GLOing Depictions of Sexual Minorities: The Evolution of Gay- and Lesbian-Oriented Digital Media
The depiction of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals in the media has evolved over time. The coming out of the protagonist on the television program Ellen is believed to have been the catalyst for change in the depiction of LGB characters on television. Though the evolution of LGB characters in mainstream digital media has led to an increase in realistic, diverse LGB portrayals, audiences are no longer limited to mainstream media for digital mass communication messages about LGB lifestyle, culture, and sexuality. Within the last twenty years, media outlets that are specifically designed, produced, and marketed to LGB audiences have successfully garnered growing audiences. This paper is an introduction to gay- and lesbian-oriented media, or GLO media. The evolution of GLO media in the digital age from Showtime’s Queer As Folk to the development of social media apps for smart phones is discussed. Economic forces are then detailed as possible reasons for investment in GLO media because advertisers began to realize the marketing potential to LGB audiences, believed to be brand loyal consumers with larger than average levels of disposable income. By reviewing the findings of a recent quantitative content analysis of GLO media, the sexual content of GLO media is brought to light in an effort to illustrate the changing depiction of LGB individuals in today’s modern, specialized GLO media landscape. The paper concludes by reviewing research studies that suggest media are salient socialization agents for LGB adolescents who are struggling to understand their sexualities and calling for more GLO media that depict the diversity of LGB individuals as a means of positively influencing the health and well-being of LGB audiences.
On April 30, 1997, Ellen Morgan, the lead character on ABC’s situation comedy Ellen, would break through a door that was previously kept tightly shut: the closet door of American prime-time television. The situation comedy depicted the lead character, unknowingly standing in front of a live microphone in an airport lobby, proclaiming to a possible romantic interest of the same sex, “I’m gay.” Not only did those two words resonate throughout the airport in the episode, but they were heard loud and clear in over 42 million American homes. Ellen was not the first gay character on television, but her “I’m gay” proclamation would mark the first time in American history that the protagonist in a prime-time network television program was openly gay. The lead on Ellen did not come out of the closet alone; rather, the actor who played her, Ellen DeGeneres, simultaneously came out of the closet as well. The coming out of Ellen DeGeneres garnered interest from major news outlets, earning her a full editorial in The New York Times, a two-part 20/20 televised newsmagazine special, an appearance on Oprah, and a spot on the cover of TIME magazine with the words “Yep, I’m gay” emblazoned across her picture in large red font. Ellen’s use of mainstream media to come out of the closet made it the most public proclamation of sexuality in gay history (Streitmatter, 2009).
The coming out of Ellen (and Ellen) was not just a milestone for gay visibility in the United States, but it offered lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) adolescents a mediated role model to turn to for identification, information, and validation. The media frenzy surrounding Ellen’s coming out was a salient event that greatly influenced the sexual identity development and self-acceptance of many LGB youth of the time (Bond, Hefner, & Drogos, 2009). In one study of 126 LGB adults, Ellen DeGeneres was mentioned more than any other individual as influencing decisions to come out to others, with many participants noting that Ellen’s coming out in the national news media gave them pride in their own sexual identities (Gomillion & Giuliano, 2011). Although Ellen may have her place in many LGB coming of age stories in the late 1990s, the situation comedy Ellen was short-lived following the explosively popular coming out episode. After the protagonist of a popular television program identified herself as a lesbian, the next step seemed natural: include storylines where the character explores this newfound identity. However, an episode in which Ellen kissed another woman led to controversy, which prompted Variety magazine to publish the headline, “Ellen Is Too Gay.” ABC was shaken by the argument that the situation comedy had become too gay-specific for the average American viewer. Fearing the loss of advertisers, ABC cancelled Ellen just one season after revealing that the lead character was a lesbian (Gross, 2001).
Exposure to media depictions of LGB characters like Ellen provides sexually curious adolescents with access to representations of LGB sexualities that would otherwise be nonexistent in the everyday lives of American teens. Lacking LGB visibility in their homes, schools, or communities, the media depictions of LGB characters plausibly have great influence on the development of LGB sexual identities and the emotional and psychological well-being of youth exploring their same-sex feelings (Bond et al, 2009; Evans, 2007; Gomillion & Giuliano, 2011; McKee, 2000). However useful Ellen may have been for the sexual identity development of LGB teens, the show was ultimately cancelled because of the very novelty that made it valuable: gay visibility. The television landscape has dramatically changed since the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres in the late 1990s, and sexually curious adolescents today have a broad array of media outlets to plug into for identification, information, or validation. Possibly the most promising alteration to the fabric of digital entertainment media for LGB individuals is the success of media outlets developed specifically for LGB audiences, ranging from films to digital cable networks to satellite radio stations—all targeting LGB audiences. This chapter will examine the development of digital media that are specifically designed, produced, and marketed for gay and lesbian audiences and delve into the possible influence that exposure to gay- and lesbian-oriented (GLO) media may have on individuals exploring their sexual identities during adolescence.
Mainstream Media and LGB Sexuality
In order to understand the evolution of GLO media, one must first understand the depiction of LGB individuals in mainstream digital media. Although content analyses of major television networks and motion pictures suggest that LGB characters are increasingly depicted in diverse roles (Fisher, Hill, Grube, & Gruber, 2007), the all-powerful advertising dollar still regulates LGB characters to conveying their sexuality only through proclamation. The fear of offending a predominantly heterosexual audience with same-sex sexual behavior means that a majority of LGB depictions in mainstream media are rather sexless. ABC’s Modern Family exemplifies the struggle with depicting LGB sexuality. Modern Family is a situation comedy about three interrelated families. One of the three families in Modern Family consists of a gay couple and their adopted toddler. The show received rave reviews from critics and scholars for introducing America to a committed gay couple in the midst of solidifying their family (Itzkoff, 2010). However, it soon became noticeable that the gay couple in Modern Family was never shown being physically intimate. One particular episode ended with the two heterosexual couples in the cast kissing. The gay couple hugged. The absence of a same-sex kiss caused a stir among LGB rights advocates. The producers of Modern Family countered the criticism by noting that an episode involving a kiss from the gay couple was already in the works. When the episode aired, the kiss between the gay characters was incidental and occurred in the background of a scene that depicted a heterosexual kiss in the foreground. Although ABC has been applauded for the depiction of a normalized, realistic gay couple in Modern Family, the network has simultaneously been criticized for the absence of any physical displays of affection between the two men in the same-sex relationship.
Becker (2006) argues that the struggle over how to depict LGB characters in the mainstream media is being driven, at least in part, by economic forces. The fastest growing class in America is composed of upscale 18- to 49-year-old active consumers with disposable income who define themselves as socially liberal. According to Becker (2006), mainstream media portray LGB sexuality because doing so is a convenient signal to show just how open-minded media producers are in an attempt to lure the sought-after demographic of social liberals with disposable income in an intensely competitive media market. Pushing the sexual boundaries, however, might offend segments of the heterosexual audience and, in turn, lose advertising dollars. Mainstream media producers seem to be quite pleased to depict LGB characters, for it distinguishes the industry as accepting, tolerant, and encouraging of the LGB movement. As quick as mainstream media producers are to include a token gay character, they are just as quick to write that token gay character as a sexless individual, only gay in terms of the socio-cultural components of what it means to be gay—eliminating any sexual component of homosexuality for fear that pushing the boundaries too far would influence profit (Gross, 1994).
In addition to lacking any sexual talk or sexual behavior, content analysis research has shown that gay and lesbian characters’ sexualities are often central to their role in the plotline of mainstream television programming; rarely are gay and lesbian characters on television depicted in situations where their sexual orientation does not add comedic value or interesting twists to the plot (Fouts & Inch, 2005). Mainstream media sanitize LGB sexuality, further differentiating it from heterosexuality. The lack of realistic LGB depictions could provide sexually questioning adolescents with little information needed to better understand how their sexual feelings fit into their social world. However, youth are not limited to mainstream media when seeking information about alternatives to heterosexuality. Adolescents questioning their sexuality have a niche media industry to turn to for information, entertainment, validation, or escape. Magazines and films that are designed and targeted toward gay and lesbian audiences have been produced for decades (Gross, 2001). Recently, cable television, radio, and new media technologies have joined this niche market, referred to throughout this chapter as gay- and lesbian-oriented media, or GLO media.
Gay- and Lesbian-Oriented (GLO) Media
GLO media are defined as any media outlets specifically designed, produced, and marketed for gay and lesbian audiences. It is likely that GLO media have become more visible and accessible in recent years because of both socio-political and economic factors. The American public in general has become more tolerant of LGB individuals since the start of the LGB movement of the 1970s, possibly due in part to groundbreaking images of LGB people in the media (Sender, 2006). As such, media producers may feel less tension when developing media fare for LGB audiences. More influential than the lack of fiery public backlash is the presence of advertising dollars. Certainly the factor most responsible for the development of GLO media is the increasing realization that LGB audiences are valuable potential consumers.
The media industry came to the conclusion early in the twenty first century that gay and lesbian individuals have some of the highest discretionary spending among any segment of the population (Salamon, 2005). Couple LGB individuals’ disposable income with the notion that gay consumers are fiercely loyal to brands that have invested time and money to advertise directly to them (Mandese, 2005) and one can quickly see how marketers were initially drawn to LGB consumers. The best way to reach these brand loyal consumers with disposable income was obvious: advertise in media outlets popular among LGB individuals. Determining what mainstream media outlets are popular among LGB audiences is an arduous task, as hard facts and firm data about LGB individuals and their media habits is not yet readily available in the media literature (Mandese, 2005). GLO media, however, are specifically designed, produced, and marketed to LGB audiences. Advertisers soon realized that GLO media would be an attractive outlet to reach the untapped LGB consumer. A closer dissection of each digital GLO medium will be further explicated to unveil the increasing diversity and accessibility of GLO media.
The first digital media specifically designed, produced, and marketed for gay and lesbian audiences appeared in art theatres and independent film festivals throughout the United States: GLO films. Before radio or television took on sexuality, movies were being made by gay producers and gay directors for gay audiences. The Stonewall Inn riots and other social justice events that served as catalysts for the LGB movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave permission to the voices of gay and lesbian filmmakers to document the lives and events of LGB individuals in independent films (Ades & Klainberg, 2006). One of the central messages of the LGB movement at that time was the need for LGB people to come out, to admit to themselves and to others that they were LGB. Coming out was—and still is—seen as an effective way to increase the psychological well-being of LGB individuals while simultaneously increasing gay visibility in an effort to liberate LGB identities (Gross, 2001). As such, the film Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, released in 1977, documented the coming out stories of 26 gay men and women. The interviewees represented a broad spectrum of races, ages, and experiences; interviews were conducted with a 77-year-old lesbian poet and a young gay African American male at an Ivy League school attempting to struggle through the arduous identity battles of being a gay Black man seeking an education. The film, among the first made by gay filmmakers to feature gay and lesbian individuals, earned rave reviews in cities around the country.
Less than 10 years later, the AIDS epidemic was making headlines in the United States. As friends and loved ones of gay filmmakers began to die around them, filmmakers themselves felt compelled to deal with the issue the only way they knew how: through film (Nowlan, 2010). Dramatic films like Parting Glances unapologetically revealed the complexities of the AIDS epidemic on a personal level, detailing the personal lives of individuals attempting to understand how to live with the disease. Possibly one of the most common themes of GLO films in the 1980s was the sense of familial bonds among gay and lesbian individuals. For the first time, straight audiences were exposed to media depictions of LGB individuals as members of a strong, loving community (Ades & Klainberg, 2006). The attention that many of the films highlighting the LGB community in the 1980s garnered helped to blur the lines between queer independent films, a previously isolated genre of films, and independent films more generally.
The early 1990s saw the awakening of what has been referred to as the ‘new queer cinema’ (Ades & Klainberg, 2006). GLO films began to mature as their production cultivated more attention and, more importantly, higher levels of financial investment. The Sundance Film Festival saw more LGB films in 1992 than in any previous year. Many of the films included vibrant coming out stories, expanding the traditional coming-of-age film to a unique audience of LGB individuals (Nowlan, 2006). GLO films of the late 1990s like Trick, Punk, and But I’m a Cheerleader told the coming-of-age stories of young gay men in the city, gay men of color, and lesbians, respectively. The new queer cinema has received much attention by critical media scholars and is often celebrated as producing refreshingly original and daringly deviant films about gay and lesbian individuals and the lives they lead. Filmmakers in this new queer cinema, many gay themselves, continue to create films that portrayed the real-life struggles and situations that LGB individuals face (Murray, 1996). GLO films, otherwise known as queer cinema, have a storied past. In the documentary film Fabulous: The Story of Queer Cinema, LGB actors themselves tell stories about scenes from GLO films that provided them with an outlet for understanding their own sexualities when they were adolescents searching for information to label their sexual feelings.
Queer as Folk. Britain’s Channel 4 had a runaway hit with its eight-part series Queer as Folk that chronicled the lives of young gay men living in Manchester’s trendy gay neighborhood. Channel 4 noted that the objective of the program was to simply reveal gay life and its ordinariness (Gross, 2001). The success of the British series garnered the attention of Hollywood, especially producers at pay-cable channel Showtime who were looking for ways to compete with the success of original programming on their rival pay-cable channel, HBO. Just one year after Queer as Folk debuted in the United Kingdom, Showtime premiered the American adaptation that followed the lives of five gay men in Pittsburgh. The show became well-known for its frank, unvarnished depiction of gay culture in America, as well as vivid depictions of same-sex sexual behavior, typically between two men (Rodman, 2009). In the pilot episode alone, one of the gay male characters receives oral sex in a nightclub, has anal sex with a 17-year-old virgin, and has anal sex with a business associate in a restroom at work. Just three years prior to the debut of Queer as Folk, one kiss between two women made Ellen “too gay.”
The difference between Ellen and Queer as Folk was the platform from which the media message was transferred to the public: Ellen was a situation comedy on mainstream television, reliant on appeasing advertisers. Queer as Folk (arguably the first GLO television program) was targeted to gay and lesbian audiences on a pay-cable channel. Advertisers sunk Ellen. Queer as Folk, on the other hand, relied on Showtime subscriber fees to stay afloat. Showtime subscribers not only tolerated the sexually graphic program, they embraced it. Queer as Folk became the highest rated original programming on Showtime in its first season (Streitmatter, 2009) and was responsible for an increase in subscriptions to the pay-cable channel (Gross, 2001). The program was not just immensely popular among LGB audiences, but also among heterosexual women, likely due to the soap opera-style melodrama of the program (Streitmatter, 2009).
The L Word. Although Queer as Folk was home to lesbian characters, their storylines were often peripheral to the plot as they were overshadowed by the gay male characters. Showtime executives believed that there was a potentially untapped audience for a program similar to Queer as Folk that would feature lesbian lead characters rather than gay men. Four years after the introduction of Queer as Folk, Showtime premiered The L Word. The L Word chronicled the lives of five lesbian and bisexual women in the gay-friendly, trendy West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The show received critical acclaim and instant popularity (Glock, 2005). Showtime’s prediction held true: nearly one million viewers were soon tuning in to watch The L Word (Streitmatter, 2009).
Queer as Folk and The L Word are arguably the first two television programs that ever aired on established cable networks that could be defined as GLO media. The programs were developed, produced, and marketed for gay and lesbian audiences. Although other television programs have included gay and lesbian lead characters (e.g., Will & Grace, Modern Family), these programs are not developed specifically for a gay and lesbian audience and, as such, must depict LGB sexualities in such a way that mainstream, heterosexual audiences will be comfortable viewing. Queer as Folk and The L Word cared little about the restraints posed by heterosexual audiences. These programs depicted the social, cultural, and sexual experiences of LGB individuals in a genuine, often abrasive manner. The success of such realistic depictions of LGB people certainly contributed to the emergence of two stable, profitable GLO television networks, Here! and Logo.
Here! television. In 1998, Regent Entertainment released Gods and Monsters, a motion picture highlighting the latter years of James Whale, the director of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. The film followed the development of a relationship between Whales, a gay man, and his ex-Marine male gardener as Whales neared the end of his life. The film was a success among audiences and critics, earning an Academy Award for best screenplay. The immense popularity of a biopic of a gay man was the first inkling to executives of Regent Entertainment that a market for gay programming might exist (Albiniak, 2005). As such, Paul Colichman, partner in Regent Entertainment, began producing GLO films and GLO programming that would eventually become part of a breakthrough video on demand service in 2002 known as Here! television. Here! would become one of the first television networks for LGB audiences, airing original series, made-for-TV movies, miniseries, and feature films.
As a video-on-demand service, Here! is not reliant on advertising. Rather, Here! garners funding through its viewers in the form of pay-per-view programming and subscription fees that viewers pay to regularly access the network’s content. Here! now has a deal with every major cable provider in the United States (Birch, 2005). Karen Flischel, the general manager of Here! television noted in a 2005 interview that “the advent of digital and the ability to deliver content in different ways, coupled with more people living openly gay lifestyles, made this the right time [to launch a gay premium television network]” (Albiniak, 2005, p. 24).
Logo. Showtime earned both critical acclaim and new subscribers because of Queer as Folk and The L Word. At the time of Showtime’s reign as king of gay visibility on television, Showtime and MTV were siblings under the media giant Viacom. Network executives at MTV were keeping a close eye on the success of GLO programming at Showtime with the intention of developing an entire network of programming developed, produced, and marketed to gay and lesbian audiences. Higgins (2002) reported that MTV network executives were initially taken to the idea of a gay network when they estimated that at least 6.5% of TV households had at least one gay occupant. By contrast, 9.7% of TV households were Hispanic and there were at least six Spanish-language networks at the time. The possibility of advertising to a previously untapped niche market made Viacom executives salivate.
Logo was the result of the Viacom quest for LGB dollars. Logo is a digital cable network that airs movies, series, and specials focusing on the culture and lifestyles of sexual minority individuals. Just weeks before the launch of Logo, advertising scholars and industry professionals were questioning the likelihood that advertisers would cozy up to a cable channel aimed at LGB individuals (Becker, 2005). In response to fear that the network would not garner the advertisers needed to launch, Logo’s sales executives touted the brand loyalty, tech savvy, and overall buying power of LGB audiences, a previously untapped market in digital cable networks. Former president of Logo noted that, “advertisers and cable servers seem to understand this is one of the last great underserved market segments. In a world of 400 channels there aren’t many underserved markets yet. As a business opportunity people get it” (Salamon, 2005, p. 1). Logo was able to quickly add advertisers. Within months, Logo went from only a handful of original sponsors (e.g., Subaru, Orbitz, Tylenol, and Miller Brewing) to over 35 additional companies, including American Express, General Motors, Anheuser Busch, and eBay (Albiniak, 2005).
Unlike television and film, the music industry has yet to embrace the LGB community as a targeted audience. One may make the logical claim that openly LGB musical artists might write and sing about their sexuality and about same-sex relationships, but no empirical research has examined the musical stylings of openly LGB musical artists. There is no GLO music label and only one gay radio station accessible only to those with Sirius or XM radio. In 2003, satellite radio provider Sirius debuted OutQ, the first full-time radio channel serving LGB listeners. The channel began as primarly news, information, and talk radio and continues to rely on these formats today. The rationale for creating OutQ provided by Sirius executives closely mirrored the reasoning for the development of GLO television networks: LGB people not only exist, but they are media consumers with disposable income who tend to be loyal to brands that embrace the LGB community (Bednarski, 2003).
The Internet provides a plethora of websites available to eager LGB teens searching for information about sexuality. In an investigation of gay.com and planetout.com, two popular online communities developed, produced, and marketed to LGB individuals, Campbell (2005) argued that GLO websites have become a novel venue for mainstream advertisers to reach the coveted LGB market. Understanding exactly how GLO websites have come to exist or the content of GLO websites is extremely difficult given the sheer quantity of websites focusing on GLO content. Even with little knowledge about the content of GLO websites, scholars have argued that the accessibility and perceived anonymity of visiting GLO websites provides LGB individuals an attractive outlet for harvesting information about LGB sexual identities (Campbell, 2005). Cooper, McLoughlin, and Campbell (2000) noted that “lesbian women, gay men, and bisexuals use the Internet more often than their heterosexual counterparts for experimentation, networking, communication, and the expression of a variety of sexual behaviors” (p. 525). It is likely that LGB adolescents exploring their identity are utilizing virtual means to gather information and find like-minded others for interpersonal communication purposes.
GLO Mobile Technologies
Advances in the sophistication of mobile technologies have afforded inviduals the ability to consume GLO media from new platforms. Logo, for example, has attempted to transition selective programming to mobile devices. The primary reason behind Logo’s move is pure access. Allowing Logo’s content to be accessed via mobile technologies like smart phones and tablets helps an emerging network expand into markets that do not or cannot subscribe to its programming through digital cable television (Aslinger, 2009).
Other mobile applications also exist to provide members of the LGB community a means of computer-mediated interpersonal communication. Grindr, for example, is a mobile app designed to give gay men access to other gay men who are near the given user. Users register with Grindr, provide basic profile information (e.g., age, body size, race), and upload a photograph. Global positioning systems are then employed to display other gay men who are physically near the user, giving the user an opportunity to chat with those in close proximity. Although this technology provides for computer-mediated interpersonal communication rather than mass communication messages, the use of such technologies could certainly reduce feelings of isolation among gay men, providing them with an easy means to communicate with like others in a manner that is perceived to be safe, secure, and confidential (Gudelunas, 2012).
GLO Media at a Glance
The gay market is coming out of the media closet as major advertisers have recognized the spending power and brand loyalty of LGB audiences. Over time GLO media have transitioned from small, independent films shown in art theaters to a digital cable television network launched with the muscle of Viacom and supported by advertisements from major American corporations. As GLO media have evolved, they have become increasingly accessible to a wider range of individuals, including LGB youth.
A Content Analysis of GLO Media
Studies show that late adolescents exploring their sexuality seek out media specifically inclusive of gay and lesbian characters (Bond, et al., 2009; Evans, 2007; Kivel & Kleiber, 2005). In the ever-changing modern media environment, it is then likely that LGB youth may be accessing GLO media with the hopes of uncovering information that would help them understand their sexualities (Bond et al., 2009). Dissecting the portrayal of LGB sexuality in GLO media may serve useful for understanding how exposure to GLO media may influence modern LGB adolescents the same way that Ellen’s coming out influenced sexually questioning teens of the late 1990s. One content analysis study examined GLO media popular with LGB adolescents (Bond, 2011). The sample consisted of GLO media popular with LGB adolescents as determined through a national survey of media habits of 678 self-identifying LGB teens (meanage = 18.5). Any digital media vehicle (i.e., television show, film, website, or musical artist) that at least 10% of the LGB teen sample reported as consuming at least “sometimes” (the third point on a 5-point Likert-type scale) was included in the content analysis. In all, thirty two GLO media vehicles were included in the final sample, including several GLO films, numerous television programs from LOGO television network, and several musical artists that are openly LGB. The sample did not include any websites because no website except for social media was popular with at least 10% of the sample. The author argued that the sheer quantity of GLO websites may have made it difficult for any one website to garner enough popularity among the adolescent sample to make the cut. More intensely studying websites designed, produced, and marketed to gay and lesbian audiences was recommended for future research.
Bond (2011) had a team of undergraduate research assistants code two randomly selected episodes of every television show, each film, and two of the most popular songs from the latest album of each musical artist that was popular among the sample of LGB youth. Each GLO media vehicle was coded for both heterosexual and LGB sexual talk and sexual behavior, in line with the operational definitions of sexual talk and sexual behavior used in previous research (Kunkel et al., 2005). Talk that was specific to the LGB community but was not sexual was coded as “LGB talk” and was further coded to determine what type of LGB talk occurred.
The results suggested that depictions of LGB sexuality are commonplace in GLO media. Both LGB sexual talk and LGB sexual behavior were more likely than heterosexual sexual talk or heterosexual sexual behavior in GLO media popular with LGB adolescents. Analyses revealed that nearly every single GLO media vehicle in the sample contained at least one depiction of LGB sexuality and over half of GLO media vehicles in the sample contained at least one depiction of heterosexuality. In GLO media popular with LGB adolescents, 85% of sexual instances depicted LGB sexuality, while only 15% of sexual instances depicted heterosexuality. In other words, for every one depiction of heterosexuality that LGB adolescents are exposed to in GLO media, they are likely to see nearly six depictions of LGB sexuality. Depictions of LGB sexuality were more common than depictions of heterosexuality in GLO media popular with LGB teens (Bond, 2011).
GLO media vehicles are designed, produced, and marketed to gay, lesbian, and bisexual audiences. As such, it is not surprising that the content analysis showed that GLO media contained more depictions of LGB sexuality than mainstream media. However, over half of GLO media vehicles contained at least one depiction of heterosexuality. The author argued that GLO media may be likely to contain depictions of heterosexuality in addition to depictions of LGB sexuality because heterosexuality is such a pervasive societal norm that avoiding portrayals of heterosexuality is nearly impossible, even in television programming, films, and music specifically designed for LGB audiences (Bond, 2011).
Sexual talk in GLO media depicted a variety of realistic aspects of being LGB including relationship talk, talk of sexual interests, and talk of sexual experiences. Bond (2011) noted that “sexual talk in GLO media seems to normalize LGB sexuality by showing the many relational and sexual components of being LGB” (p. 25). Among the talk that was coded as LGB talk, the most commonly coded subcategory was coming out talk. The concentration on coming out as a topic of LGB sexual talk is important given the possible relationship that exposure to GLO media could have with emotional well-being of LGB adolescents. For example, Coming Out Stories is an unscripted television program on the LOGO television network that chronicles the lives of three individuals as they struggle with coming out to their loved ones. Exposure to programming like Coming Out Stories could certainly influence the development of a sexual identity among LGB teens who have little exposure to coming out narratives from other socialization agents in their lives.
The most common sexual behaviors in Bond’s (2011) content analysis of GLO media were LGB romantic kissing and LGB physical flirting. Although not statistically different, LGB individuals were more likely than heterosexual individuals to be portrayed engaging in nearly every category of sexual behavior in GLO media popular with LGB adolescents. The findings on sexual behavior in GLO media reinforce the sexual talk findings: GLO media depict the sex involved in LGB sexualities. GLO media are targeting LGB audiences and, as such, are less likely to worry about the response from heterosexual audiences and more likely to depict physical sexuality between LGB characters. GLO media do not sanitize LGB sexuality by only depicting the social or cultural aspects of being LGB. Rather, GLO media portray LGB individuals as realistically sexual, including depictions of sexual behaviors like physical flirting, romantic kissing, and intimate touching.
The findings from the content analysis of GLO media described above reinforce many of the arguments made by industry professionals regarding the treatment of LGB individuals in GLO media: GLO media depict LGB sexuality in a realistic manner, or at minimum, in a more realistic manner than mainstream media (Albiniak, 2005; Stanley, 2005). Although previous research has argued that mainstream media symbolically annihilate the LGB community (Gross, 1994), depictions of LGB sexualities in media designed, produced, and marketed to sexual minority audience are providing glowing depictions of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. If GLO media provide consumers with authentic depictions of LGB sexuality, exposure may be beneficial for LGB youth eager to learn more about their blossoming sexual identities.
Sexual Identity Development and Media Exposure
The sexual identity development of LGB adolescents may be more influenced by the media than by any other socialization agent. Sexual minority adolescents rarely have first-hand contact with other real-life LGB teens upon whom they can draw information, guidance, or validation (Savin-Williams, 1995). Instead, LGB adolescents grow up in heterosexual communities with few gay role models. Because LGB teens have little to no interpersonal interaction with other LGB individuals, LGB teens are more likely than heterosexal adolescents to rely on the media for information about sexuality (Gross, 1994; Gross, 2001; Huntemann & Morgan, 2001; Ryan & Futterman, 1998). The absence of a supportive peer group, family, school, or community only increases the importance of the media in educating sexual minority adolescents about their sexual identities (Brown, Steele, & Walsh-Childers, 2002).
A handful of studies have shown that media can influence LGB individuals during the often arduous and tumultuous period of adolescence. In one study, ethnographic interviews with gay men in early adulthood were used to investigate media’s role in the development of self-esteem (McKee, 2000). Common themes that emerged from the interviews were that parents provided little information about homosexuality and that the only information about gay men or lesbians received at school was in the form of jokes or insults. The media provided the men in McKee’s sample with depictions of gay characters that were needed to overcome feelings of isolation and, in turn, improve the mens’ self-esteem and commitment to their sexual identity. For example, one participant in this study stated,
“[I watched] anything that had some sort of gay content in it, because when you’re first coming out, you want to know as much… because you’re stuck in this awkward position in the heterosexual world, you want to just get an identity with something” (McKee, 2000, p. 9).
In a survey of LGB adults, over 70% of participants reported some form of media as their primary means of gathering information and learning about LGB lifestyles, cultures, and sexual behaviors when they were teens (Bond et al., 2009). In one of the few studies to utilize LGB adolescents rather than adults, Evans (2007) found that over 80% of the LGB teens in his focus groups scoured television for LGB characters in an effort to find any kind of role model to provide acknowledgement or validation during sexual identity exploration. One 50 year-old gay male’s summary of his experiences seeking information about LGB sexual identities in the Bond et al. (2009) study exemplifies the important role media play as sexual socialization agents for LGB individuals, “Almost all I knew about being gay came from books, movies, plays, and magazines as opposed to other people” (Bond et al., 2009, p. 43).
Although LGB individuals consistently report media as important resources for sexual socialization, many LGB individuals in the studies mentioned above have also noted that mainstream media depictions of LGB individuals are often stereotypical or unrealistic and, in turn, are difficult to identify with or learn from (Bond et al., 2009; Evans, 2007). Bond (2011) found that GLO media, unlike mainstream media, depict the diversity of sexual identities that exist in society, as well as the sexual component of being LGB. If previous studies have concluded that teens would emotionally benefit from exposure to more authentic depictions of LGB sexualities, then access to GLO media may become an influential factor in the health and well-being of LGB youth.
The media’s treatment of LGB individuals has transformed since the 1997 coming out spectacle on Ellen. Many argue that the increasing visibility of LGB individuals in the media is due largely in part to the advertising industry understanding that heterosexual individuals are not the only sexual orientation spending money. In the last twenty years, media designed, produced, and marketed to LGB audiences have not only entered the media market, but have largely become successful. Gay- and lesbian-oriented media, or GLO media, include digital platforms ranging from film to television to music to the World Wide Web. The depiction of LGB sexualities, cultures, and lifestyles in GLO media is not sanitized for the general public, but is rather authentic and unvarnished. Exposure to such depictions of LGB sexuality could be extremely influential for LGB youth seeking information about their sexualities as they go through the sexual exploration that typifies adolescence.
Although GLO media depict realistic LGB sexualities that sexually-questioning youth may find validating and informative, the literature examining the influence of GLO media on LGB individuals is in its infancy. Future research should investigate the correlations between exposure to GLO media and emotional well-being, identity development, sexual attitudes, and sexual behaviors among LGB individuals. Research is particularly needed on the role of new media technologies on LGB youth, given the popularity of new media technologies among young people in general and the perceived safety and anonymity involved in using these technologies to uncover information that may otherwise be considered taboo in teen’s social environments, such as homosexuality.
In 1992, queer coming-of-age stories littered the Sundance Film Festival. In 2000, the protagonists on a highly successful pay-cable melodrama were sexually-driven gay men. In 2005, a direct access cable network was launched focusing solely on content for LGB audiences. The future of GLO media is unknown, but it is safe to say that the visibility of LGB people in the media is slowly increasing and that exposure to this novel genre, coined GLO media, may be more influential for the health and well-being of LGB youth than any other media depictions of LGB people in American history.
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Bradley J. Bond, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Diego. His research examines the relationship between media exposure and health/identity outcomes among children and adolescents. This article stems from a line of research investigating the depiction of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals in the media and the influence of those depictions, funded by the Acorn Equality Foundation, Peoria, Illinois.
© 2014 Bradley Bond, used by permission