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LGBT characters swept the Emmys this year. Here's why it's not enough.

'LGBT characters deserve to be more than the co-stars in straight people’s lives. We must be the protagonists too.'

LGBT characters swept the Emmys this year. Here's why it's not enough.

As a writer, my dream has always been to create a world of characters that reflect my life as a gay man of color.

My world of friends ranges in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and I know I’m not the only one with this sort of broad social tapestry. Then why is it that I rarely see a world like mine on TV or film?

So, I did something. Last year, I wrote and directed a short film called "I Can't With You."


The cast of "I Can't with You." Photo by the author, used with permission.

It’s the story of Charlie and Annie, two lifelong friends who are drifting apart. I wanted to tell a story that addressed relationships between old friends who have endured the natural internal and external shifts we all go through as people. I wanted to make something that specifically showcased a relationship between a gay man and a straight woman, as I feel like it’s one we haven’t seen much of in popular media as of late, and I love the dynamic.

We live in a time with more LGBT representation in television than ever before.

This year's Emmy's were more diverse than ever. (Film, you better catch up now.) Yet, even with some major TV shows having prominent LGBT characters, we still don’t have many shows exploring the gay experience in a thorough, thought-provoking, and entertaining way.

"The Real O’Neals" has a fun, heartfelt gay coming-of-age story at its core. "Transparent" is pure magic in how it explores the underrepresented trans community. "Orange Is the New Black" is brilliant and offers up some unique, complicated LGBT characters in the sea of its vast ensemble. And other shows, from "Modern Family" to "Empire" to "Master of None," have interesting gay characters contributing to their narratives as well.

Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, writers for "Master of None," accept a 2016 Emmy award. Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP.

However, most of these shows do not let the LGBT characters to anchor the narrative. Why? Are we really only allowed three or four shows? Where are all the LGBT lead characters with complex, diverse lives?

To be fair, the lack of major gay representation in today's media doesn’t stem from a lack of trying.

"Looking" was an interesting, complex show. However, it got a lot of flak from gay audiences because it was the only show out there with a gay male leading character, and not all gay men felt like it was telling their story. And once upon a time, we actually had more diversity in shows like "Queer as Folk," "The L Word," and "Noah’s Arc," but their time has since passed.

The web is doing a much better job in offering up gay protagonist stories with a variety of tones and characters too, but their budgets are small and their platforms are even smaller: "EastSiders," "The Outs," "Where the Bears Are," and "The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo" all come to mind.

Industry decision makers must take greater chances on gay representation in the media.

Are major networks and streaming platforms afraid that mainstream audiences won’t be able to handle a story told primarily through the gay lens? I don’t think so. And, mind you, when I say mainstream audiences, I mean straight and white audiences, who have proven over and over again that they (mostly) also love diversity.

Even so, the majority of stories being offered are still told through a straight, white lens. I love some of these stories — "Terms of Endearment," "The Devil Wears Prada," "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and "The Shining" are all movies that give me life.

Who doesn't love "The Devil Wears Prada"? Photo via 20th Century Fox.

But I’m ready to see a more real depiction of life as I know it. I want a more colorful, queer world on my TV.

This is what I know: We must press on to create a world where a young gay person, whether white or of color, can see themselves as the hero.

Growing up, I rarely got to watch anything where I actually saw myself in the hero. Instead, people like me were usually the flamboyant villain, the shameful oddball, or the servant. Eventually, I graduated to the sassy best friend or co-worker.  The whole Latino thing is also worth its own rant, but in all seriousness, we haven’t shifted far enough away from this dilemma.

LGBT characters deserve to be more than the co-stars in straight people’s lives. We must be the protagonists too.

The cast and writers of "Orange Is the New Black." Photo via Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images.

We do a lot more than just come out or go to prison or help our friends through their problems. We have rich, vast lives, and we must challenge ourselves to deliver LGBT content that will appeal to all audiences. And the more opportunities we are given to be the heroes, the greater chance we have of acceptance and empathy in the real world.

We need gay comedies. We need trans dramas. We need lesbian-driven mysteries.

All of these voices matter and should contribute to the media landscape.

Now is the time to take these chances. Now is the time to be bold. I want my Gay TV. And you may not know it yet, but you do too. Try seeing life through the lens of a gay man of color. Or an older trans woman. Or a bi college student. We are all made better by trying to see the world through all kinds of eyes. And, hell, you may even like what you see.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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The answer lies in Girls Inc., a national nonprofit serving girls ages 5-18 in more than 350 cities across North America. Since first forming in 1864 to serve girls and young women who were experiencing upheaval in the aftermath of the Civil War, they've been on a mission to inspire girls to kick butt and step into leadership roles — today and in the future.

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Photo courtesy of Macy's

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