A few weeks back, GLAAD—the LGBT-focused media advocacy organization—found in their annual ‘Where We Are on TV’ report that, though 2015 saw a marked improvement in terms of LGBTQ visibility on American television, most of these queer characters were still lacking in racial diversity. It is true that, when we look to LGBT characters on the small screen, we mostly find them to be white; but despite this fact, there are shows, writers, and producers who are trying to challenge this hegemony and create well-rounded queer characters of colour who transcend stereotypes and are brilliantly representative. Here, I round up 10 such characters and shows:
Openly bisexual, and Hispanic, this beloved Grey’s Anatomy character’s journey from being confused about her sexuality to being confident and badass about it has inspired viewers for over a decade. So many of her emotional conflicts, from coming out to her conservative Catholic parents, to facing infidelity from her wife and raising her child single-handedly while balancing a flourishing medical career, are so real, relatable, and have been handled with great insight over the past few seasons. And now that the show is choosing to focus more on her individual achievements rather than unnecessary romantic subplots, her character arc is getting even more interesting.
This show, which has been receiving huge critical acclaim since it aired for its greatly nuanced portrayal of the African-American community, gave American television one of its most complex and multidimensional Black gay characters in Jamal Lyon. Jamal’s struggles with homophobia seem so jarring and shocking, but are so brutally realistic. In one poignant scene, a flashback shows an adolescent Jamal dressing up in a skirt and heels and his homophobic father beating him up for it and then violently throwing him in a trashcan. His tussles with his father, who is vehemently opposed to Jamal’s sexuality even after he’s an adult, is a constant theme in the show, and paints a horrific picture of homophobic attitudes that still exist within many circles. Jamal channels his angst surrounding his sexuality in his music, as witnessed in the gifset above.
If there is one show that is a live example of the word “diversity”, it’s this. Orange is the New Black has characters (which are mostly women, cis or otherwise) from various different ethnic and cultural backgrounds—and nearly all of them are queer! You have black lesbians like Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, Poussey Washington and the biracial Brook Soso, black transwoman Sophia Bursett (played by trans activist Laverne Cox), and many more. These characters are multifaceted, relatable and completely devoid of stereotypes. In fact, the show has been praised immensely for its outstanding intersectional representation.
Clad in her signature leather jacket and boots, the brilliantly bisexual Kalinda has been kicking major ass on The Good Wife for over six years now. Perhaps the only openly queer South Asian woman on American television, she is not just greatly competent at her job as the private investigator for a big law firm, but is also emotionally layered and struggles with the relationships in her life. Though not overtly stated, she appears to also be aromantic as she often refrains from forming an emotional bond with her sexual partners.
Once Upon a Time is famous for reimagining fairytales, folklore and myth with a modern twist. So, when Mulan (based on the Chinese mythological character Hua Mulan), was revealed to be lesbian and in love with Princess Aurora, it was truly a beautiful reimagination. Despite her romantic advances being thwarted, she joins Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men, a predominantly male domain, and proves herself to be a capable and superior marksman—and slays, both literally and figuratively.
Created by the Wachowski siblings (of The Matrix fame), Sense8 is another rare example of a show which gets its diversity spot on. The premise spans diverse countries and cultures, from countries like the US, Germany and Iceland to countries like Kenya, India, Mexico, and Korea. Hence, racial representation is a given. But, what this show does best, is portray queer people of colour with great sensitivity. We have the Mexican gay couple Lito and Hernando, and the African-American lesbian Amanita, who are complexly etched characters going through real experiences and situations. It deals with the conflicts of coming out and how that might affect one’s career, and addresses transphobic discrimination with remarkable verity. Because of the show’s concept of characters sharing psychic links, it can afford to blur sexualities.
Though technically a “sitcom”, Brooklyn Nine Nine never panders to cheap laughs using outdated tropes and typified characters; and Ray Holt, the unreadable police captain, is the best thing about it. While he is absolutely hilarious with his deadpan one-liners, his sexuality never becomes the butt of the joke. In fact, he often draws upon his struggles of being an openly gay black cop during the 80s and the discrimination and various other hurdles he faced in order to rise up the professional ladder, which makes him a character that is not just funny, but also awe-inspiring. His relationship with his (white) psychiatrist husband is also beautifully portrayed, challenging many stereotypes usually seen in gay relationships, and interracial relationships, on television.
This show, about the various challenges a lesbian couple faces in raising their foster kids, has yet another wonderful portrayal of an interracial same-sex relationship. Lena, the African-American vice-principal of a school, grapples with motherhood, racism and even homophobia. Her altruistic activism becomes a major focus in the show, and the constant thrust in her life is to save unloved kids and give them the support and care they deserve. She shows unconditional loyalty and fierce advocacy towards her son Jude when he comes out as gay.
Though this show recently faced criticism for the objectionable way in which it handled its trans storyline, its portrayal of lesbian teen Emily, of mixed Korean and Filipino descent, has always been well-rounded and on point. Emily’s conflicts about coming out and facing homophobic opposition from her parents echoes experiences nearly every immigrant LGBT teen has had to face.
This is another show that nails its representation, with stereotype-free female characters, non-white characters and LGBT characters. It has two very interesting queer characters of colour—the first being Danny Mahealani, of Native American descent and the other, Mason Hewitt, of African-American descent. Though Danny’s arc on the show was brief, Mason received a lot of screen time and an important plot-driven role to play in the current season. His friendship with newly-turned werewolf Liam requires a special mention: not only is it intricately layered, but also challenges the stigma against enduring close platonic friendships between straight and gay men on television.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are other great queer TV characters of colour out there who I couldn’t include here due to paucity of space, like Titus Andromedon from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or Santana Lopez from Glee, or even, Oliver Hampton from How to Get Away With Murder. These characters reaffirm our faith in racially diverse LGBT representation on TV, even though we still have a long way to go until queer people of colour are everywhere on our screens.