With each passing year comes more representation for LGBT characters in television and film. Just in 2020 alone, we’ve seen quality portrayals in live action like Love, Victor and Hollywood, as well as in cartoons, like She-Ra and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.
What straight audiences might not understand is that this type of positive representation means a great deal to those that have rarely, if ever, seen it. As such, more and more directors and showrunners are incorporating gay characters into their storylines.
However, many attempts at LGBT representation have come under harsh criticism for failing to do so properly. Those who believe their characterization of a gay character to be revolutionary have been met with harsh criticism upon the release of their work. When this happens, audiences on social media take them to task for doing the community a disservice. Thus, it can be a daunting task for straight writers to attempt to represent LGBT individuals.
In honor of Pride Month, I offer this guide to demonstrate what to do and what not to do, in order to avoid criticism. Follow all of these steps and you have a solid shot at making a real difference.
1. DO CONSULT THE LGBT COMMUNITY
The absolute best way to be prevented from offending LGBT people is to let them have a say in your story. For showrunners, this means having gay writers in your writer’s room, so that they can tell you how to best portray the community when you are talking about including them. Whatsmore, once they are in the room, it is important to LISTEN to them. That means that when they flag a narrative or characterization choice as problematic, it is changed in collaboration with them. The same goes with those making movies, as having LGBT individuals read your script and give feedback will save you your reputation in the future.
2. DON’T BE VAGUE
For years, gay audiences have had to infer whether certain characters were part of the community or if a relationship between two same sex protagonists was more than friendship. While this was acceptable at one point, LGBT members now expect confirmation of a character’s sexuality. It is not enough to simply hint at it, like Valkyrie from the MCU or Holmes and Watson from Sherlock. Nuance is not needed. Being obvious is. You know what’s obvious? A kiss.
3. DO USE THE WORDS
But let’s say a relationship for your LGBT character doesn’t fit within your story. There’s not enough time or it doesn’t work organically into the narrative you’ve created. That’s fine, but the point of representation is that your audience understands the character to be gay. Which means that even the most homophobic family can’t explain away any of the clues you’re dropping. Having a character flat out say that they are gay does the trick. If that’s too inorganic, just have a man say he has a boyfriend or a girl saying that she has a crush on another woman. Doing this ONCE is all you need so sidestep so many criticisms. If romance isn’t in the cards, be simple and to the point.
4. DON’T QUEERBAIT
Do not tease that a character might be gay if you have no intention of portraying them that way. If you have two straight characters, do not tease the audience with homoerotic vibes between them. When there is no intention of putting two characters of the same-sex in a romantic way, do not insinuate that there is. To straight creatives, its simply funny to see two straight men or women acting like a couple. To gay audiences, it is genuine hope that a love story resembling their own will eventually come to fruition. For this reason, be careful of dialogue and actions of your characters.
5. DO BE HONEST WITH AUDIENCES
If audiences start to ship two of your straight characters together, tell them straight up it’s not going to happen. It’s better to rip off the bandaid, rather than prolong the delusion and build up anticipation for something that’s just not going to happen. The goal is to get the audience to measure their expectations. If you are 100% sure your characters are straight, flat out tell the audience if they start to ship. Sexuality is not a spoiler and it should not be a plot twist.
6. DON’T LOCK IN THE SEXUALITY OF YOUR CHARACTERS
Having said all of that, if you don’t go into a show with rigid perception of the sexuality of each of your protagonists, you may not be so opposed to courting two same-sex characters you did not originally plan to be together. Chemistry between two characters often leads creatives to change their plans for the narrative all the time. Therefore, if you have two men or two women who really connect, it might actually make your movie or series better to put them in a relationship. Take the Star Wars sequel trilogy. John Boyega’s Finn was given a new potential love interest with every movie, but audiences never bought into any of them. Fans shipped Finn with Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, with whom mere seconds of screen time solidified a palpable bond. Those two had chemistry, but the idea of Finn being straight was already locked in. Don’t set your character’s straightness in stone and you’ll have an easier time putting in representation that blends in naturally.
7. DON’T BRAG ABOUT YOUR DIVERSITY
Even if you think you knocked it out of the park, do not take to social media to pat yourself on the back. Because, if you actually got it wrong, the criticism will only intensify. Don’t tease the representation of your show, only for it to fall short of what fans took your words to mean. Whatsmore, diversity from straight, white writers should not be something special. It should be that standard.
8. DO HAVE MORE THAN ONE
There are many gay people in the world and many groups have more than one. They don’t have to date. Plenty of gay men or lesbian women are friends, without being an item. But, just like how straight people want to set up the only two gay friends they have, we are not all attracted or have feelings for each other. Sometimes, it is just nice to have platonic LGBT friendships, with romantic partners found elsewhere.
9. DON’T FORGET THE BTQ+
Gays and lesbians get a good majority of the representation that does exist, but there is a whole spectrum of sexualities out there that deserve to have their stories told. Bisexual people are often thought to be myths by both straight and gay people, so they deserve to be seen through authentic portrayals as much as anyone else. Transgender individuals have their own unique struggles and journeys, most of which have yet to be told. Gender neutral. Asexuality. Those that don’t fit into any one label. They are all important and, as storytellers striving for originality, should be looked at more seriously and included.
10. DON’T KILL YOUR GAY CHARACTERS
The “Bury Your Gays” trope is one well known in the LGBT community. One half of a gay couple always seems to die, if not both. Now, this doesn’t mean you can never kill a gay character, but at least have another same-sex couple of prominence if you’re going to go that route. Moreover, gay stories tend to have sad endings, because we are always seen as tragic figures. While our hardships should certainly be seen, there needs to be a balance of happy and hopeful narratives. For every Brokeback Mountain, there should be a Love, Simon, and vice-versa.
11. DON’T PORTRAY BISEXUAL PEOPLE AS CHEATERS
This is pretty straightforward. Just because bisexual individuals like both men and women, it does not mean that they are more likely to cheat or that they are sexually promiscuous. Even so, this is a stereotype that has been pervasive in the entertainment industry, which needs to stop. Show bisexual people in committed relationships, which should be a mix of both same-sex and opposite-sex pairings.
12. DON’T USE A SINGLE CHARACTER FOR ALL OF YOUR DIVERSITY
LGBT people of color generally have more struggles than white community members. Thus, there should be an effort to put them on screen just as much, if not more. However, many times, a single character is used to check off both the boxes of LGBT and race, leaving the rest of the characters to be straight and white. If you have an gay person of color, which is fantastic, make sure you also have prominent straight people of color of prominence. Serve all of these characters well, without making them tokens.
13. DO CAST LGBT ACTORS
There has been much debate over whether straight actors should play gay characters. Here’s the deal. LGBT actors are rarely cast in either straight or gay roles. Because of this, it is important that the effort is made to make sure gay actors are encouraged to audition, particularly when the project is about sexuality. If you truly feels that a straight actor is the best to play a particular LGBT role, then give a gay actor a character of equal prominence. EQUAL being the key word. We do not want to be relegated to supporting roles in our own stories. As gay actors are less stigmatized and cast in straight roles, I believe the needs for casting based on sexuality will decrease. But, we are not at that point yet.
14. DO PREPARE FOR CRITICISM REGARDLESS
There is no single gay story. The diversity within the LGBT community means that what’s put on screen will never be what every person is looking for or feel represents them. There will be critiques of how your characters are handled and portrayed, regardless of whether you follow all recommendations I’ve provided. In these moments, I ask that you understand that the full spectrum of the community has yet to be depicted, putting pressure on any one character or couple to embody it all. Instead of defending yourself, take the time to look at the feedback and make an even better gay character or story in your next project.