Growing up in a pretty conservative and homophobic environment, it took me a while to come out. In the time before I could embrace my identity and find my community, I remember queer representation in media being super important for me. I would eat up anything with even a little LGBTQ+ subtext, whether that be a show as explicitly queer as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or a film that at least had a gay person in it, like “Mean Girls.” The pickings were a little basic, for sure; I couldn’t be expected to have the taste of RISD’s artsiest film student as a preteen. To a young, uninformed me, these forms of media gave me an insight into the queer culture I wanted to be a part of so badly. Unfortunately, I quickly found that this representation — which I hoped would feature the entire culture and community — was near exclusively focused on cisgender white gay men. Though this was an issue in my childhood, I had hoped it would be mostly solved by the time I had grown up. I was a bit too optimistic.
According to a GLAAD report on LGBTQ+ representation in film this past year, most queer characters featured were white, most were men, and only 22 of the 292 characters counted were trans or nonbinary. Not to mention, only 28.5% of the 350 films counted even had queer characters, with the majority having less than five minutes of screentime. With queer representation still being so rare and surface-level, the fact that the characters included are disproportionately white, cisgender and male is more than a little disappointing. This selective representation becomes especially evident when looking at the most popular queer stories in film and TV. “Heartstopper” and “Red, White, & Royal Blue” were both huge recent successes for their respective streaming platforms, and both feature British white men as their protagonists. While encouraging more queer stories to be told is obviously important, it should be equally important that these stories are diverse across the board.
Now, it certainly isn’t true that there are no stories about broader queer experiences being made. FX’s “Pose,” centered around Black and brown queer people, particularly trans women, ran for three seasons. Back in 2017, Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” which focuses on the experiences of a Black gay man, won the Academy Award for Best Picture (though, that might not be what you remember most from that night). And, in my very qualified opinion, “Bottoms” is not only the greatest work of cinema of 2023, but of all time. However, it is rare that these stories get the same amount of funding, support and attention as the Brokeback Mountains of the world. In fact, a ranking of box office performances of LBGTQ+ movies reveals that a majority of the most successful queer movies are about white gay men. And in terms of promotion, it’s hard not to question why a romcom about gay men like “Bros” got a wide theater release and an estimated $40 million marketing budget while “Bottoms,” a romcom about gay women, was initially given a limited release in only ten theaters and a much smaller budget.
However, depressing statistics about the homogeneity of queer media shouldn’t be necessary to justify wanting more diverse representation. In fact, even if the majority of gay movies made this year were about, say, trans lesbians of color, I’d say we should still have more of those movies made and less whose footage could be used for a Troye Sivan music video. We are contending with an overwhelmingly unjust history of intersectional queer experiences being underrepresented, neglected and sidelined. This itself is a reflection of the disproportionate levels of oppression that people of these identities have faced for decades. This should be reason enough for the directors, writers and producers of Hollywood to avoid creating more media that compounds this lack of representation. When a new LGBTQ+ movie comes out that near exclusively features cis white men, like “Strange Way of Life,” I can’t help but feel like the casting decision was a moral failure. Sure, there are stories that are specifically about the white cis gay male experience, but is it really necessary for those to be the ones told at this point in history? Is the need for these exclusionary stories so great that they should be made instead of one that, perhaps, highlights a character that isn’t a white man? I say no.
Of course, tokenism in representation can be just as harmful, and I’m certainly not suggesting some clunky quota system be enforced. Moreover, I don’t think a solution would be to boycott something like “Heartstopper” and sabotage the rare pieces of queer media we do get. The issue of representation in Hollywood is a big one that requires a level of structural change and diversification of the workforce both in front of and behind the camera. A good solution, though, is to support the pieces of media that center a more inclusive understanding of queerness. For example, Netflix recently launched a new series, “First Kill,” that centered on a lesbian relationship, but then canceled it after one season due to lack of viewership. That is exactly what we, as viewers, need to prevent from happening. If enough people watch these projects, then studios should get the message that making more shows like “Pose” or movies like “Moonlight” would be profitable for them. We can at least economically encourage what should already be the obvious right thing. So, go rummage through those online lists of LGBTQ+ films and shows and make sure you give the stories that feature intersectional queerness some love. We need more of them.
Paulie Malherbe ’26 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.