podcasts

Breaking Stereotypes: Exploring LGBTQ+ Representation in the Media – Podcast

By Jason Clayden on June 6, 2023

In honor of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, host Nicholette Leanza is joined by fellow LifeStance Health providers Melanie Falls and Denise Goff about the portrayals of LGBTQ+ individuals in the media.

They discuss the importance of accurate representation, the positive impact it can have on mental health, and the progress made over the years. The podcast explores examples of positive portrayals, such as groundbreaking shows like “Ellen,” “Will & Grace,” “The L Word,” and more.

We wish all our listeners a month filled with pride, joy, and acceptance. Happy Pride!

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Nicholette Leanza:

Welcome to Convos from the Couch by LifeStance Health, where leading mental health professionals help guide you on your journey to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Convos on the Couch by LifeStance Health. I’m Nicholette Leanza and in honor of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, I’ll be talking with my fellow clinicians, Melanie Falls and Denise Goff, about the portrayals of LGBTQ+ individuals in the media. So welcome, Denise. Welcome, Melanie. Great to have you on.

Denise Goff:

Thank you.

Melanie Falls:

Thank you.

Denise Goff:

Glad to be here.

Nicholette Leanza:

So, let me share this. According to GLAAD’s Where Are We On TV 2023 Report, the number of queer-inclusive films has grown by 50% in the past decade, and the number of LGBTQ+ characters on TV, cable, and streaming services has also increased by 20% in the last decade. And we know we’ve seen a steady increase of queer characters being portrayed more positively over the years, but we know there’s still more work to be done. So I really look forward to our conversation today as we talk about our views of the positive and negative portrayals of queer representation in the media.

Great to have you both on. Let’s start with Denise. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Denise Goff:

My name is Denise Goff. My pronouns are she, her and hers. I’m a licensed clinical professional counselor with LifeStance in Bloomington, Illinois. I earned my master’s degree in clinical counseling psychology from Illinois State University. I’ve worked in community mental health centers and inpatient and outpatient addiction recovery settings for many years, and I specialize in counseling clients within the LGBTQ+ community. I also serve on the Illinois DEI LifeStance Health co-chair, I’m the co-chair of the committee this year. And in the past, I was a chairperson of what was known at the time as Gay People’s Alliance, which is now Pride, at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. And I also volunteered with the McLean County AIDS Task Force for 15 years and served on their board of directors. And I’m also married to a woman whom I’ve known for 33 years.

Nicholette Leanza:

Nice. Great. Oh my gosh. Thank you, Denise.

Denise Goff:

Thank you.

Nicholette Leanza:

What about you, Melanie? Tell us about you.

Melanie Falls:

Yes, Melanie Falls, she/her. I’ve been working in this area for about 30-plus years. I’m a licensed independent social worker. Had a lot of general experience in terms of managing an agency for a few years and doing general therapy with all kinds of people. However, one of my major focuses is on LGBTQIA people. I am a lesbian, married to the love of my life for… Well, married now for 18 years because it could be legal, but together for almost 28 years. I have done a lot of work with the LGBTQIA community. I was the Chair of Equality Ohio for a number of years back around 2008-09, and most recently, I am on the National Board of Directors for the Human Rights Campaign and do a lot of work within that position around political advocacy. And I’m happy to be here.

Nicholette Leanza:

Great. Oh my gosh. Great to have you both on, both of you are trailblazers, for sure. My gosh. Okay, so let’s get us started. What does LGBTQ+ representation in the media, why does that matter? Denise, start us off with that. Why does it matter?

Denise Goff:

Okay. LGBTQ+ representation in the media matters for several reasons. One is that it provides validation and support, if it’s accurate representation. There may be more LGBTQ+ characters than ever before, but it’s still common that queerness is not authentically shown in movies or on television. Stereotypes are quite common. However, seeing accurate representations of LGBTQ+ characters in conflicts on screen, it reduces isolation for LGBTQ+ people. It provides validation and support, especially for youth of marginalized groups, and it can also be a way for communities and families to better understand the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in their own lives.

In addition, it can have positive effects on mental health, accurate representation. Prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community can have terrible effects, especially on queer youth. And in a 2021 national survey by the Trevor Project, which is a crisis prevention organization for the LGBTQ+ community, they reported that 42% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and 94% stated that recent politics had negatively affected their mental health in the United States alone. And that was in 2022. Yeah.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah, you’re spot-on with that. Melanie, anything you’d like to add to that or your views on representation?

Melanie Falls:

Yes, like Denise, it is so important to LGBTQIA people to see themselves accurately represented in all of the media, and I’m including television, movies, print media, radio. I can remember in, I think it was somewhere around 1997 or ’98 when Ellen came out, what a big event that was. And I can remember thinking then, “Wow, what will be the ripple effects of this?”

And of course, the short-term ripple effects, as many people know, was that Ellen did not get work for many years. However, I think the long-term effects were positive. In fact, shortly after that, Will & Grace came out, and I think Will & Grace was probably the first really major network program that began to help people in this country see LGBTQIA people as living lives other than often the stereotype of them being all about sex. And I think I’ve not seen statistics on that, but my sense is that many people, straight and allies, were able to really recognize that we’re whole people.

And it’s continued. The statistics from GLAAD show a continuing increase in television, movies, series on television that LGBTQIA characters are increasing. For instance, there was an increase from 2021 to 2022, over 2021, of 2.8% additional characters. And I think for many of us, if you watch television, even at a moderate level, turn on a program like Grey’s Anatomy or some of the Chicago Fire, in any of those network television programs, there’s representation there.

And I think that the representation is largely good. I think that my observation, and it bears out in the statistics from GLAAD, is that the transgender community, transgender population is still lagging well-behind in representation. There’s increases, but still lagging well-behind portrayals. So, it’s generally a good thing. I don’t want to go on and on.

Nicholette Leanza:

Got you. We’re moving in a better direction, for sure.

Melanie Falls:

Yes.

Nicholette Leanza:

I know I also identify as a lesbian and way back when I was first coming out, probably early ’90s, then to now, it’s great to see so much representation. It’s amazing. I’m glad the generation coming up now, it’s just out there and it’s great to see. I felt like even with Ellen, when she first came out, I felt like we all knew she was gay. It was like our own hidden secret. We’d all, “Ah, she’s gay,” then for her to actually come out, it was like just huge. But you’re right in what you’re saying, Melanie, is that unfortunately, her career tanked for a hot minute there, longer than a hot minute.

Melanie Falls:

Yeah, and I think with Ellen, when she then got her show, The Ellen Show, that trajectory started to go way up. It was the tanking after the coming out, and then her show began to really have a positive effect.

Just anecdotally, my now 92-year-old mother-in-law, very Catholic, very traditional, loved Ellen, watched her religiously. And I know that her views were changed as a result of that.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right. And we have Ellen to thank for that. It’s amazing that she was able to switch, some people, not all people, but some people’s point of view, for sure.

Shifting gears to looking at the portrayals of queer individuals in the media, let’s start with looking at some examples of positive portrayals in the media. So Denise, kick us off with that. What are some of, in your view, some positive portrayals?

Denise Goff:

Yeah, I think there are several important ones to discuss, especially historically. Back in 1977, the TV show, Soap, a rom-com.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah. Wow, that’s going way back.

Denise Goff:

And they had a character, Jodie Dallas, portrayed by Billy Crystal was one of the characters based on the hilarity of soap operas, daytime soap operas, but this was a nighttime, weekly soap opera.

Nicholette Leanza:

And it was meant to be a comedy too.

Denise Goff:

Yes, definitely.

Nicholette Leanza:

It wasn’t like a serious soap opera. It was kind of like a… Yeah.

Denise Goff:

And the gay man, Jodie, was a television commercial director in his 20s, and he’s in love with a pro football player who is also gay, but deep in the closet, and he eventually turned his back out on him out of fear of exposure. But I think it’s very important because it’s one of the very first gay characters on TV, which provided acknowledgement to family living rooms everywhere that gay people exist, one, as well as the struggles they faced with coming out.

Another example would be in 1983, All My Children had a character, a lesbian psychiatrist named Lynn Carson, who was portrayed by Donna Pescow. And this was the first time that a daytime drama had ever featured a gay storyline. And I think lesbians finally felt there was a character that fit them. However, the storyline received a lot of negative backlash and it was quickly canceled.

Nicholette Leanza:

Ah, was it? Okay.

Denise Goff:

Yeah, yeah. And then I was going to mention the Ellen TV series, we talked about that.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right, right.

Denise Goff:

The L Word.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh, yeah. Got it. Maybe stay right there.

Denise Goff:

And then the original one aired from 2004 to 2009. It depicted a group of lesbians living in California, touched on a variety of topics, including persecution, gender identity, romantic relationships. It provided new insight into the lives of LGBTQ people that had never been seen before. It really garnered a huge following.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah, no, that was huge. It makes me think, because that was a Showtime show, Showtime did another previous. It was called Queer as Folk. I don’t know if you guys remember that?

Denise Goff:

Yes.

Nicholette Leanza:

That was a little preceding The L Word, but you just made me think of that right now, Denise.

Denise Goff:

Yeah.

Nicholette Leanza:

Both really great shows.

Melanie Falls:

Yes.

Denise Goff:

And then 10 years later, there was a sequel to The L Word, Generation Q, and that’s from 2019 to 2023. And that portrayed even more diversity within the LGBTQ community.

Yeah, and I was going to mention Will & Grace, gay folks just being human. It sent the message that this isn’t a group of people that you have to fear or that you need to treat unfairly.

Melanie Falls:

Yes, I think if I can jump in here?

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes. Please, Mel.

Melanie Falls:

I think it’s the advantage of the media portrayals is the normalization of LGBQIA people being people, being integrated into the fabric of the world, of the country, of your neighborhood. And I think it probably caused people to look around, both gay people to be more prone to taking that step of coming out, as well as straight people looking around to see maybe there were gay people. And by gay, I’m using that to represent the whole acronym. And it’s this consciousness-raising that has happened.

And there have been negative portrayals also, but I think by and large, they have been positive. Perhaps not always totally realistic, like for instance, The L word, which I couldn’t watch-

Nicholette Leanza:

It had a lot of backlash, that original one.

Melanie Falls:

Yeah, these beautiful people in LA and the setting, the background, was bucolic, but still, they were portrayals of them as real people.

Nicholette Leanza:

That’s the key. Just I think through the years, and we’ll talk a little bit more about how the media and the representation of queer individuals has changed, I think a lot of it falling on tropes and stereotypes, and then I think with shows like The L Word. And one of the things that I really enjoyed in the early ’90s, there was a really big blast of just queer cinema. We saw a lot of independent films spreading through cinema, and I think it’s just a normalization, like Denise and Melanie, you were both saying.

Melanie Falls:

Yeah, yeah. They recently had the Cleveland International Film Festival, and I want to say about 15% of the films had some variation of theme around LGBTQIA people. And I’m sure that’s the same with the various film festivals that are going on, these new and unique movies that are coming out.

Nicholette Leanza:

Melanie, any other specific shows or movies that you want to say that portray positive views?

Melanie Falls:

I think I mentioned some of the network programs, the more recent ones. For instance, who’s not a Grey’s Anatomy fan? And Grey’s Anatomy portrayed lesbian characters probably in their first or second year of being a network. It might’ve been their first. And Shonda Rhimes has done a terrific job of portraying characters throughout her productions. A more recent one is called Queen Charlotte, which is part of the Bridgerton, I don’t know what they call it, but the topic, the Bridgerton kind of format. And she has written in gay characters there, and this is in Victorian England.

It’s good to see, and when you look at it from a perspective, I think young people under 30 may not be able to really appreciate what it was like in 1990, for instance, and the absence of these portrayals. So it’s nice to watch if you’re a little older and have been sitting in the viewing chair for a period of time.

I will say, and I don’t want to take too much of a right turn here, but if you look at the political influence of the media and pay attention to that, I think that’s something that we need to be really aware of. For instance, look at the difference between watching Fox News or the Fox channel in general, as opposed to a network channel like ABC, NBC, CBS.

Print media, the print media has a pretty broad chasm between the Washington Post or the New York Times, and New York Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. And unfortunately, we see stories either picked up or not picked up based on the particular perspective of that print media.

Radio, there are some very unfortunate portrayals of LGBTQIA people on certain radio programs. And if someone is consuming those particular radio, newsprint, even television, that effect is going to be the reverse, what the effect is of the characters and the shows and the progression we’ve been talking about. So, I think that’s important to pay attention to.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah, excellent point. Yeah. That it is because it definitely influences portrayals, for sure.

Melanie Falls:

Yes.

Nicholette Leanza:

Let me, just a few more positive portrayals, and then we’re going to go to some of the negative ones. But looking at trans characters, so Orange is the New Black, that’s where Laverne Cox played Sophia Burset. That was huge, a prominent trans character there. And then I believe this on Netflix, there’s a documentary called Disclosure, which covers the history of trans characters as well.

The show Euphoria, there’s just an openly trans character, Jules Vaughn, played by Hunter Schafer. A really complex, developed character and she’s not just defined by her trans identity. This whole thing doesn’t just focus around her being trans, so I know I really appreciate that.

And one other kind of shout-out to the show, it’s called Billions, and it’s one of the few shows that we actually see a non-binary character. The character’s named Taylor, and that’s played by Asia Kate Dillon. And that’s another portrayal that’s just not all focusing just on that the character is non-binary, so I think that’s really important that we’re looking at trans and non-binary as well.

So shifting gears, let’s look at some negative portrayals. Denise, what you got for us?

Denise Goff:

Okay. One is a staple from the ’90s, the show, the TV show Friends.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh, yeah.

Denise Goff:

Which is a beloved comedy.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah, I didn’t even think of that, yeah.

Denise Goff:

The sexuality of Ross Geller’s character, his ex-wife actually, is a lesbian, but it was portrayed as a running gag at his expense.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah. Very true, very true.

Denise Goff:

And that wasn’t a very positive portrayal. Also, the film, I believe it’s pronounced “Giggly” in 2003 with Jennifer Lopez portraying Ricki, who’s a lesbian.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh, is that Gigli?

Denise Goff:

I don’t know.

Melanie Falls:

Oh, I remember that. Yeah.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh, god. I forgot about that, Denise. Oh my gosh. Yeah, keep going, keep going. Oh my gosh.

Denise Goff:

Jennifer Lopez portrays Ricki, who’s a lesbian who falls for Ben Affleck’s male character. And all that movie really did was reinforce negative and incorrect stereotypes about lesbians just needing to “find the right man.”

Nicholette Leanza:

Gosh.

Denise Goff:

Another negative stereotype, actually, the Silence of the Lambs.

Nicholette Leanza:

That was the one I was going to say.

Melanie Falls:

Yeah.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah, no, yeah, go. Yeah.

Denise Goff:

So it’s an example of some supposed violent tendencies employed by the transgender community. The serial killer, known as Buffalo Bill, who after being denied a sex-change operation, hunts down and skins plus-sized women to create a new female body for himself. So, that was just horrific portrayal.

And then the last one I have here is Ace Ventura: Pet Detective with Jim Carrey.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah.

Denise Goff:

And in the movie, Carrey’s Ventura, Ace Ventura kisses a character by the name of Lois Einhorn, who later turns out to be Ray Finkel, which reveals Lois as a trans woman. And then after Ventura learns of this revelation, he heads to the bathroom and retches and throws up continuously.

Nicholette Leanza:

Thank you, Denise. What about you, Melanie?

Melanie Falls:

I am thinking of Two Men and a Boy who’s one of the characters’ wives supposedly left them because she was a lesbian, and that situation was the brunt of a lot of humor. And then later on, she decided that she was not a lesbian, and that turned around the situation. And Denise said the character in Silence of the Lambs and that movie was such a popular movie, and it was so entrenched in the psychological culture at the time. And I think that was really, that idea of anger and violence and really terrible violence, the idea of skinning another person. So yeah, there certainly have been many.

Nicholette Leanza:

I’m going to add the Crying Game. Do you remember the Crying Game way back?

Melanie Falls:

Oh, yeah.

Nicholette Leanza:

I don’t want to do spoiler alert, but I think we find at the very end of the movie, it was just so controversial that one of the main characters is trans, and it was just seen as so, “Oh my gosh.”

Melanie Falls:

Yeah. There was a book, and we haven’t mentioned books, and I think that media, our intent is to look more at programs, visual media, but there was a book in the early ’90s called Whose Child Cries, and it was about the terrible repercussions of children who had gay parents, lesbian or gay parents.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oof.

Melanie Falls:

And I remember reading it at the time, I have four children, and reading it at the time, thinking, are their lives going to be this? Are they going to turn out, their lives, this negatively? So those negative, negative effects are definitely there.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh my gosh. I agree. So how do you both feel the betrayals of LGBTQ individuals in the media has changed over time?

Denise Goff:

One example, if I can speak to that?

Nicholette Leanza:

Yeah, Denise, go ahead.

Denise Goff:

Is again, the daytime soap opera, All My Children, which made a huge turnaround in 2000 by showing the first same-sex marriage in daytime history. And Eden Rigel who played Erica Kane’s daughter Bianca, who is a lesbian, and the writers actually worked with GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, to create the storyline and provide some accurate representation. And this time, fans of the soap opera embraced the lesbian couple and their subsequent wedding.

Melanie Falls:

Do you remember what year that was, Denise?

Denise Goff:

In 2000.

Melanie Falls:

Okay.

Denise Goff:

Yeah. And then we had mentioned Ellen coming back and being a success. Another specific one that I’d like to mention is the New Fantasy Island reboot.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh, yes. That’s a good show.

Denise Goff:

Which in 2021 to 2023, has a positive lesbian character, Ruby. She is a 75-year-old Black woman with a terminal illness who comes to the island seeking her fantasy to be whom she could not be during her life as a lesbian. In her life, she had gotten married to a man and had three children as expected by society, yet on the island, she’s a 20-year-old Black woman who explores her lesbian self. And at the end of her trip, she remains on the island as her younger self and works there as the director’s assistant and helping the guests.

So in general, yes, there are more accurate depictions of lesbian and gay men specifically, but of course, there’s a lot more work to be done, especially with the other letters of the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right, and I agree. I think we’re just seeing a lot more just LGBTQ characters in most recent times, as well as more queer LGBTQ people of color and representing disabilities as well, which is so important. Melanie, what do you think?

Melanie Falls:

I generally agree. I think that representation may have the tendency to swing a bit like a pendulum from negative to positive and then see a bit more negative, especially like I was saying a few minutes ago, around certain kinds of media that may be aimed at or carry opinions that tend to castigate the LGBTQIA community. But I think in general, it continues to move up.

I’m thinking of a character, a non-binary character on Grey’s Anatomy — you might be able to tell, I’m a great Shonda Rhimes fan — that is a non-binary research physician who falls in love with a straight physician surgeon on the show. And I found it to be very positively represented and I think pretty accurately represented.

I think about Ru Paul’s Drag Race in terms of drag queens and the reception that that has had and the long run time. I think it’s probably been six or seven years that it’s been running now.

So yes, I think that in general, and I think where people like Ellen and the Will & Grace show focused on LG people, I think that the BTQIA is lagging behind, but it’s inching forward, if that makes sense.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes, yes. Oh my gosh. Okay. So what can the media do to improve its portrayal of queer individuals? Denise, what do you think?

Denise Goff:

For one, provide accurate representation of LGBTQ+ characters and remove the negative stereotypes which can foster greater self-acceptance and cultural acceptance. Also, include a much wider range of identities to span sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and particularly because there are increasing numbers of people, particularly youth who identify as such. And then also cast characters who identify as LGBTQIA+-

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes, that’s a huge one.

Denise Goff:

To portray these characters because it creates more authenticity.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes, I agree. Melanie, anything you’d like to add to that?

Melanie Falls:

Absolutely. Ditto, Denise. Ditto. And I think paying attention to the aspect of the transgender and the non-binary, increasing the visibility of that, and I can’t reinforce enough the idea of using actual LGBTQIA characters to play those roles on the various shows.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes, yes. I agree. My gosh. Denise, Melanie, thank you. This has been an amazing conversation, an important conversation. I appreciate both of your time.

Melanie Falls:

Thank you.

Denise Goff:

Thank you so much for having us.

Melanie Falls:

Thank you. It was fun.

Nicholette Leanza:

You’re welcome. I’d also like to thank the team behind the podcast: Jason Clayden, Juliana Whidden, and Chris Kelman. Take care, everyone.