The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation just named ABC Family the network that does the best job at portraying gay characters — and as portraying them as something other than simply white urbanized men. Apparently, 55 percent of the network’s original programming hours have images of LGBT people, which seems like an impressively high ratio considering the actual number of gay people in the population, though it would be interesting to see also what percentage of their characters are gay, and how many of those programming hours feature gay characters instead of having them in the mix or in the background.
But that’s sort of splitting hairs — ABC Family’s managed to work gay characters into shows as racy as Pretty Little Liars and as conservative as The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and that commitment is an important kind of accomplishment. I write a lot here about the things that adding character diversity to pop culture can bring to stories, but it’s an important second-level realization to understand that there are a lot of kinds of people within a minority grouping like “black” or “gay” or “women.” Pop culture may think to look for gay men, for example, in hair salons, but they also do things like run the Republican National Committee, just as lesbians may attend WNBA games but they also have their own entertainment empires. The presence of gay people, for example, in places culture and stereotype have suggested we shouldn’t expect them says something about the flexibilities and limitations of those organizations and settings as well as about the characters who inhabit them.
The reason someone like Glenn Beck gets verklempt about the possibility of a mixed-race, or as he put it “half-gay,” Spider-Man is not just that folks get weirdly grabby about continuity and crabby about characters who they don’t feel represent their struggles (because, of course, it’s the color of Spider-Man’s skin that makes him unlike white readers, not the ability to eject webs from his body). It’s because fitting black or gay or female heroes smoothly into superhero storylines suggests that the superhero community as a whole are comfortable with people Glenn Beck isn’t comfortable with, that it might not be the place he imagines it to be.