October is LGBT History Month in the United States and within the last year, the queer community has celebrated tremendous achievements and tragedies. While queer people have been appearing more frequently in media and entertainment, the response to the rise in representation has not always been positive.
Queer art and media has a history of being regulated to the underground, labeled subversive and often only brought to the mainstream by a more “digestible” talent. Mainstream America is familiar with Madonna’s “Vogue,” but is probably not familiar with the ground-breaking dance houses of New York City that inspired the song and music video.
Members of the queer community would have to search for characters similar to them. Heteronormative relationships went far beyond a majority of romances in media, it pervaded every aspect of media. Gay and lesbian relationships were taboo, to put it kindly, and relationships with gender-nonconforming or queer people were virtually absent. The queer community created art and stories with people like themselves, celebrating their creativity and expression.
Over the years, queer people moved into the mainstream more frequently and easily. As representation increased, parts of queer culture became lost to the mainstream. Token gay or lesbian characters showed up in soap operas and before long lesbian, gay and bisexual characters are stars of hit television shows and media. According to GLAAD’s 2015 “Where We Are on TV Report,” 4 percent of “regular characters expected to appear on broadcast primetime programing” were identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Queer media goes far beyond lesbian, gay or bisexual characters. Transgender people have no representation on primetime broadcast, and only three characters on cable networks, according to GLAAD’s report. Streaming services, known to be more open to series that others have deemed riskier, has the greatest percentage of characters that are transgender, at 7 percent. This is largely explained by Hollywood’s aversion to queer stories. Despite the general consensus that stories of all kinds are relatable and the extensive history of queer individuals relating to stories of non-queer characters, media companies still do not want to invest in a production that they think might alienate the mainstream.
As a result, queer people are brought into the mainstream without their culture. LGBT characters are oftentimes stereotypes or one-note people that are sassy, flamboyant, eccentric or depressed and serve only to support the main, straight and cisgender star. A coming out story focuses on the parents of the child or a story about the queer community is told through a fish-out-of-water point of view that often mocks the community.
Pieces of queer culture have been taken by the mainstream community for years without recognition. The Kardashians did not invent contouring, a makeup practice used for years by industry professionals and drag queens in an effort to appear more feminine. While the world becomes more perceptive of appropriation, audiences everywhere are now getting exposure to a culture they might not be familiar with despite seeing the products of the culture.
In the near future, Fox is broadcasting a remake of possibly the biggest queer hit movie ever made, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and NBC is putting on a live remake of “Hairspray,” the movie-musical created by gay filmmaker John Waters with a drag queen in a starring role. LGBT media is being brought to the forefront in new ways. RuPaul, the drag queen singer of “Supermodel (You Better Work),” won an Emmy in September for his role as host of the eponymous “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Queer culture is being exposed to more and more Americans daily. When queer stories are told, attitudes can change for the better as more Americans encounter queer people and see them as human beings, not an abstract political concept. On National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, the LGBT cable channel Logo TV broadcasted a marathon of “Drag Race” with images of queer culture, including the faces and bodies of the contestants, completely blacked out. In the video announcement, Logo TV wrote, “According to Logo’s Global Ally research, people who said attitudes towards LGBT people have become more favorable over the last five years reported that knowing someone who is LGBTI was the leading reason behind the change.” The censoring was a symbolic going back into the closet to stand in solidarity with people who cannot come out for any reason.
While queer people are becoming more visible, being queer is, to an extent, being counter-culture. Visibility, in its current state, takes a lot of queer culture out of representation. Shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which just crowned the winner of its second All Stars edition, are meant to celebrate being LGBT in its entirety by showing complicated real world people who do not happen to be queer — they are queer. Their lives, personalities and references come from and cater to the queer community. So while mainstream media takes the pieces and stereotypes it sees fit, having pockets of representation meant to celebrate the LGBT community in full allows for a space in entertainment without judgement. This is meant for an audience that is underserved despite providing so much for the broader world of entertainment and culture.
During LGBT History Month, celebrating the achievements of the queer community is a way of celebrating the hard work of many that go unrecognized. In many ways, the history of the LGBT community involves mainstream audiences taking aspects and later denying or overlooking their origins. The culture that many identify with today is a result of LGBT history. Having spaces devoted mainly to LGBT audiences helps to celebrate an unfiltered look at the community, which is even more important when considering that the community is there for those who have been ostracized by others.