Once "a watchdog" when "positive stories and… accurate and fair representation" about LGBTQ people in TV and film were hard to come by, GLAAD has transitioned in its 35 years to "a partner to Hollywood," especially in the past decade, says president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.
A lot of that change is a result of GLAAD being welcomed into TV writers' rooms and to consult on movies, casting, on-set training, and more. "We feel really privileged to have a seat at that table," Ellis says — a table that includes some influential people who are leading the way.
In addition to storytellers such as Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi), ally Shonda Rhimes, and "Hollywood's golden child" Ryan Murphy, "who has a deep commitment to making sure the story is told in the right way with the right voices," Ellis points to "phenomenon" Greg Berlanti as a driving force. "The amount of shows that he's creating and the way he's incorporating LGBTQ people into them seamlessly is just magnificent." Superheroic, even.
Read on for EW's full conversation with Ellis, where she explains where GLAAD has seen the most improvement — and why — and how the rest of Hollywood is taking notice.
Photo Illustration by Braulio Amado for EW; Photo by Mike McGregor/Contour by Getty Images
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: GLAAD started as an activism organization, which of course it still does, but the group has been able to have a much more influential hand in storytelling in Hollywood. Can you peg when that transition happened, or was it fairly organic?
SARAH KATE ELLIS: GLAAD started in 1985, and we started with correcting the record in news and journalism and holding them accountable. But at the same time, we realized we needed Hollywood to be telling our stories to humanize LGBTQ people. So we opened a chapter very quickly in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, and really the main focus was lobbying Hollywood to tell our stories. At that moment in time it really was a watchdog position because when they did tell our stories, it was pretty much all the time based on stereotypes and tropes. Oftentimes, a gay character would die or lead a miserable life. And there weren't any accurate or positive stories, and there weren't any accurate and fair representations. In the past decade, we've really seen the tables turn from being a watchdog to a partner to Hollywood. And I think there are many things that play into that. I think one of the significant things is that Hollywood, like the rest of the revenue-driven America, understands that diversity and inclusion matters deeply, and that if people aren't represented they won't pay to come see stories that aren't connected.
GLAAD representatives are also invited into writers' rooms, to consult and advice on scripts, so how does that work? And do you know what the first show or movie was where GLAAD was really embraced and the organization realized that it was a big deal to be part of the process?
We feel really privileged to be at the table, and have a seat at that table. We used to be invited in because we made such a ruckus and it was a public fight in media because we weren't invited. At any given time, except, obviously, for right this second because production has stopped, we're embedded in at least a dozen productions. That's embedded. We're also helping with casting or helping with script edits, we're helping with rewrites, we're helping with training in front of and behind the camera, people to have LGBTQ competency.
So having said all that, in what areas of the industry would you say you've really seen the biggest advances?
Definitely television, and I think leading that in streaming. The streaming services, because they run and function under a different business model, have been able to be more advanced in storytelling, which I think has pushed the networks, because they've seen them do well. And we all know that probably one of the worst habits in Hollywood is that they find a formula, they stick with a formula, and they never divert from that formula. And so breaking through that formula and realizing that telling LGBTQ stories is not only good for the world but good for the bottom line has been very hard, but I think that we've seen that happen. So I would say streaming content providers have led the way in a lot of ways, followed by networks. But I don't want to take away from the fact that there was a Will & Grace, there was an Ellen, there were Norman Lear shows that were groundbreaking in the beginning. But when you look at television too, there was a more of a limit they had there because they were creating only a certain amount of content a year. And then, I think the place that we're still looking for improvement, and I am really hopeful that over the next two years we're going to see it, is in the major-studio wide releases. I think we've seen a lot of movement in peak releases, but not in the wide distribution, and I think — I know, because we're embedded in quite a few of them right now — that there are a number of them coming down the pipe that we're really excited about.
You really highlighted TV there, so what shows are you most excited about or that you think have really helped shape or reshape the conversation?
My wife and I, we have twin 11-year-olds, and one thing that I noticed personally was that kids and family programming doesn't tell our story. And so about two or three years ago we started kids and family programming category [at the GLAAD Media Awards] so that we could focus in there and reward them. I'm so excited about what we've seen develop there with Steven Universe, Andi Mack — I think they're all great examples of telling diverse family stories and making all kids feel included. So I'm very proud of that work. I think One Day at a Time has been a phenomenal show, I'm really proud of that. There are so many. You think about even Orange Is the New Black and having Laverne Cox on that show. So Orange Is the New Black is breakthrough in a way. Pose! There is an example of queer stories being told by queer people, and that is amazing. You need people in front of the camera and behind the camera who represent the community of the stories that you're telling. And that does not mean one token person on set. And I think we tend to tokenize that one person and put everything on their shoulders. GLAAD represents the community, we don't represent one idea of the community. So when we look at people's work, we look at it from every angle of the community, and not just from one viewpoint and perspective.
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Which storytellers, filmmakers, TV producers do you think are doing a stellar job right now, and who should we be keeping an eye on in this space?
Greg Berlanti is just a phenomenon. The amount of shows that he's creating and the way he's incorporating LGBTQ people into them seamlessly is just magnificent. I think Jenji Kohan, who created Orange Is the New Black, is fabulous and one to watch and will continue to create breakthrough programming. And then, of course, there's Hollywood's golden child Ryan Murphy, who has the Midas touch in storytelling but also has a deep commitment to making sure that the story is told in the right way with the right voices. From an ally perspective, Shonda Rhimes is just amazing. And Lena Waithe is fearless and just shows a real vision for what's coming.
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