A Closer Inspection of LGBT Characters in Film

We have a long way to go with LGBT representation in film, especially when it comes to LGBT characters of color and trans characters.

Incluvie
Incluvie
June 7, 2021

This Pride month, I was thinking about what kinds of LGBTQIA+ characters films portray. I found a list on Wikipedia that identified LGBT characters in film, so I narrowed that list to only films in the United States, and limited the years to 1990 to 2020. After that, I was left with 331 characters (some within the same film). This list also identified characters as Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander or White — there were no other races/ethnicities acknowledged.

A chart showing the race of LGBT characters. The vast majority are white, and there are slightly more Black and Lantinx characters that AAPI characters.
Race of LGBT Characters in U.S. Films (1990–2020)

I never fully trust Wikipedia, so let’s consider the 331 a sample, as I am sure there are film characters missing. Of the 331 total characters in our sample, 85% are White, 8% are Black, 5% are Latinx, and a whopping 2% are Asian/Pacific Islander. See the chart above for a visual representation of this information, with the glaring majority of White characters.

Not dissimilar to the rest of Hollywood films, White people dominate the market. For a breakdown of this disparity, see my previous article on the overall representation of race and gender in film. LGBT characters are not spared from underrepresentation in film. Actually, it’s even worse.

Let me put these 331 characters into context. Again, since there are probably many which were overlooked on the list, so let’s round it up to 400. According to Box Office Mojo, 17,892 films were made from 1990 to 2020. For the sake of argument (statisticians, please look away), let’s pretend it is 400 individual films and not characters. Our 400 films out of the 17,892 total mean only 2% of films made over 30 years have LGBT characters. One more time — two percent of films had characters who identified as LGBT. And, as we just learned, most of those characters were White.

Damian from Mean Girls,  standing among students in a gym, wearing a lilac hoodie and sunglasses.
The “Gay Best Friend” in Mean Girls

So of these characters, I wanted to see what kind of characters made up the 15% BIPOC. I narrowed my analysis to the last 10 years (2010–2020) and marked each as a leading or supporting character. The chart below shows the results for the Black, Latinx and Asian/Pacific Islander LGBT characters.

57% of BIPOC LGBT characters were main characters, 43% were supporting.
Sample of LGBT-identified Black, Latinx and Asian/Pacific Islander Characters (2010–2020)

Not bad! The chart is almost 50/50. An even distribution among this small list. Slow clap to Hollywood for that one! But very slow — nothing to be too proud of.

Scott and Harvey Milk kiss.
Historically-enforced “Bury Your Gays” occurs in Milk

I next broke down the full list of 331 characters by identity: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (there were no QIA+ designations). As depicted in Chart 2, more than half of the characters were identified as gay (defined as homosexual men), with lesbian (homosexual women) and bisexual (all genders) coming in second and third, and transgender (all genders), a minority. The ratios are nearly identical when looking only at the Black, Latinx, and Asian/Pacific Islander characters (Chart 1).

Slightly over half of BIPOC LGBT characters are gay men. About a quarter are lesbian, slightly fewer are bisexual, and a the small remainder are transgender.
Chart 1: Identities of all Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander characters (1990–2020)

Here is the identity breakdown for all 331 characters, White, Black, Asian, Latinx:

The breakout down is almost the same as the previous chart, but with even fewer transgender characters.
Chart 2: Identities of all 331 Characters

With all of this data, we can see that gay White men make up the large majority of LGBT representation in film over the last thirty years. The only non-straight identity that Hollywood seems to be comfortable writing and acknowledging is White gay men, and they are only the majority of a tiny portion of all film characters.

Two women hold hands over the table at a diner.
Transgender sex workers in Tangerine

The issue of LGBT representation in film is multi-faceted and more research is needed to uncover the full story, much of which I hope to explore in the future. Some films on this particular list depicted LGBT characters really well — non-cliché, even as main characters. We just seem to be missing more of that. Without a wide range of LGBT characters to tell their stories, the image is weighed solely on these few films. That is too heavy a load to bear — so spread the wealth. Not just in front of the camera, but behind it too, for more authentic and meaningful stories. As Holly Mallett wrote in 2019 for Backstage, “Do it because it means better art, do it because it means exciting stories, and do it so that the next generation of teenagers trying to find who they are don’t have to lock themselves away in a metaphorical closet to do so.” Representation is important and necessary. Without accurate or well-rounded representation, the very few examples in films and the harmful tropes will live on.

FYI — I didn’t get into cringeworthy stereotypes and storylines depicted through many LGBT characters, but thankfully, Tracy E. Gilchrist and Daniel Reynolds have already listed the tropes to look out for in The Advocate in 2017:

  • Gay Best Friend
  • Transgender Hooker with a Heart of Gold
  • Closeted Jock
  • Murderous Bisexual
  • Bury Your Queer Woman
  • All Lesbians want Kids
  • Depraved Homosexual
  • Girl on Girl is Hot
  • Psycho Lesbian
  • Sissy Villain
  • Prison Rape
  • Bi-Erasing Bisexual
  • Unsettling Gender Reveal
  • Promiscuous Queer
  • Coming Out
  • Queer People are a Joke
  • Everyone is Straight

(Note: This article was originally published by Sarah Erskine on Medium.)


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