Where Are the Gay Latino Characters on TV?

Last night’s winter finale of FOX’s hit show Glee—entitled “On My Way”—addressed the issue of gay teen suicide. After being outed and bullied by his football teammates at school, a tortured and hopeless Dave Karofsky (Max Adler) attempted to take his own life by hanging himself in his closet. The scene, which was scored with Darren Criss’s performance of Young and the Giant’s “Cough Syrup,” was gripping, heartbreaking—and in light of the gay teen suicides of the last few years—ripped from the headlines.

Karofky's story is the third male coming out story that’s been told on Glee, following the stories of Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Criss)—and there’s no denying that Glee has handled each of these stories with compassion, creativity and honesty. And recently, there have been other similar great stories elsewhere on TV (for instance, Trevor Donovan's character Teddy Montgomery's story on the CW's 90210).

But while there are some non-minority coming out stories in primetime television, there are no coming out stories about gay Latino men on primetime. (This may be because there are so few gay Latino characters on TV, period). In fact, there is only one gay Latino character on a broadcast network series right now (Oscar Nunez’s character Oscar Martinez on NBC’s The Office)

The situation isn't much better on cable. At the start of the 2011-2012 TV season, there was only one gay Latino character on cable: Kevin Alejandro, who played Lafayette's (Nelsan Ellis) boyfriend Jesus Velasquez on True Blood (Alejandro will likely not be returning to the HBO series in season five, since his character was killed in the season four finale). There is not a single gay Latino character in a lead role on all of television (they are all supporting characters). Even Ricky Martin—arguably the most famous openly gay Latino celeb on the planet—didn’t play a gay character when he guest starred on Glee earlier this month (well, his character Dave Martinez’s sexual orientation wasn’t revealed, anyway). 

The situation is only slightly better for Latina women. Sara Ramirez is famously playing a gay orthopedic surgeon on ABC's Grey’s Anatomy, while Naya Rivera is playing lesbian Santana Lopez - who declares "only straight I am is straight-up bi***" - over on Glee. That's it. Two women. In all of television...

Every year, GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) releases a report at the start of the TV season called Where We Are on TV. The report, based on a study released in September 2011, found that for the first time in four years, the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters on scripted primetime broadcast television was expected to decrease in the 2011-2012 TV season.

While there is a lack of gay people on TV, there’s no shortage of straight people. GLAAD reports that of the 647 series regulars on primetime broadcast television, 628 are straight (97%). Moreover, GLAAD notes in their annual report that while there have been no definite counts of the LGBT community among the U.S. population, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on TV make for 2.9% of series regulars—which is much lower than many US. Population estimates.

The lack of gay Latino characters on television may have something to do with the lack of diversity on TV in general. This year, GLAAD found that that ethnic diversity on primetime broadcast scripted series had dropped, with 21.9% of 647 series regulars being people of color (POC), a slight decrease from last year’s 23%. How can Latinos only account for 4% of on camera talent when recent Census data shows that 1 in 4 Americans are Latino, and, that there are over 50 million Latinos living in the United States?

We asked Monica Trasandes, GLAAD’s Spanish-Language Media Director, what she thinks of the lack of Latino gay characters on primetime English-language shows. “While there has been an increase in the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters on network and cable TV, the portrayal does not accurately reflect the diversity of our community," Trasandes said. "Latino characters and LGBT Latino characters are grossly underrepresented on English-language television. GLAAD has been advocating for storylines that better showcase the full spectrum of our community."

Trasandes notes, however, that there is growth in the number and depth of coverage on Spanish-language programs including Primer Impacto and Al Rojo Vivo, as well as more characters in some novelas such as Las Aparicio. "Unfortunately, it is still common in comedy to see stereotypes and effeminate gay men portrayed in demeaning ways. So there is both progress and much work to be done in both English and Spanish-language TV," she says.

Anyone who watched Mark Indelicato’s touching coming out story as Justin Suarez on Ugly Betty (2006-2010) would have thought that was just the beginning of more gay Latino characters on TV. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. The same is true about Wilson Cruz’s character Rickie Vasquez on the 90s series My So Called Life. Where are these kinds of lead roles for gay Latino characters on TV now? Of the 33 gay regular or recurring characters on broadcast primetime series at the start of this TV season, only three were Latino/a. There are also no transgender Latino characters on TV, and Work It, an ABC comedy series about two men (one of them Amaury Nolasco) who wear drag to get jobs in a woman’s world, was canceled after just two episodes. 

Karofsky's coming out story on Glee and stories like it are important. They tell our young people that it does “get better.” But who can young gay Latinos look up to on TV? Where is the next Wilson Cruz or the next Mark Indelicato? Where are the gay Latino characters on TV?