In 1985, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was formed to protest the vile, homophobic slurs that passed for news coverage of the AIDS epidemic in some branches of the American media. In 1987, the organization was instrumental in persuading the New York Times to update its editorial style and transform homosexuals into gays. Nearly 30 years later, GLAAD wields considerable clout: Last December, when Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson made anti-gay, racially insensitive remarks in an interview with GQ, it was GLAAD that persuaded A&E to suspend the show’s big beard—for a few days, anyway.
And yet, despite this venerable history and an enviable ability to launch a four-alarm response to gross bigotry, GLAAD’s larger cultural relevance is on the wane: Most notably, the organization’s yearly pronouncements about LGBT representation on television are teetering on the brink of silliness.
Last Wednesday, GLAAD released its eighth annual “Network Responsibility Index”—which rates TV networks on their LGBT-inclusive content—and its 19th annual “Where We Are on TV” report, which counts the number of LGBT characters announced for the upcoming season. I read them both, giggled at the accidental wit of some of the observations (“This season The Following featured a lesbian couple; one of whom unfortunately tried to murder the other”), and determined that it’s time to break with GLAAD’s scolding ways: Fellow LGBT folks and allies, let’s commit to valuing quality over quantity—“counting the queers” is no way to achieve social justice.
And it’s really a waste of time, given the amount of work that goes into compiling these reports. For the NRI, GLAAD tots up LGBT “impressions,” which involves counting every appearance of an LGBT character or “significant discussion of an LGBT issue” in the annual primetime output of the five broadcast networks and for 10 cable networks. “If one LGBT character appeared on 12 episodes, for example, this character made 12 impressions,” the NRI explains. GLAAD then calculates what percentage of each broadcast network’s output was LGBT-inclusive. In the case of ABC, 34 percent of its primetime output (250.5 hours in its 742 hours of primetime programming) met that criterion. How did the other broadcast networks do last season? CBS notched 28 percent, the CW 33 percent, Fox 36 percent, and NBC 37 percent. Both the NRI and “Where We Are” also track gender, racial/ethnic diversity, and the presence of people with disabilities to create a stat nerds’ fantasia of charts and percentages.
Beyond a top-level comparison with findings from earlier years, though, GLAAD’s conclusions are essentially meaningless in the current TV landscape. We live in an age where broadcast seasons are irrelevant to many viewers. Thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video; YouTube; and the rise of cord-cutting, it’s just as easy, if not easier, for many viewers to watch shows that are no longer on the air. When a program is canceled, its LGBT characters don’t just disappear—finding them simply requires would-be viewers to press a different button on the universal remote.
The reports’ compilers also seem to forget that television is a business, and that, outside of the rarified confines of premium cable, TV shows can’t survive unless they deliver millions of eyeballs to the ads that play during their commercial breaks. According to the NRI, “It’s no coincidence that new online content creators like Netflix and Amazon feature some of the most groundbreaking and fully realized depictions of transgender characters on programs like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, respectively.”
Fine, I’m willing to stipulate that it isn’t a coincidence, but GLAAD doesn’t think through the reasons OITNB and Transparent stream where they do. Is it because those companies, looking to make a splashy arrival in the content-creation pool, know they’re more likely to get attention for something new and controversial than by retreading familiar ground? Are their development teams less risk-averse than traditional TV executives? Do companies that derive their income from subscriptions reward diversity more than those that must please advertisers? Were the shows’ creators attracted by the promise of fewer network notes?
These are just some of the possible reasons these wonderful, groundbreaking shows ended up on alternative distribution platforms.
More pernicious is GLAAD’s apparent belief that there is some abstract threshold of representation that must be met before the networks can receive the organization’s stamp of approval. To state one obvious problem with this attitude, while it’s easy (if time-consuming) to quantify the number of queers on television, it’s almost impossible to make a similar calculation of our presence in the world. What percentage of LGBT TV characters will accurately reflect society? Who knows, but I suspect that some networks have already exceeded that level.
And of course, totaling up these clinical “impressions” means that some of the most interesting explorations of queer identity are completely absent from the GLAAD reports. As J. Bryan Lowder and I wrote last year, American Horror Story: Coven explored the gay experience at great length, despite containing only one (very minor) explicitly queer character. GLAAD’s abacus also seems incapable of comprehending the hilarious lesbian and gay subtexts that make TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles and Franklin & Bash must-see queer TV, even though neither show contains overt LGBT content.
Gay people don’t just want to see queer characters on television, we want to see them doing interesting things and facing challenges other than the bullying and coming-out narratives that have historically made up the bulk of television’s LGBT content. We long for nuanced personalities. We crave updated depictions of family life in a nation where more than half of us can legally marry and more and more of us are raising children. We want to be surprised and amused and impressed by the lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and trans characters who show up on our televisions and tablets and smartphones. We don’t want to count them.
There are some numbers that interest me: How many shows have openly LGBTQ people in the writers room? What’s the racial and ethnic diversity of their creative teams? How many network executives are openly queer or trans? (NBC earned most of its queer-inclusion points from unscripted shows, including the Winter Olympics. It seems odd that an openly gay skating commentator should earn the network more credit than an openly gay president of programming.) Those statistics aren’t part of the GLAAD compendium, but starting next year, it announced, “networks must feature significant transgender content in their original programming in order to receive a grade of ‘Excellent’ in the NRI.” If there are more trans characters on broadcast and basic cable in the coming years, it will be because Orange Is the New Black and Transparent have proved that audiences are hungry for their stories, not because GLAAD threatened to withhold some irrelevant—and ultimately misguided—seal of approval otherwise.