When I came to the United States at age six with my family, none of us spoke English. It was tough. We had to maneuver many new and frightening things. Media sometimes helped bridge that large and cold divide between our old home and our new home. That moment, of turning on the TV and hearing someone speak the language of your past, of your dreams, the language spoken by the people you left behind, was powerful.
It is still powerful. For immigrants, who today arguably (and sadly) face more discrimination than we faced in the 1970s, media can be a place of comfort.
The connection is intellectual as well as emotional. Spanish-language media does a good job covering stories. Everything from daily detentions, raids, deportations, and confusing changes in policy that hurt immigrants, to natural disasters and the misdeeds of political figures like Joe Arpaio, is often covered more deeply in Spanish-language media.
Those of who are bilingual can turn to Spanish-language media for news about the world, but can we tune in when we want to be entertained? When we need a laugh or a good cry? The answer’s a resounding no if you’re LGBTQ or simply want to see diverse stories and characters. LGBTQ people, people of color and people with disabilities are practically nowhere to be found in Spanish-language entertainment.
GLAAD just published a tally of these disappointing numbers in its Spanish-language media report, Still Invisible, the second installment of its report that analyzes the LGBTQ characters in primetime scripted television. The percentages of LGBTQ characters stayed virtually the same as last year, and the stories remained as shallow as ever.
Of a total of 698 characters in shows airing in the United States between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017 on primetime (7 p.m. to 11 p.m.), just 19 (3%) were LGBTQ. And most were not main characters.
Of the LGBTQ characters, six (30%) died and six did not have motivations of their own – they only served to further other characters storylines. No transgender men were represented, only one transgender woman was shown and bisexual women were often represented stereotypically, as sexually voracious—essentially a way to include presumably titillating sexuality between women while keeping a heterosexual pairing as the central story. In a few examples the gay character, or the character assumed to be gay, was a clichéd trope and present only for laughs.
All of this makes us what to say to producers in Mexico, Colombia, Miami and Los Angeles, it is not the 1970s! We are sick and tired of either being either invisible or insignificant.
Some producers are making an effort and streaming platforms are starting to catch up, with LGBTQ characters in shows like “Ingobernable” or “Chicas del Cable” on Netflix, but it’s not enough.
As a friend recently pointed out, “Will & Grace” not only happened once for English-language TV viewers, but they’re back for a second go-around. Those of us who are Latinx are still waiting for a story like that, in which the leads are LGBTQ and have actual roles to play in the narrative, as opposed to acting like colorful (literally often dressed in bright colors) window dressings. Where is our “Scandal” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Empire,” “Glee,” or “Orange is the New Black”? These shows, by the way, are hits not only in the United States, but abroad.
Why? Because inclusion is good for the bottom line.
The business case for diversity is powerful. Younger Latinx people are much-coveted consumers because they spend a lot of money on entertainment. Increasingly, however, young people, of all ethnicities, are cutting the cord. If we want them to remain loyal, they have to see themselves represented.
English-language entertainment and news media should also pay attention because they, too, face a dearth of diverse faces and stories, as organizations like the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) have pointed out for years. GLAAD’s Where We are on TV report points to a lack of diversity in terms of ethnicity, disabilities, or LGBTQ characters.
Research done by GLAAD and Harris Poll found that 20% of respondents from age 18-34 did not identify as heterosexual nor did they adhere to traditional definitions of gender. These younger viewers are not seeing themselves represented.
Like a lot of Latinx people, I love Spanish-language media. I love the voices, the points of view, the way it makes me feel connected to my native Uruguay but also to Mexico, where so much of my extended family hails from. And Puerto Rico, where so many friends come from, and beautiful Chile, Peru, and Colombia. But, like a lot of Latinx people, I’m tired of being invisible. I want to sit down, like I did as a kid and watch TV with my family and not roll my eyes or walk away annoyed at seeing yet another portrayal straight out of the 70s.
My family and all families, including grandma or abuela, can handle a good LGBTQ storyline, because, more and more, abuela and mom and dad know lots of openly LGBTQ people. And, if she’s anything like mine, abuela has seen a thing or two in her life and is not going to stop watching a novela because it has a queer lead with an actual storyline that matters. She might even tune in because of that very storyline.
Monica Trasandes is the director of Spanish Language and Latinx Media & Representation at GLAAD.