Laverne Cox, Lena Waithe, and More Explain Why Representation Matters

Though television has been slowly getting better with LGBTQ representation, it's clear we still have a long way to go.
August 8, 2017, 7:04am
Frederick M. Brown / Stringer

At Friday's Television Critics Association press tour, GLAAD hosted two panels dedicated to emphasizing the necessity of representation in media: "Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Trends on TV" and "Transgender Trends on TV." Each panel boasted an impressive roster of names: The first featured Megan Townsend (director of entertainment research at GLAAD), Stephanie Beatriz (Danger & Eggs), Wilson Cruz (Star Trek: Discovery), Pete Nowalk (How To Get Away with Murder), Lena Waithe (Master of None), and Emily Andras (Wynonna Earp); the second featured Nick Adams (director of transgender media & representation at GLAAD), Alexandra Billings (HTGAWM), Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black), Jill Soloway (Transparent), Shadi Petosky (Danger & Eggs), and Rhys Ernst (Transparent). The panels—easily my personal highlight of the tour so far—were both informative and imperative and a welcome addition.


Even though it may seem like television has been making strides to push away from the cis-, straight-, and male-dominated narratives that are abundant in media, it's still very obvious that we have a lot of work to do. As the GLAAD presentation noted, even though there has been an increase in LGBTQ characters (it counted 278 regular and recurring on television and streaming), it's not enough when you take into account how much television there is (and that these characters, when they do exist, are still mostly male and white). Transgender characters are even more scarce: There are only 11 trans characters, and three are of them are on Transparent. And, Townsend emphasized, so many of these characters still fall prey to stereotypes—particularly bisexual characters. Men are "portrayed as these kind of wicked, villainous characters" whose bisexuality is tied to why they're "bad" people while women are "depicted as lacking morals or kind of to be scheming manipulators." (TV Tropes calls this the "Depraved Bisexual" and features many examples.) As for the "Bury Your Gays" trope, since 2015, more than 50 queer women have been killed on television, and two queer characters were killed off just last week (on Power and Kingdom).

When these deaths occur over and over, "as a queer woman, if you're watching TV, you kind of learn 'OK, I can't have a happy ending. I am never going to find love. I'm not going to live a happy, long life with my partner,'" said Townsend. During both panels, panelists echoed how much we need positive representation because often, how our identities are portrayed on television can dictate how people view us in real life—or how we view ourselves. As Nick Adams explained, GLAAD looked at 134 episodes (aired between 2002 to 2014) with trans characters and "88 percent of them were either straight up defamatory or barely passable as mediocre." They were psychopaths, murderers, victims, "a dead body laying on the ground," and sex worker was the most common profession. These negative portrayals have lasting, harmful effects on trans folks, especially younger children and teens.

Transparent director Rhys Ernst recalled a specific memory of the first time he saw a trans man on television: "The way he was depicted was so sad and horrible and pitying. Everybody sort of stared at him like he was such a freak, and it was just mortifying. And I immediately identified that I was like him," Ernst said, explaining that he wanted to hide that part of him because he couldn't stomach the image. Jill Soloway brought up the "It's Pat" recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live as being an "awful piece of anti-trans propaganda" and a "hateful, awful thing to do to non-binary people."


Alexandra Billings, who talked bluntly about how trans women of color are "systematically hunted" and about her "many nights in jail" because she wasn't wearing at least three articles of male clothing, later said that "the fact that we have any kind of trans representation on television right now that is positive, that speaks to people of color—that is inclusive—is remarkable and a gift."

Intersectionality was also an important topic of the panels. Lena Waithe, who wrote Master of None's standout "Thanksgiving" episode (and became the first black woman nominated for an Emmy in comedy writing), spoke about how she felt a personal responsibility to tell stories for queer people of color, but she's still trying to convince "certain networks and studios to make shows where a queer person of color is the lead. "Insecure is phenomenal, but now imagine if Issa's character is a lesbian. How dope would that be?" But, Waithe said, she still needs "the business to kind of work with me."

It's so vital for young people—and particularly young people of color—to see themselves reflected back on the screen in positive, multi-dimensional characters. That's what makes shows like Danger & Eggs so essential, as Stephanie Beatriz explained. Amazon's animated children's series—created by trans woman Shadi Petosky—features queer, trans, and non-binary characters, with the season finale even taking place during a pride parade. "It's so critical to me that that show and others like it are introduced to children at an early age… I believe in that show so much that I literally got one of the characters tattooed on my arm."

A television series like Danger & Eggs helps children see themselves and feel better and more accepting of their own identities (and those of others), whatever those may be. Throughout the discussion, many of the panelists spoke about what an impact seeing positive representations of their identity on screen had on their lives: Waithe cited when Shug and Celie kissed in The Color Purple; Laverne Cox mentioned Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money. These characters allowed Waithe and Cox to see themselves—now, they want to do the same for others.

It should be noted, an ultimate goal these panelists share isn't to litter television with perfect LGBTQ characters but rather to get to a point where these characters aren't just defined by being members of the LGBTQ community. They want them to be heroes and villains, and everything in between. "I don't think anybody up here would say that there are not LGBTQ people who do not do bad things," Wilson Cruz said, and continued that the problem stems from these characters being depicted as bad because they're also gay or trans. "We're all human beings," Cruz affirmed, "And as an actor, you want the opportunity to play a human, not a caricature or a cartoon."

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