percent of regular characters on broadcast programming are black, the highest statistic yet for the community, National Black Justice Coalition External Affairs Manager Isaiah Wilson says more work needs to be done.
“It matters for a young person not being able to see an example of who they can be when they grow up. It matters for so many times, especially for black queer folks, we are never acknowledged,” Wilson says.
One of the biggest network shows to star a gay black character is FOX’s “Empire” written by Lee Daniels. Jamal Lyon, played by out actor Jussie Smollett, is a talented singer and middle child in the tumultuous music mogul Lyon family. While the character of Jamal has a large amount of screen time, his character’s story arc focuses heavily on his fractured relationship with his father Lucious Lyon over his sexuality. While his TV brothers’ storylines focus on topics like mental illness and music industry rivalries, Jamal can appear pigeonholed into being simply a gay character.
Waddie G, gay pop culture blogger of the G-List Society, enjoys Jamal’s character but fears his tokenism will outshine his importance on the show.
“Lyon’s character could have been any ethnicity, but seeing him be a black gay male not being a victim intrigues me,” Waddie G says. “There is a pressing issue with having a universally received black gay character like Jamal Lyon having sexuality become the focal point of his character rather than his strength and talent. He will be mostly known as ‘that gay character’ in that show.”
Black women are also difficult to find on TV. GLAAD reports only 59 of the 16 percent black characters are women. Even harder to find on broadcast programming are queer black women, but the rare representation is out there.
Freeform T.V. show “The Fosters” features an interracial lesbian couple raising a blended family of foster, adopted and biological children. Lena Adams Foster, played by Sherri Saum, is a black lesbian on the show. However, her screen time is significantly less than her partner Stef Adams Foster, played by Teri Polo, who is white.
Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, dropped a bombshell in the second season of “How to Get Away with Murder” when it was revealed she had been in a romantic relationship with a woman. Executive producer Shonda Rhimes has often been credited for bringing black narratives to the forefront of broadcast programming.
Transgender characters fare even worse than other members in the LGBT community on TV. GLAAD reports there are no transgender characters on broadcast television and only 2 percent on cable.
However, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are much more diverse. Shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “Sense8” feature black lesbian characters that aren’t available in the same ways on broadcast TV. GLAAD reports that 7 percent of transgender characters are on streaming shows, with two lead characters being trans. Also, the majority are trans women with only one character being a trans man. Black transgender characters fair even worse with “Orange is the New Black” being one of the few to feature a black trans character like Sophia Burset played by Laverne Cox.
Waddie G hopes that diversity can increase across all platforms and go beyond stereotypical archetypes.
“Black lesbians are everywhere. They are not hiding. Black lesbians are more than just badass studs, flirtatious femmes and seasonal bisexuals,” Waddie G says. “Not all black gay men date white men. Not all black gay men wear heels and dance like Beyonce. Not all black gay men gossip as hangers-on with women.”
Matters and Wilson believe the way to end token, stereotypical black LGBT characters is to have black LGBT writers writing their own stories.