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What can you do to become more LGBT+ inclusive (and what can you do for staff, aside from training)?

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

For starters, you can encourage people to binge these shows!

A young person of colour eating popcorn at the cinema.

The climate has shifted, with more and more companies looking to diversify their workforce and foster a more inclusive workplace culture. Thousands of dollars are being invested in diversity and inclusion training each year by workplaces across the globe.

But if organisations are really looking to foster change and create a truly inclusive environment, it can’t just stop at employee training. For true social change and inclusion, we need regular exposure to more diverse people and their experiences.

As it stands, so many of us grew up in a world where sexuality and gender diversity wasn’t accepted. But with with regular exposure we can help to normalise diversity and help people become more tolerance, accepting and empathetic towards people of all genders and sexualities.

The power of representation to change attitudes in families, schools and workplaces: why everyone should watch LGBT+ inclusive TV shows

How do you achieve that constant exposure? One of the easiest ways is through the content we consume. That’s why this post is all about television and how the shows we watch can shape our values - for better or worse.

So if you’re ready to look at the harsh reality of how homophobic and transphobic the TV shows you grew up with were, and how modern, authentic portrayals are challenging these attitudes.

In this post, Mel and El are going to track the changes in how LGBT characters have been represented on television and share the TV moments of authenticity and inclusion that warmed our hearts and made us cry.

How does what we see on TV play into the culture of families, schools and workplaces?

Like it or not, we pick up attitudes and values from TV. We’re not trying to say that that violent HBO drama is going to drive us to fight opposition with the sword, but when it comes to those sitcoms and dramas that reflect our life and society, they provide models for social roles and interactions that we as humans learn from.

That’s why there's such a power in representation when it comes to LGBTIQA+ identities on television. These days, we do see powerful, authentic queer characters that provide positive role models, helping to create attitudes of acceptance and inclusion. But it wasn’t always this way.

A history of underrepresentation of LGBT people and how this contributed to our erasure in families, schools and workplaces

Thinking back to the late 90s and early 2000s, the TV landscape was marred by a scarcity of queer characters. When we think about the shows we religiously watched, there’s often a complete absence of gay characters, and we were miles from any form of trans representation.

"Every Thursday night I’d race home from my swimming lesson to settle in for the latest episode of Charmed. I can’t think of a single ongoing queer character in that show. Gilmore Girls was another show I’d watch weekly which had no openly LGBT+ characters. My sister and I would speculate as to whether Michel was gay or just French, a prime example of how a lack of open representation primes us for the attitudes and approaches common at the time - a person being gay was something to whisper and speculate about. A dirty secret to uncover. "

- Mel

And this notion of homosexuality being a scandalous little secret wasn’t something that just happened - we’d seen it before, learned to do it not just from our household, but from seeing it on TV.

Remember That 70s Show? In Australia it would surface each year around Christmas time, running nightly when regular programming broke for the holidays. In this series, the character Fez , played by Wilmer Valderrama, is portrayed as sexually ambiguous, leading to jokes about his sexual orientation. Using Fez's supposed ambiguity as a source of humor, perpetuated the idea that someone's sexuality is a matter of speculation and ridicule.

It’s no wonder that homosexuality was and still is something people feel they need to hide in the workplace. In fact, the recent Writing Themselves in Report found that 44% of employees do not feel they can safely identify as LGBTIQA+ at work. Clearly, a lot of work still needs to be done to shift the culture to one where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves, which is unsurprising given how little media representation we actually saw of queer people in the workplace.

But it wasn’t just the absence of queer characters that was contributing to negative attitudes and beliefs that would be carried into schools and workplaces nationwide. In the instances where queer characters did exist, they were largely depicted in ways that perpetuated harmful stereotypes.

3 TV shows with LGBT characters that sent damaging messages

1. "Friends" (1994-2004)

This immensely popular and long running sitcom revolved around the lives and relationships of a group of six friends in New York City - all of whom were straight and cisgender (they were also all white, and non-disabled). The queer characters Friends did have were always the butt of jokes. Remember how Ross’ lesbian ex-wife ran off with a woman? Think about the way this was portrayed, not a celebration of someone’s new found relationship, but as a threat to Ross’s masculinity. And then there was the character of “Chandler’s dad” - who was constantly the object of ridicule for wearing makeup and “women’s clothing”.

2. "Two and a Half Men" (2003-2015)

Another long-running sitcom, in which the character of Evelyn Harper's friend, Jerome, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, is depicted as an effeminate gay man. His mannerisms and behaviors were served up as comedic elements, leaning into stereotypes of flamboyance and effeminacy, reducing his identity to a punchline for humor rather than a fully developed character.

3. "Sex and the City" (1998-2004)

The character Stanford Blatch, portrayed by Willie Garson, is a gay friend of the main characters. Here we see an example of the “gay best friend” trope. Stanford’s primary role is to provide advice and comedic relief for the straight female protagonists, contributing to a one-dimensional portrayal based on stereotypical gay traits. The show also contributes to bi-erasure, with Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) character delivering the bi-phobic line “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown.”

Two female presenting, white people cuddling in the kitchen.

We’re both actually young enough to have been too young for many of these shows when they originally aired, but they were so enduring that we were both still watching reruns of all three in late high school. Their reach spanned generations – so many of us who spent part of a decade watching and absorbing inauthentic stereotypes of what it meant to be gay, a tokenistic representation that may have taught us gay people exist, but made it clear this wasn’t a desirable trait.

And when queerness is depicted as an undesirable trait on television, that message gets absorbed and follows us into schools and workplaces. Think about it - if all you’ve seen on TV is that to be gay, lesbian or trans is to be at best an outsider, or at worst an object of ridicule, how comfortable would you feel being out in the workplace?

The messages that we internalise from the media have far reaching effects, not just for queer people themselves, but for straight, cisgender people. How can you learn to accept others when you’ve never seen their identities modelled in an authentic way?

And then came the Queerbaiting: When TV shows hooked us in with the promise of LGBT+ representation

As acceptance grew, and producers came to realise that there was a whole audience of queer people out there looking to see themselves reflected on screen, a tactic we began to see was something known as ‘queerbaiting’.

What is queerbaiting?

Queerbaiting is when a TV show lures LGBT+ audience members in with the promise of representation, by hinting at queer relationships. Often, these relationships never amount to anything - the characters never actually hook up or openly identify as queer, the TV show will string the audience along through multiple seasons without so much as a kiss.

If you’re wondering why this happens, it’s a way to engage an LGBT+ audience starved of any representation, without alienating mainstream viewers who the network believes may be put off by any explicit depiction of a gay or lesbian relationship.

Remember the crime drama Rizzoli & Isles? The tension between the two female leads was palpable and the writers of the show even admitted to playing up the queer subtext to attract a broader audience.

In fact, there are dozens of shows that queerbaited their audience. For queer viewers, it was frustrating and fed into the message that to be openly queer wasn’t ok, while on the part of the networks it’s morally reprehensible. To profit off a queer audience whilst still not deeming them worthy enough for explicit depiction simply isn’t okay.

And this act both reflected and perpetuated the idea that queerness was something to hide - cementing for many LGBTIQA+ people that to be open about their identity at school or in the workplace was too big a risk. Think about it - if prime time TV shows were too scared to risk explicitly featuring a queer character, of course nobody was going to feel safe being out at work.

Bury your gays: When we finally got queer characters on TV that we cared about, and then lost them

Another problem with the representation of LGBTIQA+ characters on TV over the past few decades was the ‘bury your gays’ trope - so common it has a name. If you’ve never heard of it, queer audiences would wait multiple seasons for two characters of the same gender to get together, and not long after they finally did, one of the characters would die.

It was as devastatingly common as it was devastating for queer viewers - the list currently stands at 230 bisexual and lesbian characters and counting who have been killed off. One of the most recent examples I can remember is the TV series The 100. For a whole season audiences were queerbaited with the tension between Clarke and Lexa, before a betrayal meant that the pair didn’t so much as kiss. It took many more episodes for the relationship to heal and the pair to finally sleep together, but the audience was denied the opportunity to savour that moment. In fact, the couple were still in bed together when Lexa was tragically killed.

It’s a plotline that sparked outrage with audiences, and if you’re wondering why the show’s queer audience took this so hard, the answer lies in the lack of representation. We so rarely get to see LBGT+ characters, particularly powerful ones that we like, that when one is killed off it really hurts. Straight relationships have always played out on TV shows every day, but for those of us who aren’t straight, we’ve been desperate to hold onto the few characters we were given.

LGBT+ representation today: the power of positive representation on TV to help foster positive attitudes and beliefs

Thankfully, TV is changing. There is now far more representation and it’s far more positive. We get to see moments of acceptance and normalisation that inspires us and makes us feel good about the society the next generation gets to grow up in. We get authentic queer characters, played by queer people, where it’s clear the minority depicted has actually been given a say in how they are represented.

And it’s so important, not just for queer people, but for all viewers to see authentic, positive representation of LGBT+ characters. It can help us all become more understanding and more accepting. That’s why in this post we want to share with you some of our favourite LGBT+ inclusive shows and moments on TV. In no particular order, here are some of the moments where portrayals of LGBT+ characters warmed our hearts and made us cry.

1. Feel Good (2020-2021)

One of the creators of this Netflix series is Mae Martin, a comedian who identifies as non-binary. There’s a beautiful scene in Season 2 where Mae’s character (also named Mae) is talking to their partner, George (played by Charlotte Ritchie) about their confusion around their own gender identity. George encourages Mae to Google non-binary identities, and tells them “you tell me, and I’ll use the right words”.

We watched this show together and were so moved by this moment of vulnerability from Mae and genuine support from George that we both cried. In fact, El rewatched it again when writing this and it once again was so overwhelming it brought tears to her eyes.

2. Sort Of (2021- )

One of the greatest things about this show on Stan is not just the fact that the main character Sabi (played by Bilal Baig) is a non-binary person - it’s the fact that their identity is not at all central to the plot. Sort Of gives us non-binary representation without making it a point of contention or drama. Sabi works a day job as a nanny to a family, and they are the backbone holding that family together.

Seeing a strong, powerful character who also happens to be non-binary - and a person of colour - without that being the butt of a joke or a problem to be overcome does wonders for representation.

3. Sex Education (2019-2023)

This show is so full of authentic LGBTIQA+ representation that we don’t even know where to start. There are minor lesbian characters who come to Otis (Asa Butterfield) for advice with their love lives. Ola’s (Patricia Allison’s) character first dates Otis and in the later seasons goes on to have a relationship with the eccentric Lilly (Tanya Reynolds). There’s a complex coming out love story between Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Adam (Connor Swindells). And season 3 brings us two very different yet both incredibly authentic non-binary characters - Cal (Dua Saleh) and Layla (Robyn Holdaway).

If you haven’t seen this show yet, start now, as the final season comes out later this month. El says this show has made her cry countless times: there are so many moments in this show where I’ve been overjoyed that the next generation gets to grow up internalising these messages instead of the ones we were exposed to in shows like Friends.

4. Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020)

This was the first positive and genuine representation of a queer identity that wasn’t gay or lesbian that El ever saw. One of the show’s main characters, David (Dan Levy) identifies as pansexual. Throughout the show, we hear David speak about dating characters of all genders, and we see him in different sexual and romantic relationships with both Stevie (Emily Hampshire) and Patrick (Noah Reid).

One of the most powerful moments of the show for El was the scene where David describes his sexuality by using a metaphor about wine, saying “I like the wine and not the label”. This scene was so instrumental as a portrayal of people who are attracted to more than one gender that Emily Hampshire has since said that the scene helped her find her own identity as pansexual.

5. Brooklyn 99 (2013-2021)

This show has several LGBTIQA+ characters - all of whom are portrayed authentically and painted in very different lights, spotlighting different individuals rather than painting people with one brush. Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) and his husband Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson) are two powerful gay men. Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) and Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas), who both identify as bisexual, and Rosa’s coming out is a big part of her character development - rather than it being a point of tension, it’s displayed as a point of growth and relief.

To top things off, Brooklyn 99 delivers us a headstrong LGBTIQA+ ally in Terry Jeffords (played by Terry Crews), providing a portrayal of what support from people who aren’t LGBTIQA+ can look like.

6. Heartstopper (2022- )

A coming of age story for the new generation, Heartstopper tells the story of two young men in high school who fall in love. El says: something that really sticks in my mind is a beautiful moment in Season 1 where Nick (Kit Connor), comes out to his mum (Olivia Colman) as bisexual. He tells her “I still like girls, but I like boys too” to which she replies “thank you for telling me. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn’t tell me that”.

After so long of characters queerness being central to drama in shows, this moment felt incredibly validating, and is another one that had El (who herself identifies as bisexual) crying yet again as she wrote this section.

How can positive representation help foster an environment of LGBT+ inclusion?

Someone's light skinned hands holding a rainbow coloured paper heart.

One of the reasons these shows are so powerfully overwhelming is because their representations are so real. For the first time, LGBTIQA+ people are seeing characters and experiences portrayed that reflect their own lives. And our lives and stories are finally being shared with people who aren’t LGBTIQA+. We are finally being seen.’

These portrayals help us as a society to move away from this notion of ‘normal and other’. By displaying a broad range of human experiences, all of them displayed as normal - just different - we internalise the message that there is not one correct way to be human, and move towards expecting and embracing diversity.

And for a young person discovering who they are, being able to see themselves represented on screen can validate their identity, it can show them that it is not wrong to be who they are. Seeing someone’s similar journey on screen sends the message that ‘you are not alone’. It can also help to open a dialogue with friends, family and other loved ones.

And while these representations have gotten better and much more common, there’s still a long way to go for LGBTIQA+ people to have equal representation across TV shows, films, and other forms of media and storytelling such as podcasts and books.

How can LGBT+ inclusive shows create more inclusive families, schools and workplaces?

The power of authentic LGBTIQA+ representation is paving the way to create relatable characters and break down stereotypes that have held the community back for a very long time. The stories we are now watching on screen have become more real and therefore expose us to a broader range of people.

As humans, we have a tendency to fear the unknown. As a result, watching diverse characters on screen, getting to know and love them and understand a little bit about their world, makes it so that we are no longer seen as ‘other’.

The characters we see on TV reflect our world, a world full of human experiences. When we are given the opportunity to watch characters not only struggle, but triumph and love, we are given the chance to learn empathy and understanding for others. And the more human experiences we are exposed to in this way, the more truly inclusive we will be in our everyday lives. Rather than internalising messages of ‘otherness’ and hate, we will internalise empathy and break down our prejudice. As a result, this will lead to a more LGBT+ inclusive workplace across a whole range of settings.

This also starts to play out in other day to day interactions - Uncle Bob won’t be so uncomfortable asking his niece about her girlfriend. Your coworker won’t avoid you because he thinks you’re going to hit on him just because you’re gay. The children at school will know that it’s no longer ‘cool’ to bully someone for being gay. These stories and these characters normalise human difference, and give people the tools to act respectful and be allies.

What can I do to make the world more inclusive - starting with my school, workplace and family home?

Watching shows like the ones we’ve outlined above is a great start to sparking conversations and broadening the type of stories and characters that you and your children are exposed to and therefore able to relate to. But it doesn’t end there.

True inclusion and allyship involves constant learning. Take the time to diversify who you follow on social media. Commit to asking questions in safe spaces and be open to learning from the answers you receive. Invest in training for your workplace, and encourage your child’s school to do the same.

As the journey towards comprehensive representation still continues, so too does the path to genuine inclusion and equality. And TV shows are one way to be able to see that progress as it happens - from complete erasure to harmful stereotypes, all the way to authentic representations that bring tears to our eyes, we are on a good path. You have the power to foster change everyday - and the media that you choose to consume is a powerful

Mel Brush [he/they] and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs [she/they] are experts in fostering a culture of consent and LGBTIQA+ inclusion. They run training and deliver keynote speeches for schools and workplaces.


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