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LGBTQ Film Characters Had Greater Visibility, Diversity and Screen Time in 2020, GLAAD Study Finds

But trans and non-binary characters remained invisible in studio movies last year

LGBTQ characters appeared in a higher percentage of films in 2020 than ever before, according to a new study from GLAAD. The study also found more of those characters were people of color, and more of them than ever had a substantial amount of screen time.

GLAAD’s annual Studio Responsibility Index found that of 44 films from eight major studios released throughout 2020, 10 of them, or 22.7%, had characters who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. That percentage is up from 2019, in which only 18.6% had LGBTQ characters.

But for the fourth year in a row, GLAAD found that transgender characters and non-binary characters were completely absent from major studio theatrical releases, with the organization saying that the film industry greatly lags behind TV when it comes to representation in this regard.

2020’s theatrical releases were completely thrown out of whack due to the pandemic, with movie theaters closed across the country for much of the year and many titles pushed back or released digitally. So some movies that might’ve otherwise been counted among studio releases weren’t observed for the study. And though a higher percentage of movies in 2020 had LGBTQ characters, a fewer number of films overall did compared to past years, for the simple reason that fewer movies were released.

As a result, GLAAD also abstained from assigning studios a report card grade this year as they’ve done in years past. Last year, for instance, all eight studios were graded with an “Insufficient” rating or worse.

But the needle is moving in the right direction. Of the 20 LGBTQ characters seen on-screen last year, half of them had a significant amount of screen time, and nine of 10 of those movies passed GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test, which assesses whether a character is clearly identified as LGBTQ, has defining traits other than their sexuality and are important to the film’s story.

What’s more, eight of the 20 LGBTQ characters were people of color, including three Asian-Pacific Islanders, two who were Black, two Latinx and one Indigenous (one from “Onward” was a “non-human alien,” as GLAAD put it, but is voiced by Lena Waithe).

GLAAD in 2020 surveyed the eight studios that had the highest box office performance from the previous full year, 2019. Those studios were Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, STXfilms, United Artists Releasing, Universal, Disney and Warner Bros. Some of the notable films that were rated as LGBTQ-inclusive and also passed the Vito Russo test included Sony’s “The Broken Hearts Gallery” featuring Philippa Soo’s character, Paramount’s “Like A Boss” starring Billy Porter, “The New Mutants” from Disney/20th Century with Blu Hunt and Maisie Williams’ characters, and “Birds of Prey” at Warner Bros. with Rosie Perez’s character.

The report didn’t include in its count movies released by subsidiaries of the major studios but noted their inclusion in the last year, such as Focus Features’ “Promising Young Woman” that starred Laverne Cox. It also didn’t include independent studios and streamers, which boasted movies such as “Unpregnant” on HBO Max, “Happiest Season” on Hulu, “Ammonite” from Neon and “The Boys in the Band” and the documentary “Disclosure” from Netflix.

GLAAD is also challenging studios to “urgently prioritize active development” of the telling of stories that involve LGBTQ characters living with HIV, posing to movie studios the same challenge they previously set to TV networks, as a way of removing the stigma around the disease. GLAAD says 1.2 million Americans and about 38 million people globally are living with HIV, but nine of 10 Americans in a 2020 GLAAD survey believe there is still a stigma around HIV.

GLAAD previously tasked studios with having 20% of its characters be LGBTQ by 2021 and 50% by 2024, and the studios met that goal in 2020.

“This is a critical time of transformation for Hollywood – challenged to redefine business lines and practices during a global pandemic, driven by an increased demand from consumers hungry for new content, and rocked by the rightful reckoning and pressure for these studios to create more meaningful substantive change in representing and investing in marginalized communities,” GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement. “This transformation represents a great opportunity to swiftly accelerate acceptance of LGBTQ stories, break new ground, and invest in queer and trans talent and stories that audiences are eager to watch. Hollywood and the business of storytelling must be more nimble, more creative, more open than ever before.”

“We know that LGBTQ audiences are a powerful and invested audience – and a quickly growing one – as we see more and more people empowered to live their authentic lives. The power, passion, and growth of LGBTQ audiences proves that if studios wish to be successful in retaining and expanding fans, they must tell meaningful queer and trans stories,” Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of Entertainment Research and Analysis, said in a statement. “Nielsen reports that LGBTQ audiences are key box office drivers, heavy streaming users, and set the social conversation. As the industry looks towards a changing future, it is clear that LGBTQ characters need to be part of stories across all platforms of distribution, and prioritizing offering fan engagement experiences provides even greater opportunity for representation and inclusion. Sincerely engaging LGBTQ audiences can only benefit the studio’s bottom lines.”

Read the full GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index here.