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Where Are TV’s LGBTQIA Characters Going?

TV shows with queer and trans characters are disappearing, sparking concerns that networks and streaming services are caving to anti-2SLGBTQ+ sentiment.

 There were 468 2SLGBTQ+ characters in TV shows this year, according to an April report from the prominent advocacy organization GLAAD, 128 fewer than its last annual report. And of them, 36 per cent aren’t returning next year because their shows have ended or been cancelled.   

That’s compared to an overall 14 per cent decline in new shows from 2022 to 2023, according to research from cable network FX, partly owing to the Hollywood writer’s strike last year.

Frustrated fans have dubbed the trend “Cancel Your Gays,” named after the “Bury Your Gays” trope that peaked in 2016, where many queer and trans characters, particularly women, were killed off in shows and denied a happy ending.

Dana Piccoli, an American 2SLGBTQ+ journalist, says seeing those characters disappear can be defeating for fans.

“I have some people I’ve talked to who, personally, this has been very destructive to their outlook on their queerness and/or their transness,” she said. 

“The fact that we have had queer representation and trans representation on television in a positive way for the last, say, 20 years, has really changed so much of how people understand and respect the LGBTQ community.”

Positive trajectory shifted after pandemic

Piccoli said queer and trans representation in shows was improving from 2018 onwards, but shifted after the COVID-19 pandemic.

This coincided with a rise in anti-2SLGBTQ+ rhetoric, followed by waves of anti-trans legislation in North America. The Southern Poverty Law Center noted there were 86 anti-2SLGBTQ+ hate groups in the U.S. in 2023, a one-third increase and the highest number it has ever listed.  

A person rests their arms on a table while posing for the camera.
Bilal Baig was co-writer and star of Sort Of, a CBC comedy series that centred around a genderfluid character. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Piccoli was personally disappointed by the cancellation of the award-winning A League of Their Own, about a Second World War-era women’s baseball team that explored the lives of queer women in the 1940s. 

Amazon Prime renewed the show for a four-episode final season in 2023, but then scrapped it during the writer’s strike.

Everyone has characters they see themselves in, she said, and for 2SLGBTQ+ people, that connection is “even more intense, because we have so much less of that sort of representation.”

Toronto-based writer and producer Emily Andras says the contraction has been felt across the board, as TV studios have become “skittish” about buying queer and trans stories.

“It’s very, very evident in the marketplace that people are kind of retreating back to what they would consider traditional storytelling,” Andras said.

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Companies ‘don’t want any controversy’

When Andras’s own show, Wynonna Earp, premiered in 2016, the Los Angeles Times said “changed the game” for queer female representation.

But the award-winning show was cancelled in 2019, and fans launched a massive campaign to save it, writing to studios and paying for billboards in New York City’s Times Square. It was eventually renewed for one more season.

In February, streaming service Tubi announced it would resurrect it once more, with a movie coming out this fall. 

Andras said her fan base is proof that audiences are hungrier than ever for untold stories.

Two men wearing tuxedos hold an award together.
Daniel Levy, left, and Eugene Levy from Canadian hit show Schitt’s Creek, in which Daniel’s character is pansexual. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

“These companies are businesses, they don’t want any controversy,” she said.

“But the other thing I would say, just to give a message of hope, is these are corporations…. What they want is money and success.

“So if you want there to be more queer storytelling, it’s imperative that you show up for queer storytelling. Your eyeballs and your money and your presence is really the greatest weapon that we have.”

Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment.

Advocates worry homophobia, transphobia are driving trend

Helen Kennedy, executive director of 2SLGBTQ+ advocacy group Egale Canada, suspects the Cancel Your Gays trend is partly driven by “blatant homophobia and transphobia.”

Egale received an “unbelievable” amount of hate, she said, in the form of thousands of letters, after writing to Canada’s broadcast regulator to ban Fox News in the country for anti-2SLGBTQ+ hate. Kennedy suspects TV providers often receive similar anti-trans and anti-queer messages from subscribers.

A woman speaks at a press conference.
Egale executive director Helen Kennedy says TV can play a role in countering the recent wave of anti-2SLGBTQ+ hate. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

She said education is the way to counter that sentiment, and TV can play a role in that.

An Egale poll of over 300 respondents in Saskatchewan found that people who knew a trans person were more likely to oppose that province’s school pronoun policy, where teachers must get parental consent before using a student’s chosen name or pronoun if they are under 16.

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“We need to take the label off the person and really see the person as a human being,” Kennedy said. 

She cited shows like Schitt’s Creek as an example of positive portrayal, as well as Sort Of, which producer and star Bilal Baig decided to end after last season.

Representation can give people ‘legitimacy’ in society

Sarah Kaplan, founding director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, says she has seen a big pullback on the part of corporate America when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Companies are more eager to dodge “anything that would cause them to be attacked by the right-wing activists,” she said.

Retail giant Target, for example, scaled down its Pride clothing selection after employees were attacked by anti-2SLGBTQ+ activists, while beer maker Bud Light was hit with a major boycott campaign after featuring trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney in an ad. 

A beer can with a woman's face printed on the can is held up to the camera.
Dylan Mulvaney’s Instagram video with Bud Light included her showing off promotional cans with her face on them. The cans did not appear to be for sale and only appeared in the video. (dylanmulvaney/Instagram)

Kaplan said this backlash shows changes in broader public opinion. A recent poll shows  decreasing support among Americans for 2SLGBTQ+ protections for the first time since 2015. (It surveyed 22,465 U.S. adults between March 9, 2023 and Dec. 7, 2023.)

The wave of cancellations comes as many TV shows had begun to move past tokenization, introducing more well-rounded characters who simply happened to be 2SLGBTQ+ and were not primarily defined by their identity.

“We know that the LGBTQ youth in particular are vulnerable to being rejected by their families, more likely to become homeless, more likely to have to abuse drugs, more likely to die by suicide,” Kaplan said.

“There’s so many things that can happen if you don’t have legitimacy in society, and so having these characters is one way of creating legitimacy in society, and why it’s so important that those are represented.”

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