LGBT representation on TV…what showrunners can learn from Sense8’s J. Michael Straczynski and The Wachowski siblings

Having just finished Sense8 the first thing that came to my mind was YIPEE!!!! None of the queer characters died and they weren’t defined solely by either their sexual orientation or gender identity.

What JMS and the Wachowski siblings have done with this series is astounding in its scope, scale and message about humanity. Right from the beginning of episode one we are introduced to Nomi, a trans woman, and her girlfriend Amanita (who live in San Francisco). Not only are they a queer couple, Nomi is white and Amanita is Black and this is never commented on throughout the series.

Nomi does experience transphobia at the hand of her mother who insists on calling her by her birth name Michael and later to a lesser degree from an old friend Bug (who hasn’t seen her since she transitioned) who after being told that her name is Nomi still makes sexist jokes directed at her but makes up for it by giving Nomi and Amanita the tech gear they need. Bug shows another level of growth when he comes to their apartment in a later episode and slips and calls her Michael but corrects himself and calls her Nomi twice just to make sure that Nomi and Amanita know that he is accepting of Nomi’s gender identity.

Just over two thousand miles south of Nomi and Amanita we find Lito, a closeted gay telenova actor, and his boyfriend Hernando living in Mexico City. Now people may quibble that having a closeted gay man on a show is retrograde but we also need to remember that there are many closeted gay actors (more men than women) in Hollywood and elsewhere so this story is still relevant. Their story includes Daniela who is Lito’s beard but she isn’t a stereotype either. There is never any jealousy coming from Hernando and the three of them form an unlikely trio. What I love about their story is that by the end of the season Lito has decided that he doesn’t care what people think and will live his life openly.

The fact that all of these characters aren’t just defined by their orientation or identity is also a great development for LGBT representation. Too often LGBT characters are marginalized, used to service their straight counterparts and/or killed off. We’ve seen this happen time and time again on many shows both here in the United States and on TV shows from other countries. As far as killing off LGBT characters, just in the past five years we’ve seen this happen to lesbian and bi-women characters on Chicago Fire, Last Tango in Halifax, Los hombres de Paco from Spain, Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Boardwalk Empire, Lost Girl, Lip Service, American Horror Story: Asylum, Pretty Little Liars (which killed off two lesbians of color), Skins: Fire, Orange is the New Black, Tierra de Lobos from Spain, The Walking Dead, Under the Dome, The Killing (US), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Matador and Arrow. I haven’t been able to find a list of gay or bi-men or trans characters killed off of TV shows but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Also, this list doesn’t even count all the LGBT characters killed off of TV shows prior to 2010. With acceptance of LGBT people rising in all western countries this trope is unnecessary and so retro. This is why I appreciate the fact that JMS and the Wachowski’s didn’t fall into that trap with Sense8.

Every main character on Sense8 are fully fleshed out human beings with both personal and professional lives including both the LGBT characters and their straight counterparts. I especially liked the way that the show depicted not only Nomi and Lito but also Sun (the South Korean businesswoman who is also a star in the underground kickboxing world from Seoul), Kala (the Indian pharmacist who is also a devout Hindu from Mumbai) and Capheus (the Kenyan van driver who also has a strong sense of justice from Nairobi). I did like Wolfgang’s (the German locksmith and safe-cracker from Berlin) arc but it didn’t move me the way that the characters mentioned above did. I also wasn’t as drawn to Will (the white cop from Chicago) and Riley’s (the white DJ from Reykjavik, Iceland by way of London) stories until about half-way through the season. I also was disappointed that Will was the one who saved Riley. I wish that one of those characters would’ve been a person of color but I guess you can’t have everything you want when watching a TV show.