From silent films to the present-day Netflix era, LGBTQ+ characters have long been present on screen, but storylines and depictions haven’t always been positive due to bias and discriminatory policies. As we consider entertainment media’s role in shaping the public’s perceptions of social issues, it’s never been more critical to examine the stories being told on screen — and by whom.

Beginning in 1930, a censorship mandate in Hollywood directly affected how LGBTQ+ characters were represented. For instance, the only characters suggested to be queer were villains, heightening their perceived lack of morality and other-ness to predominantly straight audiences. After the mandate was abandoned in 1968, openly queer characters appeared more frequently, but their character arcs ended in tragedy more often than those of their straight counterparts.

Positive representation is important for two primary reasons. First, seeing characters who look like themselves portrayed positively on screen can be a life-affirming experience for LGBTQ+ people, particularly LGBTQ+ youth. According to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 42% of LGBTQ+ youth reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months. 

For transgender and non-binary youth, this figure rises to more than half. However, for trans and non-binary youth who reported that their pronouns were respected by everyone they lived with, rates of attempted suicide were cut in half as compared to those whose pronouns were not respected. These results underscore the need for representation of LGBTQ+ people to increase understanding and acceptance of a diverse variety of LGBTQ+ experiences and to let young people know that they are not alone. 

Second, representation can influence how the straight population views members of the LGBTQ+ community, which bleeds into issues of policy around LGBTQ+ rights. (At present, the rights of trans youth are particularly at risk.) For example, we have seen dramatic shifts in societal attitudes toward same-sex marriage. In 1988, less than 12% of people surveyed agreed that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. By 2018, this number had risen to 68%

Experts point out that people are more likely to support a movement if they identify with those already part of the movement, highlighting the importance of positive media portrayals. Considering that 94% of LGBTQ+ youth reported that the recent political climate had a negative impact on their mental health, advancing LGBTQ+ rights through representation takes on heightened importance. 

We have come a long way in representing LGBTQ+ characters. Today, LGBTQ+ people are estimated to make up 4.5% of the U.S. population. For comparison, 6.7% of the top 10 recurring cast members in the top 300 programs on broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms were LGBTQ+ in 2019. In 2017, “Moonlight,” a film featuring an all-Black cast, became the first LGBTQ+ movie to take home Best Picture at the Oscars.

Even with this progress, we still have a long way to go in terms of diverse LGBTQ+ representation. According to GLAAD’s 2020 Where We Are On TV report, only four creators who have prioritized representation are responsible for about one in five LGBTQ+ characters that appear on TV. Additionally, white queer and trans people remain the most represented segment of the LGBTQ+ community in entertainment media, while LGBTQ+ women of color and Latinx LGBTQ+ people are still not represented equally compared to their population estimates. 

It is important to approach LGBTQ+ issues with intersectionality in mind, examining how different aspects of an individual’s identity afford them privilege or exacerbate discrimination. As compared to their white or straight counterparts, LGBTQ+ people of color are more likely to have had their hours cut or to have lost their jobs altogether due to COVID-19. Affected by systemic racism as well as discrimination based on sexuality and/or gender identity, LGBTQ+ people of color lack adequate representation in writing, directing, producing, and acting roles in the entertainment industry.

Steps for Donors

Removing barriers for diverse LGBTQ+ creators to write, direct, produce, and star in their own stories can be an effective way to promote quality representation on screen. 

  • Learn: For more information on assessing the impact of media on social issues, check out Media Impact Funders’ Impact Assessment Tools.
  • Connect: To learn more about supporting the LGBTQ+ community through giving, read about LGBTQ+ giving circles
  • Take Action: Donors can support queer and trans creatives by donating to organizations like Frameline, a Bay Area-based media arts nonprofit that exhibits and distributes LGBTQ+ films and supports LGBTQ+ filmmakers internationally.