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Nonbinary And Trans Characters Have Been Left Out Of Studio Films The Past Four Years

A photo of the Hollywood sign during daytime.
The Hollywood sign.
(David McNew
Getty Images North America)
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In this era of digital music, the concept of a broken record might not make sense to the younger generation. So for people who listen to songs on Spotify or iTunes, this is what happens: The record player tries to move forward on a song, but the needle hits a scratch, with no progress.

It’s a perfect way to describe Hollywood’s recent track record when it comes to diversity. The entertainment industry has made many promises to become more inclusive and equitable, but numerous studies prove there’s been little, if any, movement. Sometimes, just like that broken record, the numbers actually go backward.

That's the case with the recently released ninth annual Studio Responsibility Index, which tracks LGBTQ+ characters in studio films. The Index — compiled by the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD — found the number of gay or bisexual characters in major studio releases decreased from 50 in 2019 to 20 last year.

The drop-off was largely due to the pandemic, which cut into the number of theatrical releases.

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But COVID-19 had nothing to do with this trend: For the fourth straight year, there was not a single transgender or nonbinary character in any studio film. And some of the LGBTQ+ characters were offensive and stereotypical, like Jeremy Strong’s swishy bad guy in “The Gentlemen,” or a gay character in “Buddy Games” whose defining characteristic was that he was gay.

One tiny piece of good news: The percentage of LGBTQ+ characters who were people of color was up from 2019, but still far below a record set four years ago.

To discuss the GLAAD report and the impact of Hollywood’s LGBTQ exclusion, I called up writer and director Justin Simien. His credits include the movie and series “Dear White People” and last year’s film “Bad Hair.” He’s Black. And he’s gay. In the history of show business, that’s two strikes — even before Simien took a swing at the plate.

I asked him if Hollywood’s talk about trying to be more diverse was just that — talk.

“I think things are worse than they were before," Simien said.

"It can be no shock to people that Hollywood folks are really good at performing," he said. "And some of the performances are incredibly convincing, and have given people a lot of cover. Because the public has accepted whatever crumb has been thrown, whatever billboard has been put up, whatever announcement has been made, as evidence of change, and we all want to believe that change is happening. But people just do what they want.”

Representation matters not only because it’s morally right, but also because people need to see that their own selves have value. If there’s no one like you on screen or on TV, Simien said, you start to believe you're invisible.

Think about it: According to GLAAD, not a single transgender or nonbinary character in a studio movie for four straight years.

“These are the people who don't feel like they belong,” Simien says. “And it's the tyranny of silence, the absence wholesale of us and our experiences. “

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.