Since I’ve come to Canada, I’ve had time to get more in tune with my queer self, and it’s coincided with finding more positive LGBTQ+ representation in pop culture.
There are more LGBTQ characters on our screens now—in film, and in television—but we still have a long way to go. At SDCC’s ComicCon@Home, actors Jamie Chung, Jamie Clayton, Wilson Cruz Tatiana Maslany, Anthony Rapp, J. August Richards, Harry Shum, Jr., and Brian Michael Smith spoke with moderator Jim Halterman about the queer characters they’ve portrayed and what they still want to see in the future.
I enjoyed this panel and I loved the diversity on it. It was good to see a mix of people of colour, but especially to see trans men and women, who are far too often left out of larger conversations about queerness and representation.
Despite a few technical issues, moderator Halterman conducted the panel with ease, navigating the large cast by giving everyone a chance to speak about their queer character and how it impacted viewers.
Wilson Cruz—who played Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life, and now portrays Dr Culber on Star Trek: Discovery—has been a vocal activist for queer rights. He was also vocal on the panel, cheering on his fellow panelists and highlighting his experiences in the world of entertainment.
He made some interesting points about how queer representation is often seen only in urban cityscapes, with suburban areas being left out of the media. Cruz’s co-star and on-screen partner in Discovery, Anthony Rapp agreed with this sentiment, though J. August Richards did take umbrage to the term ‘urban’. This happened partway through, but the panel managed to swiftly move on once everyone clarified their points.
Jamie Chung, who portrayed Mulan on Once Upon A Time, spoke about how the relationship between her character and Aurora was allowed to grow organically. Though the pair were initially tasked with finding a prince, their connection was undeniable, and the writers and showrunners decided to allow the relationship to play out.
Though I haven’t seen much of OUAT and didn’t see Mulan and Aurora’s relationship on the show, I do know that fans weren’t happy with Mulan’s arc and believed the relationship deserved better. However, Chung did not address these aspects, which is understandable.
Jamie Clayton is a familiar face on television but her role as Nomi in Sense8 has earned her millions of fans around the world whom she regularly hears from about the impact her character and her work have had on young trans people.
As a huge fan of Sense8, I always perk up when I see Clayton, though I have yet to catch Roswell: New Mexico, where she has a recurring role. Clayton talked about how being a trans woman playing a trans woman, directed by a trans woman, whose sibling later also transitioned, meant that there were multiple layers to the Sense8 storylines for Nomi and made the show more meaningful to trans communities.
The panel did reiterate that having queer people in front of the camera is important, but their impact can be diminished by writing that doesn’t do them justice.
Brian Michael Smith is a trans man, just like his character, Paul Strickland on 9-1-1: Lone Star. But his trans identity isn’t his defining characteristic—instead, Strickland is defined by his job on the show.
While trans and queer characters have often been relegated to storylines about their queerness, on 9-1-1: Lone Star, Smith regularly confers with the writers about how his character is developed and the dialogue surrounding him, because there aren’t any trans writers working on the show.
Unlike on Council of Dads, which stars J. August Richards, where they have trans characters and trans writers. Richards felt that that meant there wasn’t as much of a burden on the trans actors to help with the way their characters are written.
However, Smith seemed to be comfortable with having that input and was glad that he was being conferred with regularly about it.
But as Clayton later pointed out, being the only trans person on a set can feel very lonely. And she made another excellent point—while people often talk about more diversity in writers’ rooms, among executives, producers, and directors, those aren’t the only roles on a set. What about the cameraperson, or the light person, or the PA? If they were trans, then other trans members of the cast and crew would feel less lonely and more like they were part of a cogent filming community.
Clayton made another excellent point—I really wish we could have heard more from her because everything she said was so powerful. Trans actors are almost always pigeon-holed into playing characters who are explicitly trans. Why can’t they play a role, not a trans role?
Hearing this, I tried to think of the few instances where I’ve seen a trans actor in a role where their identity isn’t mentioned. I can only think of two—Chella Man as Jericho on Titans, and Laverne Cox in Can You Keep a Secret.
I was quite moved by J. August Richards’ story about taking the Council of Dads role and how it gave him the impetus to come out as a gay man. He’d felt that navigating the world as a Black man was so challenging that being an out gay man would have been too much to handle. But at 46, he’s living his truth, and as happy as I was to hear that, it made me wish for a world where the intersections of our marginalities didn’t have to stop us from being our complete selves in the open.
Harry Shum Jr didn’t say much but he did mention, while talking about his character Magnus Bane on Shadowhunters, how we still don’t see enough of the domestic, intimate moments in queer relationships. That was a highlight of Shadowhunters—everything about Malec (Magnus+Alec) was lovely—as was how Magnus’ bisexuality was shown in a positive light. As Shum Jr pointed out, bisexual characters are often cast as philandering, even evil people, so it was good to see that kind of positive representation for a change.
Cruz and Rapp, whose characters were introduced in their jobs first—like Smith’s character—and then shown in a domestic setting as a couple, all before any physical contact between them ever occurred, also noted how on-screen queer relationships don’t get to reflect many of the everyday aspects of real relationships. All the panelists agreed that this needed to be explored in future queer stories.
While we have a lot more LGBTQ+ representation in media, we clearly still have a long way to go. Though we can’t talk about the future of queer rep without looking at what we have now, a handful of well-written and diverse queer characters on television doesn’t signify a victory for equality.
But when you have a panel of people like the one we had here, you can’t help but feel hopeful for the future. I can’t imagine what life would have been like if, as a young person, I could have turned on the TV and seen any of these characters on my screen. We’re fortunate to have these now, but that only means we need even more expansive queer representation in the future.