In 1994, a simple TV show aired on ABC. It was 19 episodes and got canceled and yet that show has never been off the air. Reruns on MTV were how I was introduced to it, by my college roommate in our freshman year, and it was for me the first time I saw a main character who was queer and a kid. And to this moment, 25+ years later, a day does not go by that the glorious Wilson Cruz doesn’t hear how much Ricky Vasquez meant to someone.
There was a lot that changed since 1994. In 1994 there were 52 characters on-air that were queer. Not all were out yet (not even Ellen had come out at the time), some were still queer coded, they were closeted, they were queer for laughs, rarely did continuing plot lines have much to do with that.
But then there was Ricky Vasquez, and it was a true watershed moment.
Well, at least ….
In Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, he states that the history of queer representation on television is basically saying “Well, at least…” By this, Russo means:
- at least the queer didn’t die
- at least the queer got a kiss
- at least the queer wasn’t the joke
It wasn’t until the 1980s that things started to shift. That was when the Federal Youth Suicide Study came out and people realized that the constant negative representation of queers was detrimental to our mental health. I’m pretty sure the entire readership of this site just went “Well yeah, no shit!” As ridiculous as it seems that they needed to do a study on that, the outcome was that shows began to take steps to reduce suicide.
They started to have one-shot characters to demonstrate tolerance, but they did so in a very ‘white saviour’ way. The queers were there to come out, the story was primarily for the cis/straight characters, the queer was unhappy, and they didn’t know any other queers. It was an incredibly tiny baby-step, but one that had us move from the hated to tolerated and finally to accepted.
Wilson Cruz was poigineitnly aware of the impact of his character.
I was fully aware of how important that this role [of Ricky Vasquez] was going to be for people. Because I understood how important it was going to be for me. I understood how much I wanted and needed to see myself and my lived experience represented in some way, so that I could know I was gonna be alright. That my life mattered. That stories like mine were worthy of being told.Wilson Cruz – LGBTQ Characters on Television – What’s Next? | Comic-Con@Home2020 (4:15)
Fast forward to the 2000s and the world is hardly recognizable. If you’d scooped me out 1994, when I still more-or-less unsure if I was a lesbian, bi, a tomboy, or what, and dropped me into 2020 and said “Check out TV!” I probably would have lost my mind.
In 1994 there were 52 characters who were (or would become) queer female, non-binary, or transgender on air, only 32 were out. Of those, 4 were transgender, 2 identified as male, 1 was dead, and 5 were on Sailor Moon. In 2020, we currently have 532 queer female, non-binary, or transgender characters on air. A 923% increase.
Show, Don’t Tell
We’ve clearly come a long way. But even in recent memory, Once Upon A Time had a failed organic relationship between Mulan and Aurora. I call it failed because it was unrequited, as poor Mulan helped Aurora find her prince. The relationship was impossible to ignore, and it later paved the way for the actual queer relationships the show had later, it was frustrating at the time to have it be the 2000s and we were still queer coding!
By contrast to Mulan and Ricky, we have shows like Sense8, where the inimitable Jamie Clayton was in a revolutionary Russian Nesting Doll of perfection.
I’m a woman of trans experience playing a woman of trans experience written by a woman of trans experience and also being directed by her, and her sibling, who wasn’t out yet, but who is now also a woman of trans experience. It was the most beautiful layered cake of all these amazing flavours.Jamie Clayton – LGBTQ Characters on Television – What’s Next? | Comic-Con@Home2020 (11:59)
Only four years later, 9-1-1: Lone Star started out with a bang that Brian Michael Smith‘s character is trans and living in Texas as a trans black man. And he wasn’t special for being trans, but for seeing things when no one else did, which made his talents and, yes, his trans-ness as an asset to the team. At the same time, they didn’t shy away from the difficulties his character, Paul, had with dating.
What I liked especially about the dating episode specifically was that he explained what his fears were. He was connecting with the other guys in the group not because “I’m trans and you know” it was like we’re all talking about our problems and he felt like he could open up because they also had their own issues. It was more like connecting in a brotherhood — a fraternal kind of way, which was great. He goes on the date and they allowed me to change the language too. He was going to talk about his experience with his date.
At first it was “There’s something I haven’t told you” or “There’s something you should know” and I was just like no. And they let me change [it to] the words that I would use. “There’s something we haven’t talked about yet.”
Just that small tweak took away the whole secretiveness and reveal and all that baggage that came with prior representation of trans people. It’s just like “Hey, this is part of my life. There’s something I want to talk about. I want to get comfortable with you first.” […]
And what was even more brilliant was that they didn’t show the conversation! The audience had to go to the commercial break thinking ‘what did he say!?’ ‘how do you describe that?’ ‘how do you talk about that?’
Exactly! I want you to think about how difficult that is before you just assume that people need to disclose to you, and we just owe it to you. I want you to think about how challenging it might be because you never know how that person is going to deal with that information. If you’re going to be safe or not. If you’re going to be hurt or not. I love that we left that to the audience to take that journey with us.Brian Michael Smith – LGBTQ Characters on Television – What’s Next? | Comic-Con@Home2020 (20:23)
Part of the reason this changed, part of how we grew, was not just having queer characters on the screen but writing them as realistic queers. The actors speaking up certainly help, and on shows like Sense8 where J. Michael Strazinsky (JMS) was known for encouraging actors to speak their voice and specifically wrote the way the character talked, it changes the impact.
Part of why we still want trans actors to play trans characters is that the writers rooms are not (yet) fully representative of queers. For many years, having a single woman was seen as ‘enough,’ putting the entire burden of fair representation for female characters on the shoulders of that singular woman in the room. And it was the struggle of the firsts, those heroes who represent the queer characters for the first time on our TV, that they had to not only be the actor but the advocate for themselves for us and for our future.
We’re making steps. 9-1-1: Lone Star is on Fox, a channel not known well for acceptance or supportiveness to the queer life. But they make it harder and harder for someone to sign anti-trans legislation when the people are watching Paul Strickland in their living room, every week, and he ha become a part of their family too.
We also have the powerful series Love, Victor, about a young Puero Rican boy who comes out, and the struggles therein. And those stories, our stories, are still crying out to be told.
I’ve always had young LGBTQ people of color at the front of my mind, because we’ve been so invisible for so very long. I want to champion them every chance I get. I think audiences are still craving that, no matter what, I mean no matter what the time is, we’re all looking for these shows.Wilson Cruz – LGBTQ Characters on Television – What’s Next? | Comic-Con@Home2020 (5:26)
So what’s next?
More of this. We need more queer BIPOC, more non-binary, more depth and breadth of experiences. We need to be more than just the tropes and clichés. We need intersectionality. We need trans disabled people, immigrants, and more of everything that is out there in the world. The more we have it on screen, the harder it is to ignore and the harder to hate.
But this is needed not just in front of the cameras but behind as well. We won’t get our stories told until we are able to turn the gaze into one that is truly representative. The reason a show like Vida resonates so much with us is because it tells a story by the people who know the story best. The people who lived it.
You can watch the entire panel, and I strongly recommend you do, on YouTube right now: LGBTQ Characters on Television – What’s Next