The year in lesbian and bisexual female characters on TV

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This year’s “Where We Are on TV” Diversity Report from GLAAD finds that things are getting slightly better for LGBT representation on television, due largely to the popularity of streaming shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent whose success has prompted network and cable to follow suit. But we’re still lacking, to be sure, especially in terms of the amount of lesbian and bisexual characters of color, disability, and those who identify as transgender.

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On network television, GLAAD found that lesbian representation increased five points over last year. Of the 70 LGBT characters they found on the broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and The CW), 23 are lesbians while 12 are bisexual women. However, LGBT characters are still such a small part of visibility when you consider there are 881 series regulars on 118 primetime scripted shows and only 35 (up from 32 last year) of that are LGBT. 

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“Hopefully lesbian and bisexual women will fare better on broadcast in the coming season than in the previous year, which included the deaths of several queer women,” the report says, including Leslie Shay on Chicago Fire and Charlie on Supernatural as examples.

There was also a drop in the amount of LGBT characters who were also POC. This year, only 28% were non-white, a six percentage point fall. Considering Empire has provided a bulk of those characters, there is much room for improvement in the wider network TV realm.

Cable television fared a little better, with 31 lesbian characters and 32 bisexual women. But there was a three percentage point drop in the amount of lesbians, which hopefully will not continue into 2016, and of the 142 LGBT characters on cable, 101 of them (71%) are white. This includes 16 Black characters, 11 Latina/Latinos and six Asian and Pacific Islander.

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On streaming television like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, 21 lesbian characters and nine bisexual female characters were regular and recurring roles. GLAAD noted “lesbians account for 36% of LGBT representations in streaming series, which is a higher percentage than is found on either broadcast or cable.” There is only one character who is both lesbian and trans. Of 59 LGBT characters on original streaming series, 16 are characters of color: Seven Black, seven Latina/Latino, and only one API. (GLAAD did not note the ethnicity of the 16th.)

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So where will we see more progress coming from in the 2015-2016 television year? Sadly we are losing some of our numbers in cancelled shows like Rookie Blue, Complications, Weird Loners,  One Big HappyDefiance, Chasing Life, Lost Girl and Clipped, which could make a significant difference if TV execs don’t make a concerted effort to be inclusive of lesbian and bisexual women in new series. And while there are continuing shows like Transparent who are bringing even more of those characters to their new seasons, it’s not enough to depend on one or two shows to provide visibility.

In the next month, Netflix will give us two new series with lesbian/bi characters: Master of None (November 6) and Jessica Jones (November 20). Only Denise (played by Lena Waithe) on Master of None will be a lesbian of color. But in terms of any other confirmed queer women, there is only one other known coming to an NBC show in the next month.

Master of None

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Every year, these reports signify that television is making very slow progress in providing positive LGBT visibility, and this year is no different. But the fact that streaming TV has given our stories a much-needed boost and also forced network and cable television to up their diversity quotient has certainly been helpful, and we remain hopeful that more nuanced, three-dimensional characters we can identify with will come to the small screen soon. That means more queer women of color, different ages, gender identities, abilities and socioeconomic status.