"LGBT characters would make it unrealistic." I've heard this countless times from my friends and peers talking about their own writing or defending their favorite shows. They believe that LGBT characters couldn't fit into their stories because their stories aren't specifically about LGBT rights, or are set in places other than New York, Los Angeles, or another large, affluent metropolis. But many television shows, both past and present, have reminded viewers that LGBT people exist in all walks of life and that it's actually less realistic to erase our presence from the diverse communities that make up our world.
The Wire, which has been declared the best television show ever too many times to count, is a gritty drama series centered on the city of Baltimore. The story largely unfolds in the city's impoverished, predominantly African American neighborhoods, which is the kind of place rarely depicted onscreen at all, much less with LGBT characters. But The Wire had two LGBT leads: lesbian police detective Kima Greggs, and gay crook (and fan favorite) Omar Little. These characters were especially important because they challenged viewer expectations about the intersection between communities of color, economic class, and LGBT people. It never felt like Greggs' and Omar's sexual orientations were a tacked on details; their sexuality and relationships were integral to who they were, as were their backgrounds and roles in life. The Wire revolutionized what TV could be, and its inclusion of LGBT characters made LGBT stories part of that revolution.
Friday Night Lights took another setting that isn't often associated with LGBT life, small town west Texas, and showed multiple possibilities of rural LGBT living. Mayor Rodell, the elected leader of the fictional town Dillon, quietly reveals to a select few characters that she is a semi-closeted lesbian who lives with her partner. Coach Stan, an assistant coach of the football team, is seen in a gay bar by an understanding character, but is living such a closeted life that he denies the encounter ever happened. And Devin, a high school student, comes out to her friends as a lesbian, who accept her orientation without any fuss. Though an LGBT character never had a main storyline, LGBT people were always fully integrated into world of Friday Night Lights. We were shown to be part of the fabric that made up Dillon, just as we are in the town's many real world equivalents.
It's not just fictional shows that changed TV history that are part of the push for more realistic representations of LGBT people in all geographic locations. Small Town Security is a current reality show about a family-owned security company in Ringgold, Georgia, population 3,645. Directly contradicting narratives of the small-town South as uniformly unfriendly for LGBT people, one of the stars of Small Town Security is Lt. Dennis Croft, a confident, out transgender man. Also representing the south is the musical drama Nashville, which is set in the country music industry capital of Nashville, Tennessee. One of the show’s main characters is Will; a closeted country star who fears that coming out would cost him his career. Will's plots often actively address the stress of living in a community where other LGBT people are still not widely visible.
While these shows are wonderful and important, they're only a start. We're in a moment where the visibility of LGBT people living in “red states” is definitely increasing. Last year Marcel Neergaard, a 12-year-old from Tennessee, garnered national attention for his speaking out against his state’s highly discriminatory "Don't Say Gay" bill, and the public outcry against Arizona's SB 1062 bill (allowing for religiously justified discrimination) became national news. It's the perfect time for other TV shows set in the places like the south, middle-America, or more marginalized communities to follow the lead of The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Small Town Security, and Nashville and add LGBT characters to their casts. It's not only more inclusive, it's more realistic. LGBT people are a part of every community, from New York to Nashville, Los Angeles to Ringgold. If shows want to reflect the world that we live in, they must also reflect this truth.