With queer folks really pushing to be seen on big mainstream shows and platforms these days, the LGBTQ community is wondering how TV and organizations can really showcase queer identities without making people feel like accessories. It’s about giving queer stories the spotlight without treating people like decorations to check off diversity boxes.

Shows like Will & Grace really paved the way by having LGBTQ characters in lead roles. But reports still show that TV shows and ads in the UK with same-sex parents or gay intimacy get the most complaints every year. Last week they announced the UK census will finally ask about sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time. When you compare that to last year’s report about a 16% pay gap for LGBTQ people even with companies embracing Pride, it makes you question if LGBTQ folks in the UK are really being celebrated or if the “support” is just exploiting them for appearances.

Soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street have been around forever in the UK, right? They’re like pillars of British culture. And none of them have been without their LGBTQ characters over the years. UK soaps have been a big way people communicate since the 1960s. So including those LGBTQ characters was probably the first time many Brits would see same-sex intimacy in media.

In the past, a lot of the storylines in British soap operas that focused on gay characters got accused of spreading “sexual propaganda” to kids. They were seen as inappropriate for families and those LGBTQ storylines were harshly criticized as crude and provocative. But while most of that hostility has died down now, the soap operas aren’t really connecting with the LGBTQ audience themselves because of their continued failure to cast queer actors in queer roles.

The vast majority of UK soap opera actors who play queer characters don’t actually identify that way. And this is an issue for many in the LGBTQ community because it goes beyond just this one example. The disparity in how straight actors are often chosen for gay roles but not the other way around has been a long-standing thing that has a lot of LGBTQ folks questioning how sincere British broadcasting really is.

I wonder if these preventative measures against letting queer role models get more exposure in the industry are misguided, even if queer actors should generally have more of a shot. This year, film producer Wash Westmoreland told Insider that LGBTQ actors often had a deeper understanding of the emotions involved in queer characters’ experiences. He went on to say he bases most of his casting decisions with that in mind.

It’s interesting to think about how TV shows have handled LGBTQ stories well compared to the past. A few years ago, there was this British show called Years & Years that really stood out.

Over 15 years, it looked at what the future might be like politically and with technology. The characters had complex lives that mixed in things like a gay romance between a housing worker and a Ukrainian refugee. Their relationship wasn’t just about being gay – it dealt with how politics affected them settling into society too.

Some scenes brought up real issues like what happened in Chechnya or with Alan Kurdi. The show wove together politics, immigration, sexuality and compassion. The characters weren’t defined by just being gay or refugees. Their “gayness” was part of a bigger story, not the only thing. Looking at LGBTQ lives within broader contexts lets shows foster better representation and tell more powerful stories.

UK TV has come a long way from stuff like Little Britain. Those characters like Emily Howard, who insisted she was a lady while people laughed, were hurtful stereotypes. Queer people were just the butt of jokes.

Now, with input from marginalized groups, “LGBTQ” means more than just pink. Society is starting to acknowledge being trans more too, thanks to shows like Pose making an impact. Overall, there’s been real progress in how these stories are handled.

Pose takes place in the 1980s and focuses on the ballroom culture among African American and Latinx people who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles. It deals with some real issues they faced like not having much money, families rejecting them, and the AIDS epidemic. What I think is really cool is that it has the most transgender actors as main characters of any show so far. That’s an important step in including a group that’s usually left out.

They also had another show over in England called Butterfly that explored what it’s like to be trans. In it, an 11-year-old starts to realize she’s actually a girl. I thought it was interesting because it helped parents and kids understand what it’s like to have that feeling of being in the wrong body. It showed how hard it can be to deal with those feelings and made clear that being trans is a real thing some people experience.

They even included a real organization that helps trans kids and their families. That kind of positive representation is great. It helps more people understand. These shows are a lot different than some older comedies that just made fun of gay and trans people instead of portraying them accurately.

You know, when we look at tokenism on TV, we really need to think about how much effort they put into showing queer characters as more than just being gay. Even though trans representation has gone way up since before, like over 400%, still around 72% of LGBTQ folks feel like their portrayal in ads is just tokenism.

People’s attitudes are changing, but they gotta find a balance. Letting LGBTQ people write their own stories and say what they want is key to making sure the real message gets heard. We all sit in front of the TV every night to relax, right? But what about those of us who don’t see people like us shown in a good light on the shows everyone watches? What about those who feel disrespected or left out cause they don’t see themselves?

Having queer characters done the right way on TV seems small, but it’s still important. Making LGBTQ people look better in the shows everyone sees is one way the real people who relate can feel good about themselves in a real way, not a fake way.