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GLAAD's Sarah Kate Ellis Primes TV's 'Empathy Machine'

Sarah Kate Ellis
Sarah Kate Ellis (Image credit: GLAAD)

Media veteran Sarah Kate Ellis has been leading the advocacy organization GLAAD for more than seven years, focusing its efforts on building and fostering greater media acceptance of the growing LGBTQ+ community. Ellis, who will be honored at the June 23 B+C and Multichannel News Pride TV Summit, talked about the relevance and importance of this year’s Pride Month celebration, as well as the state of LGBTQ+ representation on television in an interview, an edited version of which appears below.

More on the Pride TV Summit: Pride TV Summit Hones in on the Business of Inclusion

B+C: Does this year’s Pride Month celebration take on greater significance given the cultural climate change the country has experienced over the past year? 

Sarah Kate Ellis: Absolutely. Two things are at play here. One is that for the LGBTQ community as a whole, community is a really important part of our identities, especially because for so long, we lived in the shadows. Our coming together in person was sorely missed last year, especially because so many of our youth live in unaccepting households. From a policy and political perspective, there have been over 250 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year in state legislatures across the United States — most of those are targeting trans and non-binary people. This year, we've seen 27 murders of transgender, non-binary people who are mostly Black and Latina, and we’re pacing to be the deadliest year yet for the community. With the Equality Act, which is the largest piece of legislation for our community ever, passed in the House but stalled in the Senate, I think it’s really important for us to use this month to build awareness and education about the Act and what it does to help protect our community. 

B+C: What role can the entertainment industry play in educating the public about the issues you’ve mentioned? 

SKE: TV and streaming content are empathy and education machines for our community. For instance, only 16% of Americans report knowing somebody who is transgender, so the rest of the country is learning about transgender people through media. Our annual report, Where We Are on TV, came out in January 2021, and we found that there was greater diversity of LGBTQ characters, but less characters overall. I'm really hopeful that [the decline] is likely due to COVID because a lot of productions were stopped, but a great example of how important content is for the community is FX’s Pose. This was a revolutionary show that focused on trans people of color for the most part and told their stories, but it also focused on HIV and AIDS in the ’80s. When this show shuts down this month, we will lose a significant number of trans characters on television, and we will then have zero characters living with HIV on scripted TV. 

That’s a lot of weight for one show to carry in terms of creating culture, education and empathy for our community. We need to see that spread out among other shows.

B+C How does the industry go about developing more shows like Pose that depict authentic LGTBQ+ characters and storylines on screen? 

SKE: Hollywood likes success — look at all the awards that Pose has received. Hulu’s Happiest Season is an LGTBQ holiday movie that broke all of their records for new subscribers during its first weekend viewing. So if you put the content out there, the audience will come and they will flock to it as long as it’s fair and accurate. I think that’s a big motivator to create programming that’s going to attract audiences and bring in new fan bases. I think the industry is moving in the right direction because it is showing more diverse characters. For so long, shows and films were scared to include LGBTQ characters mainly out of fear of backlash, and we’re way past that. If you look at the latest Gallup poll, 16% of 18 to 24 year olds in America identify as LGBT. So they want to see themselves and their lives reflected back to them. As content creators look to attract younger audiences, they're going to have to include LGBTQ people.

B+C: What is GLAAD doing to increase LGBTQ+ representation on screen? 

SKE: We approach it really from three different places. One is that we do our annual reports on the TV and streaming content providers and their content. We do the studio responsibility index on films and theaters. So we measure those. We have the GLAAD Media Institute where we work with these creators. We just launched a new project with Procter & Gamble called The Visibility Project. We know how important media representation is and, just like in television and film, advertising is pervasive. We know that if we can be in more ads that will grow acceptance for our community.

What we look to do is provide some measurements so that they have a benchmark that they could move forward from, as well as to hold them accountable, but also offer all our support and services to make sure that they are successful.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.