“People of color are left behind.” The statement, uttered by trans filmmaker Kase Peña, could easily have summed up many of the conversations that took place during this year’s NALIP Media Summit. But within a conversation about on-screen LGBTQ representation it felt particularly apt. Moderated by Carlos Aguilar, the “In-Queer-ies” panel also included nonbinary actor Ser Anzoategui (Vida) and intersex filmmaker River Gallo. The conversation felt like a corrective to the kind of self-congratulatory back-patting that so characterizes discussions of the progress of LGBTQ representation we’ve seen in the last few decades. Yes, we currently have shows as diverse as Vida, One Day at a Time, Pose and Tales of the City with out-and-proud queer characters but that shouldn’t preclude us from having frank talks about how people of color continue to lag behind when it comes to booking and creating well-rounded characters on our screens. And, conversely, of how crucially such narratives shape the way many in our communities see us.
Where such conversations often focus on sexuality alone, what was great about seeing Peña, Anzoategui and Gallo together on a stage was that gender identity and gender performance was front and center. Peña, who directed the short film Full Beat about a trans teen’s relationship with her unaccepting dad, made a point to share how she was terrified of coming out as trans to her father. Having witnessed his Dominican machismo growing up — he’d regularly boast about how violent he could get if he saw a gay guy walk by — Peña feared what it would take for him to understand. Eventually, her sister took it upon herself to talk to their dad. His reaction? “So what does she want me to call her? Like, should I refer to her by female pronouns?” For Peña, it was a lesson in empathy and understanding: “We need to also give the benefit of the doubt, and be careful not to attack so much, because a lot of times that guy in your family who’s ignorant, is the one who comes around. My dad came around before a lot of other people.”
Similarly, Gallo’s own Ponyboi, a short about an intersex Latinx runaway and sex worker, served as a learning experience for them and their father. “He knew that I had a medical condition,” they shared. “Even when I was a child, he was the one taking me to doctors, getting me my hormones, and signed off on having my surgery. But we actually didn’t know the word “intersex” — none of my doctors ever told me that that was an identity and a community until I discovered that when I was 27, so just one year ago. It’s wild to me that the medical industry could take advantage of people for whom English was a second language. And it’s not a conspiracy: there are patriarchal forces in power that want to make sure that the gender binary is upheld. That there’s only men and there’s only women, and that’s it. And we know that if you do just a little bit of reading, that that’s a lie. It’s a complete fallacy.”
Those personal stories inform how these filmmakers viscerally get the importance of telling and sharing their own stories. Nevertheless, the issue of who is supporting these projects was an equally enlightening conversation. Anzoategui shared that viewership numbers for Vida, for example, suggest that its Latinx audience is quite modest; they know that the support from Starz has been invaluable but the issue of access can sometimes get in the way of getting these shows to be embraced by the Latinx community at large. To watch Vida or Pose or One Day at a Time requires a subscription, one which can be a financial burden and can restrict who will make the effort to watch these shows.
“When you look at network TV,” they asked, “Where are their nonbinary or transgender people on those shows?” Until TV viewers can tune in to NBC or CBS or ABC and see fully fledged trans or nonbinary Latinx characters, any gains the LGBTQ community makes on cable will feel decidedly insular. Which was ultimately the refrain throughout the panel: while there’s been plenty of progress, there is, as always, much work to be done.
The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) seeks to inspire, promote, and advocate for Latino content creators in media. As a nonprofit organization, NALIP advances the development of Latino content creation through its programs focusing on narrative, documentary, TV, and digital formats. For more information, visit NALIP.org