According to GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report for 2016-17, gay representation on broadcast television is at an all-time high, as 4.8% of the 895 series regulars on ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, and NBC programming are LGBTQ. Additionally, there are 28 recurring LGBTQ characters on broadcast television, while ABC leads the pack in overall representation with 7.3% of its regular characters identifying as LGBTQ. It should be a tremendous win for a community used to not seeing itself on television, particularly after an election season that showed that for as much progress as we’ve made recently, there is still a silently significant swath of the population who begrudge the fact that the LGBTQ community (largely) isn’t treated as second class anymore. Media representation goes a long way toward softening attitudes toward minorities, humanizing concepts and people that some don’t have direct experience with, and the more we see ourselves on television, the more the internalized homophobia instilled by society dissipates. But while the LGBTQ community has its work cut out for it in winning over those who don’t have the most socially progressive principles, there’s still work to be done amongst ourselves.
Case in point: The Real O’Neals, ABC’s bold family comedy that premiered last spring. The series follows Kenny O’Neal (Noah Galvin), a 16-year-old from the Midwest whose coming out helps kick off a period of transition for his devoutly Catholic family. Not only does Kenny have to deal with the emotional weirdness that comes with coming out, a time in every gay person’s life that can be simultaneously invigorating and overwhelming, he has to try and show his mother Eileen (Martha Plimpton) that her ignorance about issues of sexuality isn’t an attitude she needs to continue with going forward. It’s an interesting avenue for ABC to move its family brand into, framing its usual tics (e.g. voiceover, three sibling families) around a story of religion and sexuality, and one that should be a tremendous milestone for the LGBTQ community. Kenny O’Neal is one of only three LGBTQ lead characters on broadcast television (the other two being The 100‘s Clarke and How to Get Away with Murder‘s Annalise) and this is the first time that the coming out process has A) provided the backbone of a television series and B) been portrayed to a wide audience as something lacking the typical angst and self-hatred we’re used to seeing accompany it. And yet the show’s run has been besotted with controversy and a genuinely disappointing audience reaction.
The latest deal for the O’Neals is controversy over a joke mentioning bisexuality; Kenny gets a call from new boyfriend Brett saying that they have to talk about something and in the moments before Brett comes to meet him, Kenny overthinks the “worst case scenarios” for what Brett could tell him – among them money troubles, webbed toes, and bisexuality. It was a tad jarring for a show as open-hearted and loving as The Real O’Neals to make a joke like that, given that its ethos is all about acceptance and living one’s truth, but within the context of the show’s narrative, it makes sense. Kenny O’Neal is a neurotic, anxious 16-year-old devout Catholic living in the Midwest who has one gay friend and has never met someone bisexual; in addition, he’s someone who has a mother who has constantly sent him a negative message about sex itself and the spectrum of sexuality, so to expect him to have a fully formed, wholly enlightened viewpoint about every aspect of the LGBTQ community feels a little unrealistic. Nobody in the LGBTQ community has it all figured out as soon as they come out, which extends to their knowledge of the rest of the community and is the entire point of The Real O’Neals. Coming out is a messy, complicated, amazing, terrifying experience that is absolutely impossible to perfectly navigate, so you’ll see people say and do things while they’re still trying to figure things out that are a product of their experiences prior to coming out. To hold Kenny to some standard that he was never going to live up to and then punish one of the few LGBT shows out there because of it speaks of inherent privilege, of having came out in a more accepting, less homogenous environment and forgetting that not every gay person is as lucky.
But that’s not stopped members of the LGBTQ community from policing a weeks-old episode of a show barely clinging to life. For instance, former Grey’s Anatomy actress Sara Ramirez took it upon herself to use her public platform to call for a statement from ABC condemning the joke, saying that Real O’Neals star Noah Galvin’s statement on the matter, delivered shortly after the January 17th episode, wasn’t enough to satiate her. Aside from how unprofessional it was to air something like this on a public forum, aside from the blatant hypocrisy of Ramirez commenting on this and yet staying silent on the slate of lesbian/bisexual women who met their untimely ends on TV in 2016 (e.g. The 100, The Walking Dead, Blindspot, etc.) and the paucity of positive portrayals of bisexual men on television, it’s this type of self-sabotaging garbage that keeps LGBTQ content from flourishing on television. Homophobia might still run rampant throughout this country, but the same thing that’s happening to The Real O’Neals also happened to Looking, HBO’s romantic dramedy that also had a small, passionate fan base before concluding a short run last year. Both shows received fairly sizeable backlash from the LGBTQ community, mostly for unsubstantiated or asinine reasons, and without support from the core audience, shows that target the LGBTQ community are not going to survive. And it’s not as if networks are tripping over themselves making shows with LGBTQ leads anyway, so if there’s a pattern where they see the community they’re targeting is actively going against the content they’re making, shows with LGBTQ leads that tell LGBTQ stories will be relegated to tiny cable channels and streaming networks if they’re even made at all. Granted, not every gay person will like every gay show, and there have been plenty of LGBTQ shows that have garnered polarizing reactions among the community while still surviving (e.g. The L Word, Will & Grace, Queer as Folk), but actively working against something that has helped others doesn’t sit right with me, as the current television environment is increasingly fractured and broadcast television has become difficult for shows about niche audiences to crack. It’s hard enough for LGBTQ shows to work as is and we don’t need to continue the self-defeating habits that’ve sank LGBTQ shows in the past, especially not when The Real O’Neals has done quite a bit of good with its platform that, coincidentally, Ms. Ramirez hasn’t shared with her litany of followers.
What’s most frustrating about the way The Real O’Neals has been treated is that the same audience that turns it back on LGBTQ-oriented programming is the same to go to pieces over 2-3 minutes of content on predominantly non-LGBTQ programming. The LGBTQ community is deeply starved for content, but instead of gravitating toward the Lookings and Real O’Neals of the world, they’re seemingly content with storylines predicated on subtext and pandering fan service. They’re elated with being one member of a huge ensemble cast vs. watching shows centered on their stories; they’re thrilled to have enough LGBTQ content to fill a Tumblr gif set or jump start a piece of fan fiction vs. watching an in-depth look at another gay person’s experience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shipping characters on your favorite show, be it canonical or not, but if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community who fetishizes a (real or hinted at) LGBTQ relationship on a predominantly non-LGBTQ show and don’t show support for any LGBTQ content, you are the reason representation is what it is. Your internalized homophobia manifesting itself as discomfort with and an overly critical attitude toward predominantly LGBTQ content are the reason why getting a LGBTQ show on broadcast is still amazingly revolutionary in the year 2017, why The Real O’Neals even getting ordered to series was a world shaking victory that should have been a launchpad forward. Sects of the LGBTQ community seem to be waiting for the “perfect” gay-oriented show to support, one that manages to condense a vast, colorful, multi-layered community’s experiences into a singular narrative that makes sense; unfortunately, there’s no show can that feasibly include every permutation found within the LGBTQ community and wholly feature characters who speak like a mix of GLAAD reports and #woke Tumblr accounts, so waiting on the “perfect” show is causing plenty of good-to-very-good-to-great shows to fall by the wayside.
Expecting every gay character on television to pop out of the closet in full Twitter activist mode is as dangerous for LGBTQ representation as the latest deeply stereotypical token gay character on TV. Every gay experience is not the same and for the LGBTQ community to try to homogenize itself while fighting for representation is the type of backwards thinking that will keep us from progressing in the way we should. Gay characters are allowed to be selfish, neurotic, and close-minded; they’re allowed to not fully understand the community they’ve been born into. They’re allowed to still ask questions and to let their anxieties get the best of them, to flail around while trying to find themselves and to stumble upon the right answers in the least expected way. Gay characters should be allowed to be human, but the LGBTQ community’s hyper sensitivity over shows where they’re the centerpiece doesn’t allow for that. No network is going to want to make shows for a niche audience constantly twisting itself into knots to find the latest nit to pick, so the self-inflicted wounds given to the likes of Looking and The Real O’Neals do nothing but ensure that the next time a predominantly LGBT project comes into development, it won’t get picked up to series. Though LGBTQ shows should be held accountable for how they portray the community they’re embedded in, the energy the LGBTQ community has put into tearing down its own kind would be of much better use in policing how they’re portrayed on non-LGBTQ shows, in finding more room on broader shows for LGBTQ characters. If we keep killing our own young rather than pushing the cultural gatekeepers to continue creating content for us, pretty soon there won’t be any LGBTQ shows left and we’ve come too far in terms of representation to go back now.