When there’s news of an LGBT character being added to a series, or a movie about an LGBT character, one can guess what kind of character they’re going to be, in terms of demographics. an almost overwhelming majority are white. Up until Moonlight‘s historic win at Oscars 2017, almost every LGBT movie that’s been recognized at all by major awards shows has been focused on white people. The Color Purple (1985) was the only incredibly popular LGBT movie to feature people of color as central characters (two black women). Movies that defined the modern LGBT film genre for a while – Brokeback Mountain and Carol are the most prominent – all featured pretty much fully white and cisgender casts, far from the reality of LGBT people.
Movies such as Paris is Burning (1992), Happy Together (1999), Pariah (2012), Tangerine (2015), and The Handmaiden (2016) which not only feature casts of black and brown people but also in the case of Paris Is Burning and Tangerine, central characters that are not cis. Yet, those movies are almost never referred to as “the” LGBT movies, critics and awards often opting for the much more white catering Brokeback Mountain or Carol. Even actual historical events in LGBT history get whitewashed to appease to the white audiences. The most glaring example of this would be the movie Stonewall (2015) which has the Stonewall Riots, the birthplace of the modern LGBT rights movement, center around a white middle class cis man rather than the people that were at the riots: transwomen Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major and Sylvia Rivera, plus gay activists Stormé DeLarverie and Raymond Castro – all of whom were either black or non-white latinx people. Not only was Stonewall grossly inaccurate, it completely disrespected these people who lived and died fighting for our rights today.
Television does not fare much better either. Despite there being some progress in recent years with characters like the bisexual Annalise Keating played by Viola Davis or Laverne Cox’s upcoming lead role in Doubt there is still much to be desired. The default LGBT character in an ensemble show is almost always a white person – see Alex in Supergirl, Max in Happy Endings, and Cam and Mitchell in Modern Family. The worst is when shows with central LGBT characters but majority white casts – Eyewitness, The L Word, Queer as Folk, Skam – are hyped as “amazing representation” and all LGBT people are told to watch them, despite many of us not being able to completely relate to these characters and their experiences.
Representation does not exist in a vacuum, and by only showing white people as the center of the LGBT community, media perpetuates the idea that LGBT people of color are not valid in their own communities – adding already to the massive racism within the LGBT community from white LGBT people. Media keeps enforcing the idea that people of color are somehow lesser in a community that we created and we continue to create today, while white people get the love and the credit from the mainstream. Here’s to you Moonlight, The Handmaiden, and Annalise Keating. May you become more and more prominent.