It was while at Whittier College, nearly four years ago, that Los Angeles stage actor Nikki Knupp realized neither male nor female designations described gender experience as Knupp had lived it. Listed as “female” at birth, Knupp now identifies as genderfluid, meaning someone whose gender fluctuates between masculine, feminine and anything between.
But that meant Knupp’s career was about to hit several road bumps. A trained dancer used to filling ingénue or femme fatale roles, Knupp said that finding characters outside the male-female gender binary to portray has been close to impossible.
“It’s been really difficult,” Knupp said. “There is no representation at all.”
Genderfluid individuals such as Knupp are just one part of the LGBTQ community which has found itself increasingly visible in the American zeitgeist. But while more Americans learn about their non-binary friends and neighbors every day, mass media has been slow to catch up.
According to a 2017 study by GLAAD (formerly Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), only 4.8 percent of characters on primetime scripted broadcast television were LGBTQ during the 2016-2017 television season. Only 16 characters across broadcast, cable and streaming programs were transgender.
And even where they were represented, the GLAAD report noted that portrayals were rife with harmful stereotypes about LGBTQ individuals.
“Creators overwhelmingly choose to portray bisexuality as a villainous trait rather than a lived identity,” GLAAD Senior Strategist Alexandra Robles said, citing one example. “This trend of inaccurate portrayals undermines how people understand bisexuality, which has real life consequences for bi people and their wellbeing.”
However, the report noted several positive trends. There was an increase in the number of regular LGBTQ characters on cable, up to 92 from 84, and representation increased more than ever in the 2016-2017 season, GLAAD found.
USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Director Larry Gross said that confirms long-standing trends about LGBTQ representation in media.
According to Gross, visibility in media is all about visibility in society. LGBTQ actors, creators and producers have been present in entertainment since its earliest days, Gross said, but such individuals were deeply closeted. Rarely did they portray their gender identities or sexuality on-screen, if ever at all.
That changed changed in the mid-90s, when LGBTQ issues became a hot button issue for Americans, Gross said. The AIDS epidemic of the previous decade had forced many in the LGBTQ community out of the closet, and news reporters began to cover the community, which led to increased awareness among Americans.
Reality television was the first genre of entertainment where LGBTQ individuals were put front and center, Gross said. MTV’s The Real World, which launched in 1992, featured Norman Korpi, the first openly gay person to appear in television as himself.
The Real World broke another barrier in 1994, when activist Pedro Zamora became the first openly gay person with AIDS to be portrayed on popular media. Ellen followed a few years later, when the main character (played by Ellen Degeneres) came out as lesbian in 1997. Such visibility had a profound effect on viewers, especially young adults who would go on to become creators themselves in the following decades.
“For young people growing up in this period, the presence of gay people in the media was very distinctive,” Gross said. “It was one of the ways reality television demonstrated its reality.”
That reality hasn’t always translated into quick progress, according to Los Angeles music artist Torrey Mercer, who identifies herself as bisexual. Mercer said that in days past, white gay males were the predominant form of representation, sidelining women and bisexual individuals like herself.
Even today, such characters tend to dominate the airwaves, as reflected by GLAAD. The 2017 media analysis found that 49 percent of LGBTQ characters on primetime scripted broadcast television were gay men.
“I think there’s still a long way to go,” Mercer said.
However, many shows have also taken steps to make non-heterosexual and non-binary characters their focal point, particularly those geared towards a younger audience. Mercer pointed to Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra as one example. The much-anticipated sequel to the award-winning animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender revealed that its main character was bisexual in the series finale, a plotline that has since been expanded in comic books. Non-binary characters are also featured in other shows, such as Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe.
Other forms of media are catching up. Knupp said that although there has been difficulty in finding productions that acknowledge diverse gender identities, some new plays and musicals, such as The Civility of Albert Cashier, are starting to take note of the non-binary community.
Knupp and Mercer agreed that representation is the responsibility of everyone in the entertainment and media industry. Producers and creators could make huge differences in visibility, and viewers and fans also have a role to play in pushing creators to bring LGBTQ stories to the masses.
But Gross said that although representation is important, LGBTQ individuals will always be a minority on-screen, simply due to population sizes.
“It’ll always be somewhat marginal,” Gross said. “Any way you look at it, there’s not that many gay and lesbian people in society.”
Knupp and Gross said that the best way for LGBTQ individuals to make an impact was to get involved as creators themselves.
“Things have changed so quickly in the past decade,” Knupp said. “Don’t be afraid to write your own stories.”