According to the most recent census, there are more than 100 million Americans who identify as black (or African American), Latino (or of Hispanic heritage) or Asian, accounting for approximately 30 percent of the United States population. Yet, a look at many daily metro newspapers, a survey of the most popular blogs or a quick flip of the television dial would tell a very different story.
Consider this: An analysis by the Pew Research Center found that of more than 67,000 news stories that appeared in newspapers or on cable and network television, radio and news websites, between February 2009 and February 2010, 1.9 percent related in a significant way to African Americans, 1.3 percent related to Latinos and only .2 percent related to Asian Americans.
In the world of entertainment, we see similar percentages play out in a slightly different way. The Los Angeles Times took an exhaustive look at the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the voting body that decides what is, and perhaps more importantly what isn't, culturally legitimate film. The study found that of the 5,795-member body, 94 percent are white and 77 percent are male; only 2 percent are African-American and less than 2 percent are Latino. In other words, the industry is white and male.
When people look at the world through the lens of the media — whether the news media or the world of entertainment — what they're seeing is a world that is overwhelmingly white. A world that does not reflect the diversity of our world. The lack of visibility is also pronounced for an even smaller subset among people of color: those who also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), and has a large impact.
While the media has made significant strides in telling the stories of LGBT people, those media images, whether in newspapers or on-screen, are just as monolithically white. These portrayals inaccurately promote a world in which it would appear that LGBT people of color do not exist, or that acceptance of LGBT people is exclusive to white populations. And because LGBT people of color are members of two groups who have historically faced discrimination, the effect of that invisibility is compounded.
If the media won't reflect the reality of these people's lives, and if injustice keeps them out of the mainstream of society, it creates a classic catch-22. How can the issues that affect LGBT people of color become more than just abstract in the minds of voters and politicians if the people impacted by those issues remain invisible?
Although we are slowly starting to see some progress, 74 percent of LGBT characters on cable or prime time are white, according to GLAAD's "Where We Are on TV" report.
In 2011, breakthrough films such as Pariah and Gun Hill Road told the stories of young people and their journeys to be recognized for who they are, providing a glimpse into the experiences of present-day LGBT people of color. And while these compelling and well-acted films received notable praise (Pariah was awarded the 2012 NAACP Image Award for outstanding independent motion picture and Gun Hill Road's Harmony Santana was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actress; both are 2012 GLAAD Media Award nominees) the films were overlooked by the Academy — a move that is indicative of the mindset of the Academy (ahem, The Help).
But this lack of representation has a deeper impact that is larger than awards or recognition.
When media fail to show LGBT people of color struggling to live ordinary, everyday lives like other Americans, their audiences don't realize the inequalities that LGBT people of color face in their communities and workplaces. For example, while people may know that same-sex relationships aren't legally recognized in most states, many do not know how that lack of legal protections affects couples with children. The group the Movement Advancement Project released a document last week titled, "LGBT Families of Color: Facts at a Glance," based on content from the report "All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families," which was produced in partnership with the National Black Justice Coalition, Unid@s, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance and Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality (FIRE), an initiative of the Center for American Progress.
That document shows that almost a third of all black male same-sex couples and almost half of all black female same-sex couples are raising children. But how often does the media focus on those families, and how do discriminatory attitudes impact them?
From the report:
32% of children raised by gay male black couples live in poverty, compared to 13% of children raised by married heterosexual black parents and 7% of children raised by married heterosexual white parents.
Most safety net programs use a narrow definition of family which presumes a child is being raised by legally recognized parents. This means that cash assistance, food and nutrition support, housing subsidies, health insurance, child care assistance, educational loans and other forms of aid may not be available to LGBT and other diverse families, disproportionately impacting children and families of color.
And it goes well beyond just marriage. Most Americans don't know that LGBT people often have to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to keep food on the table. In 29 states you can be fired for being gay; in 34 states you can be fired for being transgender. How safe would you feel if you were LGBT and a member of a group that already has fewer employment opportunities to begin with?
Positive images of LGBT people in the media help foster acceptance among fellow Americans. According to "Pulse of Equality: A Snapshot of U.S. Perspectives on Gay and Transgender People and Policies," a GLAAD-commissioned study, 34 percent of respondents had a greater acceptance of gays and lesbians over the past five years because of their portrayals in television and 29 percent said they had a greater acceptance because of movies.
The time has come for Hollywood, and the media as a whole, to do more to highlight the stories of LGBT people of color, our trials and our triumphs.
Daryl C. Hannah is the associate director of news and field media for GLAAD.