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On November 6, 2012 the American people reached new historic milestones. Not only did we re-elect the first African-American president, we also elected the first openly gay indivudal to the U.S. Senate, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). We also elected four new openly gay individuals to the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing their total to 6, a record for that chamber of Congress. Currently, there are more than 530 openly gay elected officials in the U.S, according to the Victory Fund.
Acceptance of LGBT individuals as our elected representatives is, in part, a function of the public's increasingly greater acceptance of the LGBT community and their rights to share in the opportunities of all aspects of American society. The American public's majority support for same-sex marriage since 2011 has been well publicized. Currently, 53% support it while 42% oppose it, according to an August 2012 AP/NCC/GfK Poll.
This support resulted in the first ever legalization of same-sex marriage this November by popular vote in three states: Maine, Maryland, and Washington. (A similar ballot initiative was defeated in Minnesota.) Earlier this year, Mr. Obama became the first US President to endorse same-sex marriage. These milestones are significant but are far from sufficient with regard to affording the LBGT community at large access to the rights and opportunities that they have been deprived of for far too long.For example, couples of the same sex should be entitled to the same government benefits as married couples of the opposite sex, a proposition heavily supported by the American public but not enacted on a wide spread basis either at the State or Federal level. (Sixty-three percent of Americans support this form of equal rights while only 32% oppose it, according to AP/NCC/GfK). (For a detailed analysis of attitudes toward LGBT individuals and issues, read The Opportunity Agenda's relevant study.)
As the American public and its elected officials continue to converse and act on this issue, it is critical that they better understand the complex make-up of the LGBT community. Representation of a community in government is important in as it promises to better see and advocate for the needs of that community—which are to the interest of all communities. However, elected officials' actions are driven by the agenda of their constituencies. That agenda is formed by what their constituency know they need and what they perceive others need. But how do we know what "others" need, beyond those immediately around us, and even who they are? Through the images of those "others" we consume in the media. For example, if the media predominantly portray gay men as affluent and educated, we are highly unlikely to demand government intervention to ensure better access to affordable quality education and good jobs for this group; and we would be wrong.
Many may be surprised to find out that LGBT Americans tend to have low levels of education and be at a high risk of poverty, according to a recent study of more than 120,000 self-identified LGBT individuals (Gallup). More LGBT individuals fall in the lowest education category: among those with a high school education or less, 3.5% identify as LGBT while 4% do among those with some college education but not a college degree. In contrast, 2.8% of those with a college degree and 3.2% of those with postgraduate education identify as LGBT.
Contrary to most media images, individuals of color are more likely to identify as LGBT than whites, according to the same study. The study showed that 3.2% of whites identify as LGBT along with 4.6% of African-Americans, 4% of Hispanics and 4.3% of Asians.
Graph originally appeared on GLAAD's Where We Are on TV 2012-2013
Publicly available studies, like the one by Gallup, are necessary and contribute to our understanding about our society beyond what is immediately in reach. However this type of information per se has limited influence on the public mind compared to the imagery and content generated by mass media. Media news and entertainment reach hundreds of millions of Americans on a daily basis, and shape, in part, our understanding of the world and others. Along the media's positive contributions to our lives, there are some critically negative ones. Media have contributed over the years to the creation of negative and inaccurate stereotypes of certain groups of our community. For example, African American men and boys in news and entertainment media are mostly found in negative roles (thugs, criminals, or fools), which, research shows, can result in less compassion for that community and support for disproportionate harsh punishment. It also reduces Black males' self-esteem and expectations.
The LGBT community has similarly been a victim of negative stereotypes depicted in the media, which don't reflect real life. In movies, the focus tends to be on surface-level aspects of homosexuals like the way they act, look, and talk. "Most often the movies don’t delve into the deeper sides of these characters, thereby sending the message that gays are one-dimensional" (Portrayal of Homosexuality in the Media). At the same time, the inclusion of LGBT individuals and the more accurate portrayal of homosexual relationships have significantly improved in TV in recent years.
Broadcast and cable TV programming has increased its inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in its series regular characters for at least five consecutive years. In the 2012-2013 broadcast and cable TV season, LGBT characters make up 4.4% of all series regulars, according to GLAAD. The same study also found that "the overall diversity of regular characters on primetime broadcast television has improved in both terms of gender and sexual orientation." This trend might reflect the increasingly greater acceptance of LGBT people in society in the last couple of decades. It might be there result of an intentional media strategy to better reflect an audience's views or as an organic result of changing views among media's decision makers.
Either way, the media are part of the solution for restoring inaccurate images of those who live amongst us, whether they are working mothers, Black father or LGBT individuals.
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The Opportunity Agenda is a project of Tides Center