The Difference Dialogues, Chapter 4
LGBTQ visibility in advertising and mass media is slowly improving, and it’s about time. We’re at a point in history where the general public is a bit more accepting and empathetic towards the LGBTQ community and their quality of life. And, as you can imagine, this shift in attention has caused a stir. On one side of the spectrum, though, it’s ignited a call to action to fight for gay rights.
A Brief History of Gay Inclusion in Mass Media
The first time a gay couple was featured on television was in 1972, when ABC premiered their TV-made movie, That Certain Summer. The film started Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, who are both straight in their personal lives. After that, gay characters began making more appearances in sitcoms and movies, but those moments were brief (and usually degrading).
Ellen DeGeneres, one of the most prominent LGBTQ activists in recent history, starred in a self-titled sitcom, Ellen, in 1994. During “The Puppy” episode (Season 4, Episode 22), Ellen came out as a lesbian during a therapy session with guest star, Oprah Winfrey. This episode triggered serious backlash, and ultimately lead to show being cancelled. Almost 13 years later in 2010, Oprah admitted on her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, that her appearance on Ellen triggered backlash from fans and resulted in the most amount of hate mail she’s ever received in her career.
In 1997, Pedro Zamora became the first openly gay, HIV-positive person to appear on MTV’s The Real World, specifically San Francisco. Pedro was a HIV educator who attended conventions, promoted safe sex, and helped provide health resources for those living with HIV. Zamora died hours after the season finale of the show. President Bill Clinton thanked and credited Pedro with humanizing the HIV disease and bringing awareness to the issue. There have been many HIV educators, but Pedro helped give a face to a disease people didn’t like to talk about, and his media exposure helped move the HIV discussion forward.
Gay Inclusion Today
Today, the gay community has a much more significant presence in mass media and advertising. More television shows, like Rupaul’s Drag Race or Will and Grace (a show Ellen Degeneres credits herself as the inspiration behind), uplift and embrace the LGBTQ community. Gay lead characters are also being featured in movies like Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name. Moonlight, a movie about a gay black boy struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Picture in 2017. Music artists Janelle Monáe, Frank Ocean, and Halsey are all unapologetic about their sexuality, and they create soundtracks for fans seeking self-discovery and acceptance.
Even personalities with less of an online reach can be advocates within their communities. Social media has helped cultivate online safe spaces (and also the opposite, if we’re being honest), and in certain cases it has even helped brands evolve with the LGBTQ population. For example, Covergirl elected James Charles as its first male spokesperson in 2017, breaking the boundaries of a mostly female-dominated industry.
Progress is being made. LGBTQ visibility in advertising and media is continuing to evolve, and it’s on us to evolve with it. There is still a lot to do before we see and consume true equality and representation in our everyday content.
What would you do on behalf of the LGBTQ community if, uninhibited by media rules and standards, you had the ability to affect the LGBTQ narrative?