The entertainment media’s representation of LGBTQ people has changed greatly over the years, which may be a reason why young adults are so much more supportive of LGBTQ rights than past generations.
When the baby-boomer generation was growing up, there were little to no positive representations of LGBTQ people in the entertainment media. My father, who grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s said that there were almost no LGBTQ characters in the entertainment media that he could recall. And, support for same-sex marriage, according to a Gallup poll, is much lower among his age group to this day than among Generation X people, Millennial Generation people, and the newest generation of young people (McCarthy news.gallup.com). That is likely because people who grew up in my father’s era only knew about what they heard about LGBTQ people from places outside the media-churches, etc.-which would have been largely negative representations. So, one can see that the lack of positive representation of LGBTQ people in the media in the 1960s and early 1970s is probably a cause of less support for LGBTQ persons among baby-boomers.
Things started changing in the entertainment media’s representation of homosexuality in the late 1970s. The landmark show, Soap, portrayed an openly gay character, named Jodie, on TV. While Jodie did conform to lots of gay stereotypes-interest in fashion, effeminate nature, etc,-and was often simply a source of humor for the audience’s amusement-he still had depth. There is one episode where Jodie comes out to his brother and insists that if his brother doesn’t still love him as an openly gay man, he never did. Even with the stereotypes, Soap presented an openly gay character with depth that would challenge the minds of many viewers on their stereotypes about the shallowness of gay people and provide a relatively positive image of an openly gay person. Still, one can see, since the character was a rare representation of an LGBTQ person at the time, Generation Xers that grew up with this image will be more supportive of LGBTQ persons than baby boomers (McCarthy news.gallup.com), but less supportive than Millennials and the newest generation of young people (McCarthy news.gallup.com).
In the 1990s and 2000s, when Millennials were growing up, the number of LGBTQ persons in the media increased and their representations were more positive. Shows like Will and Grace, Queer Eye, and Ellen portrayed LGBTQ persons as amiable, successful, contributing in positive ways to society, and having depth in their relationships. Indeed, a recent Pepperdine study identified this increase in positive representations of LGBTQ persons in the media is correlated with increased “support” for LGBTQ persons (Gonta, et al p. 22). One might imagine that the depth of their relationships is especially key here as it fights the misconception that LGBTQ relationships are just about sex and LGBTQ persons don’t really love each other. Additionally, exposure LGBTQ persons in the media has helped normalize images of LGBTQ persons holding hands, kissing, and hugging in public, amongst young adults. One can see where with these “positive representations” of LGBTQ persons in the media, millennials would be more supportive of LGBTQ persons than previous generations (Gonta, et al p. 22).
However, for all of their positive attributes, many LGBTQ characters in the 1990s and 2000s still conformed to stereotypes. Although popular and groundbreaking, Ellen, Queer Eye, and Will and Grace all portrayed stereotypes of LGBTQ persons on their shows. Jack on Will and Grace was shallow and sexually promiscuous, and the men on Queer Eye were largely still very effeminate and conformed to stereotypes such as the gay male interest in fashion. This conformation to stereotypes leads to misconceptions about the LGBTQ community at large: it makes people think that LGBTQ persons are more sexually promiscuous, shallow, and do not conform to gender norms. One can see that the misconceptions these stereotypical representations create could easily be a reason why Millennials are not as supportive of LGBTQ persons as the newest generation (Gonta, et al p. 22).
Recent representations of LGBTQ persons in the entertainment media have been much more positive than their ancestors. A documentary about transgender people, called Born to Be, was recently showed by the Human Rights Campaign. The documentary compassionately showed the struggles of transgender people, identified the obstacles they face, and portrayed them not as radical fringe people, but as normal Americans. This positive representation of the trans community helps clear up misconceptions about trans people and makes seeing them in public more normal. The newest generation’s early exposure to positive representations in the media of LGBTQ persons could be why the youngest Americans are the most supportive of LGBTQ persons (Gonta et al, p. 22).
Representations of LGBTQ persons in entertainment media have evolved in a positive direction over the years, and this is probably a major reason why young people are so much more supportive of LGBTQ persons than past generations.
Gonta, et al. “Changing Media and Changing Minds: Media Exposure and Viewer Attitudes Toward Homosexuality.” Pepperdine Journal of Communication Research. Vol. 5, P. 21 -34.
McCarthy, Justin. “US Support for Gay Marriage Stable, at 63%.” Gallup. News.gallup.com 2019.