The web series People Like Us offers a close look into the gay community in Singapore, where homosexuality is still criminalized. But I didn't keep watching the show because of politics. It was the romance between the central couple—Ridzwan, who is closeted, and Joel, who is not—and the shy, cautious manner in which they explore their relationship that compelled me to keep tuning in.
When I spoke to Leon Cheo, the series' creator, I was surprised to learn that the series wasn't just a tender love story—it was originally intended as an educational tool. Action for AIDS Singapore, one of the country's leading HIV/AIDS service organizations, hired Cheo to create the series as a way to educate gay Singaporean men about sexual health. Cheo, however, was wary of making something that sounded too much like a PSA. "We wanted a more 21st-century approach. No more wagging your finger, saying, 'You gotta get tested,'" Cheo told me. Inadvertently, his choice to focus on character and plot gave the series life in its own right, giving people like me, far from Singapore, a window into a community that's rarely spotlit in America.
I stumbled across the series while scrolling through REVRY, a streaming service dedicated to media with LGBTQ themes ("queerated content," in its own words), available on devices like Apple TV and Roku as well as on smartphones and tablets. REVRY debuted a year ago as just one of several new services aiming to give an online home to queer content: It joined Dekkoo, which launched in October 2015 and is more narrowly focused on content for gay men, and other, older queer media brands that are making the transition to streaming, like HereTV, which began as a pay-per-view service and is now available through platforms like Amazon Prime. Internationally, services like Pride TV in South Africa and Gaze Net in Sweden also curate content for LGBTQ audiences.
These services help queer viewers find characters like themselves and storylines they can relate to on-screen. And though LGBTQ representation on broadcast television has improved over the past few years, there's still a ways to go, especially when it comes to representing queer people of color: According to GLAAD's latest "Where We Are on TV" report, 72 percent of regular and recurring LGBTQ characters on cable TV are white.
GLAAD noted that 71 percent of regular and recurring characters on major streaming platforms like Netflix are white, too, but those services have also gone further than their network counterparts to prove that queer characters and storylines have mainstream appeal. Queer-specific streaming services could help advance those efforts. They also offer independent queer filmmakers a welcoming home, especially important given news this year that YouTube had been blocking LGBTQ content for viewers on "restricted" settings, even when material was G-rated. (They've since taken steps to undo those restrictions.)
But even if these services arrive with good intentions and promise a more diverse slate of programming than industry heavyweights, the question remains: Can they survive?
"When you experience REVRY and you open up the app, you're gonna see trans stories and lesbian stories and African American stories and Cambodian disabled stories," said Damian Pelliccione, the company's founder. He said part of what inspired him to launch the company was how focused legacy queer media brands were "on a gay white male agenda—and I know that's ironic, because I'm a gay white male," he said. (He quickly assured me that he was the only white person on REVRY's executive team.) He said he had a diverse community in mind when he launched the app, and a big part of that was bringing queer people all over the world together by aggregating diverse voices.
Much of REVRY's content consists of low budget, independent web series from around the world, and its raw, personal edge may lend it and other queer streaming services a feeling of community and intimacy that bigger platforms lack. One of Pelliccione's goals was to put a variety of queer narratives together in one easy-to-find place, something he said he hasn't found in other media brands, queer or otherwise. As a college student, he said he'd grow tired of seeing the same queer films over and over again, a rut he believes platforms like Netflix are stuck in. "I feel like it's that wall at Blockbuster that says 'LGBT,' with the same 15 or 20 titles," he said. And it's true that when I open Netflix or search for LGBTQ content, I'm often directed to titles I've already seen multiple times, like Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Sydney Freeland directed the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story, which also streams on REVRY, and sang its praises. "It's great that there's something like REVRY that can sort of bring all [these] wildly different experiences together," she told me. But she disagrees about Netflix, and thinks streaming giants are quickly catching up to the more diverse, independent world of web series.
"I'm transgender and also Native American, and it's been forever that you have people who aren't necessarily Native American telling stories about Native Americans," she said. "Now it feels like there's a bit of a shift, where people are being able to tell their stories from the inside out." Her career reflects it: Freeland's first feature film, Drunktown's Finest, was an ensemble film that "was extremely difficult to get made specifically because it was so diverse," she said. Investors told her there wouldn't be an audience for it. So Freeland was surprised when she pitched her second feature—Deidra and Laney Rob a Train—to Netflix, where executives liked her ideas but were disappointed the film didn't have more characters of color.
"I was a little stunned," she said. "How the hell am I the person in this situation right now? But also, that's kind of amazing." The film premiered at Sundance this year and is available on Netflix now.
Freeland doesn't think that Netflix wants diverse filmmakers and stories out of "the goodness of their hearts"—rather, she guesses that their detailed metrics show that diversity just makes good business sense. Netflix's trove of data about its subscribers (which is largely secret) and its ability to leverage multibillion dollar deals with the world's biggest studios make it one of the most powerful forces in film and television. REVRY, on the other hand, got its first round of funding from investors Pelliccione refers to as "friends, family and fools." Dekkoo's founder, Derek Curl, a "self-described 'Atlanta redneck' from a well-to-do family," self-funded his company's launch.
It's still early days for these services, and it remains to be seen whether they can compete with platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime or achieve a critical mass of users. Though unwilling to divulge how many subscribers REVRY has, Pelliccione said that the "app has far exceeded my expectations with the community that we've built." He told me about how the service has brought queer filmmakers together in cities across the country, and about a closeted gay man in Saudi Arabia, who said the app helped him see someone like himself on screen for the first time. And for him, that alone is proof that a dedicated outlet for queer stories can change lives, whether or not they can build huge profits.