Mainstream American entertainment can carry LGBT stories around the world

(This article is also available in Spanish over here. Take a look!)

I was born in Mexico City, and raised in a suburban town right by its outskirts. I had a small but tight nuclear family (parents, brother and a series of rotating pets), and we led a quiet upper-middle class life. I am the first one in my family to move out of the country.

I am not American, no family member of mine is American, and I did not grow up in America. And yet, ever since I can remember, American media has always been deeply ingrained in my life.

When I moved to Los Angeles for college three years ago, I didn’t have any trouble keeping up with popular culture references. Yes, I’ve seen all ten seasons of Friends. Yes, I watched every episode of Rugrats and Hey, Arnold growing up. Of course I went to the first Harry Potter premiere night. I share many of the same cultural touchstones with most students in the U.S., and I know this is true for people from many other countries in the world.

This says a lot.

However, I must make an important distinction. As much as I had a Disney-infused, multi-cam sitcom childhood, I grew up with no LGBT content around me. Yes, gay characters have always existed in some degree or other; there were the Queer as Folks and the Boys Don't Cry and groundbreaking characters and storylines in shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life. But I honestly cannot remember their presence in my television set or my hometown's movie theaters.

Maybe some of these shows and movies never made it abroad, or if they did, had a quiet and very limited release. Maybe the still very conservative Mexican society chose to censure that kind of content and I was unable to find it. I’m not sure. But I am certain that my exposure to the LGBT community through the media was strictly limited, when it was present at all.

Then came Ugly Betty.

The appeal of ABC's 2006 Ugly Betty for Mexican audiences was enormous: it was the adaptation of a popular Colombian soap that had already been made into an even more successful Mexican version. Salma Hayek was one of the creative minds behind the American reboot, which was one of the few (and probably only) shows with Latino protagonists at the time. This was enough for it to get syndicated and broadcast all the way into my living room.

It also happened to have not one, but two gay characters; one of which (Marc Indelicato's Justin Suarez) was going through the same coming out process I would face myself years later, around very similar cultural circumstances. For the first time, I could see some traces of my own identity in a show that was also (gasp) immensely popular in a country that was years behind in LGBT inclusion.

Granted, ten years ago the media landscape was very different. Back then, if somehow I would have gotten word about a show or movie with gay content, I would have had to actively seek them in obscure television channels or Blockbuster aisles; streaming certainly wasn't an option. But accessibility is no longer an issue like it was for me. If kids today hear about a show like Faking It through social media, they will find a way to watch it.

Because of this, the power and responsibility of the American media matter now more than ever. Studios and networks should realize that both syndication and the internet makes their content available to millions more people than domestic box office numbers or nightly ratings might show. American entertainment rarely ever stays in America.

Social acceptance of the LGBT community has come a long way during the last decade. We are now an essential part of the cultural conversation. We shouldn't have to hunt down images of ourselves the way I had to when I was younger. LGBT stories should exist in every part of the world, both for those seeking characters to reflect their own identities and struggles, and for those who may have never knowingly met an LGBT person in real life. It should exist in movie theaters in my home town, in television screens across the oceans, and in a wider diversity of storytelling than we've seen thus far.

The U.S. delivers (on a weekly, sometimes even daily basis) the most watched stories in the world. It makes a huge impact when an audience can see themselves as part of the adventure. It’s inspiring. It's empowering. It can even be healing.

We should be able to see ourselves in those universal stories that resonate with everyone, anywhere in the world, no matter their cultural background. A lesbian superhero. A star-studded romantic comedy with a same-sex relationship up front. A trans lead in a cop show or a sitcom.

Hopefully, one day soon it will be different. Maybe one day a confused twelve-year old in Mexico City will be able to turn to a local channel and find a telenovela that is headlined by two male characters, and see himself as a part of his own culture (there are some LGBT characters, but not nearly enough and too often as minor characters). The recent nationwide legalization of marriage for same-sex couples in Mexico is a sign that it may not be as far off as I grew up believing.

But until that day becomes a reality for everyone, people around the globe will continue to seek the familiar and successful stories told by American media, and so that media should in turn reflect the full diversity of our world.