Diversity in Television, Part 6: Orientation and Gender

A young man grows up believing his elder brother was his father’s favorite. When his sibling returns, seemingly from the dead, his appearance sends out shock waves. He isn’t a man anymore. She is a woman. Alexis spent her whole life in pain because she knew who she was and her father couldn’t accept it. So he forced her to join him in “masculine” activities and excluded her younger brother who saw this as favoritism.

Alexis returns to the world intent on living the life of her dreams, but she comes to realize that life is cruel. The man who flirts with her at the bar bet his friends he could get her number and then mocks her for what she is. The man who pretends to love her is only doing so for a cash prize. She finally breaks down in front of a friend while softly acknowledging that “…people are kind of awful.”

This is one of the most powerful stories I’ve seen on television and one of the rare stories we get about a person who isn’t a straight male or female. Alexis Meade from Ugly Betty opened my eyes to the cruelty people endure for something that’s an integral part of who they are as a being. And it is probably the most important issue of diversity to me.

The conversation about orientation and gender has become rife with political and religious vocabulary, and I don’t think it belongs in either camp. Orientation and gender are facets of what make us living creatures. They don’t completely define a being, but they are part of what makes each of us unique. Whether it’s “right” or “wrong” doesn’t enter into the matter. It is a fundamental component of our makeup.

I grew up puzzled over why I always identified with male characters. I later discovered that all my acting role models were male, and I wondered why that would be the case. I put them all together and took a look at their characters and realized I was drawn to two types of roles, both almost exclusively played by men. Why? I still can’t answer that question.

Roles based on gender defy explanation. Roles aren’t female-coded or male-coded. I understand the brain of a writer that creates a character with a specific gender and orientation, but we have grown so used to typecasting when it comes to “traditional” roles that we automatically assume a specific gender can’t access a role because they’re not the “correct” gender. I think that’s absurd.

I’ve become hurt over how little we talk about these things. Why can’t we talk about them? Why are they taboo? How am I supposed to learn the vocabulary and understand the person different from me if we can’t talk about it? I didn’t realize until this year when I started having this conversation with friends that the people I know that are my age and above don’t discuss orientation and gender unless they’re the “crazy liberals” who care about feminism, equal rights, and being nice humans. The people younger than me, however, are much more open about it and I’ve had some incredible conversations about how gender binary disrupts embracing our whole selves or how orientation looks from one person to the next.

In my experience, everyone is on a spectrum. This isn’t a black-and-white subject. There are varying degrees of gender and orientation classification. Some people change orientation based on the situation, while others are one orientation their entire lives. I don’t think this is something we can stuff in a box. We’re messy, ever-evolving beings and it’s better to have the opportunity to explore this fascinating subject rather than shut it out of our lives like it doesn’t exist because it does, and sooner or later, we’re going to have to deal with it if we are ever going to be at peace with ourselves.

That being said, I’m not seeing a ton of spectrum-oriented writing on television. There are some strong portrayals of non-hetero individuals on shows like Ugly BettyWill & GraceGleeOrange Is The New BlackBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and Battlestar Galactica, but for the most part, orientation and gender tend to get left out in the cold when it comes to visual storytelling. I think that’s a huge mistake.

Sitcoms are perhaps the worst offenders. There are rare cases like Will & Grace where the four main characters are comprised of two gay men, one bisexual woman and one straight woman, but other than that, most of the characters are straight (and most lead roles go to males). What if Friends had a character who was gay? What if King of Queens was centered around a transperson? Or how about if Melissa and Joey were about a pansexual couple? Wouldn’t it be beautiful to see a romantic relationship evolve between a demisexual and a bisexual? How about an asexual couple?

The other thing with sitcoms, especially older ones, is that they are negative or even outright hostile toward non-heteronormative thinking people. We get fed a steady diet of gay jokes, fear or shock at the idea of someone being ‘abnormal’, and most depictions of non-straight people have them dealing with emotional, verbal, and physical abuse from those closest to them.

I also don’t quite think pandering to one section of the population is the most helpful thing either. It doesn’t help much to have a TV channel with shows just for the LGBTQIA crowd. It might quiet us down for a bit, but all it really does is remove us from the rest of the population, which only goes to perpetuate myths, abuse, and stereotypes. I don’t want to be set aside. I want to be part of the world-wide community. We are communal beings. We don’t need a separate space. There needs to be inclusion.

When the work of attempting to understand someone else’s viewpoint is taken seriously a beautiful thing can happen. When you understand someone you connect with them in a way you could not before, and there’s a chance for a relationship. Acceptance can be difficult for those who grew up with a narrow view, but it is necessary if we are ever going to stop the violence happening around us.

I think one way television could help get this discussion out in the open is to promote education and awareness about the abuse people suffer for being “different.” Hate crimes and hate speech, bullying, verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and rape culture break us down into objectified bits of flesh, no more important than a lifeless hunk of meat. This is a horrific situation that, tragically, lots of children and adults find themselves in with no protection. Sometimes it’s even fatal.

Instead of shying away from orientation and gender, I say we embrace it in our lives and in our stories. What would it be like to see a television show that isn’t about sex but portrays different orientations equally? What if we treated each individual like a human being, showing compassion for those struggling and offering support for those who need it? What if we broke out of stereotypes and tropes and created dynamic, living characters who didn’t depend on their gender to provide their personality and characteristics?

I went to DragonCon last year and visited the Continuum panels. It’s one of my favorite science fiction shows and I couldn’t wait to talk to one of the actors, Luvia Petersen. She’s a bisexual actor who is playing a bisexual character on a Canadian television show.  There’s also a gay actor on the show, Omari Newton, and together they host a podcast called the Visible Minority Report. I wanted to start this conversation with her, so I asked, “How can we include people with non-hetero orientations in stories without relegating their orientations to sex scenes?”

Each actor on the panel carefully considered my question, and the result was that we agreed: it isn’t about the sex. It’s about the individual, and how their orientation plays out in daily life. Or doesn’t, as the case may be. We just need to see more diversity in character, and they need to be real people. We don’t want stock characters or cut-outs. I want to see individuals living their lives and learning to embrace themselves completely. That looks different for everyone. I just wish we could see it more on television.

Something like this would have helped me when I was younger. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was, and if I had anyone I could have looked up to on screen my life might have been a lot different in a healthier way. It took me two and a half decades to come to terms with who I am. I’m still walking through this phase going, “What does life look for me now that I’ve embraced this about myself? What do I do next? Will people understand? What if they don’t?” It’s an incredibly lonely place. That’s where stories come in – or would, if there were characters on screen who shared my orientation. I guess it’s up to those of us who tell stories to get them out in the open to let other people know they aren’t alone.

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.

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