HBO’s Stories—and Storytellers—Are Setting the Standard for Inclusive, LGBTQ+ Friendly Television
Stars and creators of We’re Here, Betty, and other breakout shows discuss how representation is more than just characters on the screen.
"l'll never forget this moment,” the drag queen Shangela says between peals of laughter, remembering when one of her drag daughters did something truly remarkable during the filming of her just-wrapped HBO series, We’re Here. “We’re backstage in Ruston, Louisiana. The show just ended. The emotions are high. Everyone is hugging. We’re getting ready to take a photo and Big Momma Butter tells Nina [Rosenstein], ‘Ooh, honey, I’m about to pick you up.’ Mind you: this is one of the executive vice presidents of programming from HBO. Nina says, ‘Oh, thank you! That’s not necessary!’ And Big Momma said, ‘No girl, you are one of the family,’ and swooped Nina up in her arms.”
That was the moment Shangela realized HBO had become one of the most queer-friendly networks on television. She’d felt it before, like when the marketing team behind We’re Here—in which three drag queens visit small towns across America to remind viewers that, titularly, LGBTQ residents have been there all along—picked her brain for strategies that ultimately resulted in sky-high billboards with its stars in high drag towering over Times Square and Sunset Boulevard. She felt it when she and her cast, Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara, were given consulting producer credits on the show before filming commenced on its pilot early last summer. She especially felt it when We’re Here’s producers ensured the set would be heavily populated by LGBTQ camera operators, glam squads, stylists, choreographers, and more. But what really made things click for her, Shangela says, is seeing her drag daughter lift Rosenstein, a powerful television executive, into the sky, both of them sporting grins a mile wide. “You can see the joy in Nina’s face in that photo because this is what our show is all about: watching people come out of their shells to realize how beautiful it can be when we all break down the barriers between us all,” she says.
Rosenstein, in partnership with HBO's president of programming Casey Bloys, is responsible for bringing the six-episode We’re Here (recently renewed for a second season, halleloo!) to the small screen this year. Bloys also championed the queer-friendly Betty, a series based on documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle’s beloved movie Skate Kitchen, which also ran for six episodes this spring and was also just picked up for a sophomore order. “Now more than ever, diverse representation of all kinds has a real power to impact on how people see themselves reflected in the world,” Bloys says of his run at the network. “We’re not looking to check a box, but to find the truth in each character’s journey. Everyone is more than their gender identity or sexual preference, and we hope that our characters have all kinds of traits that define them.”This goes well beyond just Betty and We’re Here. Last year’s deliciously campy Los Espookys, the kinetic teen soap Euphoria, the lesbian period series Gentleman Jack, the critically adored A Black Lady Sketch Show, and the sex-positive Kathryn Hahn vehicle Mrs. Fletcher all pushed LGBTQ narratives and characters to their forefront, to say nothing of the 47-year-old HBO’s latest offering, Welcome to Chechnya, and exemplary track record of inclusive storytelling. (Think: Looking, Six Feet Under, True Blood, Angels in America, and The Wire, just to name a few).
Although HBO has long led the pack, other worthy competitors have nipped at their heels in recent years—especially streaming platforms with a “more is more and something for everyone” approach to their programming. But there’s something fundamentally different about seeing representation delivered on a platform with history, reach, and prestige. While many of those rivals tailor their content to audiences already actively seeking inclusivity on their screens (read: younger, more woke viewers), HBO’s not just catering to their subscribers—they’ve also likely changed minds as they’ve spent decades paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps.
“I’m proud to be a part of a network like HBO, which is shaping up to be on the right side of history for a while now, even going back to their documentaries about sex workers and giving them validation,” Bob says. “They're giving a lot of people the opportunity to see themselves for the first time.”
When GLAAD first began tracking on screen representation 23 years ago, the organization “counted only 12 series regular LGBTQ characters across all of broadcast and cable,” according to their 2019-2020 Where We Are on TV report. The number has since jumped to 121 on cable alone in the past year.
Though HBO is certainly not alone in small-screen representation—Showtime is, by GLAAD’s count, the most LGBTQ-inclusive network on cable this year, thanks to shows like The Chi, Kidding, Billions, and Shameless—its continued commitment to authentically representing the community dates back the furthest. And although Showtime leads this year, GLAAD notes in the same report that the majority of those LGBTQ characters appeared on just one show: The L Word: Generation Q. (Showtime also has a reported subscriber base of about 27 million, with no international presence, while HBO reaches 142 million subscribers across its platforms worldwide.) Fellow competitor Netflix claims the top spot on GLAAD’s report for streaming services, with 121 LGBTQ characters, but the organization notes that 30 of those will disappear (with the loss of Orange Is the New Black and Tales of the City) in next year’s report, with an additional 19 set to leave the year after.
Ebbs and flows like that are natural, so consistency is really where things count. Although HBO has no greater responsibility than other networks to tell these types of stories, its history certainly suggests the capacity and willingness to do just that. “HBO has a tremendous legacy of inclusive storytelling, which goes back as far as the 1993 film, And the Band Played On,” says Bloys, an out gay man who’s led programming there for four years now. “That has remained strong throughout the decades. I’ve always felt that the commitment to depicting LGBTQIA+ stories is in the company’s DNA. My predecessors in the job were both out and proud executives themselves, Carolyn Strauss and Mike Lombardo.”
HBO’s early forays into queer storytelling were cutting-edge for their time, even if those early programs (intentionally or otherwise) subscribed to the theory that paying straight audiences associated only one thing with the gay community: tragedy. Harvey Fierstein wrote and starred in 1988’s Tidy Endings, an AIDS drama that served as HBO’s first foray into foregrounded gay storytelling. The AIDS drama And The Band Played On came five years later, followed by 1997’s In the Gloaming, which was (you guessed it) an AIDS drama starring Glenn Close and Whoopi Goldberg.
And even though HBO never stopped dipping into the seemingly endless well of prestige AIDS dramas (see: Ryan Murphy’s 2014 adaptation of The Normal Heart for starters), the type of LGBTQ stories the network told as the world entered a new millennium started to evolve in scope and sensitivity. Shows like Looking and Six Feet Under, and the groundbreaking 2003 miniseries Angels in America (among many other things: an AIDS drama) helped shift representation closer to reality. Even shows that weren’t explicitly queer, like The Sopranos and The Wire, treated their LGBTQ characters respectfully, never singling out their sexualities as the only pieces of their humanity on display.
“HBO has a long history of series, documentaries, and original films that told outstanding LGBTQ stories at a time when our lives were not explored with the same nuance elsewhere,” says Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research & Analysis, citing projects like True Blood, Bessie, The Trans List, Vito, and Southern Comfort.
But no track record is ever flawless. Sacha Baron Cohen’s limp-wristed caricature of a character, Brüno, lisped his way through scenes on Da Ali G Show. On Entourage, the spectacularly talented Rex Lee plays swishy gay assistant Lloyd, who’s constantly subjected to not-so-subtle homophobia (disguised as “boys being boys” camaraderie) by Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold. A decade later, shows like Looking were (rightfully) criticized for their blindingly white presentation of queerness. (Slate put it most plainly when the show premiered: “Looking: HBO's gay show is boring and bad for gays, straights.”)
“Across all platforms, I would really like to see more shows greenlit that center those stories of people who have been left off the page historically—more LGBTQ Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Indigenous characters, more trans and non-binary characters, more bisexual+ characters, LGBTQ characters who also have a disability, asexual characters,” Townsend says. “We know LGBTQ audiences are tuning in, and there is a real opportunity for networks to engage and create groundbreaking, fresh programming by highlighting those voices and bringing in the community members who can authentically tell the story in a way that is relatable, specific, and real.”
Stumbles, though noteworthy, can often lead to necessary course-correcting. It’s easy for an Emmy-winning network like HBO to talk the talk with a proven track record like theirs. It’s harder to walk the walk—and to keep walking it, year after year. “It's important that networks and studios are not only hiring queer and trans writers,” Townsend says, “but also that they invest, develop, and provide equal opportunities for advancement so those writers can eventually become showrunners, producers, and powerful leaders themselves, who can bring about a new wave of great LGBTQ storytelling.”
What sets HBO apart from their competitors is not just their commitment to LGBTQ creators, storylines, characters, and sets, but the trust they then put in those teams to tell their own stories without interference. “HBO was incredibly supportive every step of the way,” Betty executive producer Crystal Moselle says. “They barely gave me any notes, and when they did, they said ‘you can take them or not.’ They’re really there for the artists. They wanna do powerful work that’s groundbreaking, different, and new.”
"That commitment has carried through to their recent programming, with series like Euphoria which put a trans woman and a queer love story at the lead of the narrative and Los Espookys (both GLAAD Media Award nominees),” adds Townsend. “Other new hit series like A Black Lady Sketch Show and We’re Here show the importance of telling LGBTQ stories from newer voices, and have connected with fans and earned critical praise."
We’re Here co-creator Steve Warren says HBO’s trust is what made his show read so singularly confident. “We honestly didn’t have to explain a thing to them,” he recalls of the pitch. “There was utter trust. HBO never questioned our judgment. They gave small little notes here and there, but they trusted me and Johnnie to accurately reflect the queer world around us. We didn’t shop it anywhere else.”
HBO execs so deeply trusted and respected the Betty and We’re Here creative teams, in fact, that the talent core to the shows’ queer DNA were elevated above mere performers on a set. Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen, and Eureka O’Hara all share consulting producer credits on We’re Here. “They were talking to us about our roles and what they wanted us to do,” Bob says. “And I was like, ‘You really need help producing this because drag is very specific. You really need to have the input from drag queens. And if you're going to ask us to do the work of producers—casting the drag children and the creative, hair and costuming teams, and consulting on performances—then we'll need producer credits. Then they just... gave it to us.”
As Moselle worked to bring Betty to the screen, she and HBO asked the actors to be consultants on the show, which meant heavy input into their storylines and their costumes, and in-person meetings with the network before the show bible was created in order to “get to know each other and make sure we were on the same vibe,” the director says. “These women weren’t actors, though they are now. Putting their stories into the hands of a big network can be scary. But HBO’s really good to us. They’ve been nothing but supportive. They’ve created a relationship with the girls.”
Warren, a top Hollywood lawyer, says those shows of faith speak to both HBO’s belief in queer creators and their dedication to ensuring authentic representation. “I know from having represented so many actors what it means for an actor to have the buy-in to the show,” he says. “To get producer credit when you’re not really known for being a TV producer? HBO wanted more than anything to say: ‘We want the world to see that these are not just people that are cast—it’s their lives.’ It was so important for the world to see them as integral to the DNA of the show.”
Warren and co-creator Johnnie Ingram didn’t have an inclusion rider on the We’re Here set, but say they set out with HBO’s blessing to make the show inclusive from the top-down. That included a set visit from GLAAD to talk through sensitivities as the team embarked on trans storylines. “A lot of people on the crew and at HBO have been very grateful for that hint of education that helps you understand why we’re telling the stories we’re telling,” Ingram says.
“I never feel disrespected as a non-binary, Black, queer American,” Bob says. “I felt heard, I felt valid. The fact that Nina—the head of unscripted at HBO—personally reached out to me to make sure that I was doing well in the midst of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement speaks volumes to the integrity that she has as a person and the company that she represents. My hat is off to HBO for that.”
In addition to We’re Here and Betty, HBO is also dipping its toes into LGBTQ-inclusive storytelling on its new streaming arm, HBO Max (a WarnerMedia pipeline which Bloys and Rosenstein have no involvement in programming). Legendary, one of HBO Max’s tentpole launch shows, is a voguing competition hosted by a gay man and judged by a primarily LGBTQ-identifying panel. And although the streaming service is siloed separately from HBO proper, Legendary’s stars say their experience with production and HBO Max felt unprecedented in how similarly open they were to hearing marginalized voices.
“When they came to me, they wanted me to be a mother on the show, but I didn't want that,” Leiomy Maldonado says. “I’d done that before, as a competitor on America's Best Dance Crew. So I spoke up. And they came back to me and said, 'We would love for you to be a judge.’ It felt like the perfect opportunity: for it to be HBO, and for it to be ballroom's first time authentically represented on TV? Why wouldn't I be on the judges’ panel? They made me feel special outside of the show. They wanted to get to know who I was, and what I wanted, and how I wanted to be seen.”
“Usually, when we’ve had our experiences in the industry, we're behind the artists,” says Dashaun Wesley, Legendary’s Master of Ceremonies. “We're never showcased. Now we have this opportunity to speak. We don't have to be under anyone. Two years ago, the show was pitched to another network, who wanted to switch things around. We spoke up and said, 'No, that's not how we're going to do things.' People like myself and Leiomy are inside these rooms, and when something isn't right, we let them know. It's not right, and we're not going to do it. HBO gave us an opportunity to speak to the world, and full ownership of what's going on.”
As streaming continues its takeover, new platforms are emerging to tell our stories in new ways. But as HBO continues to extend its reach and its legacy, it’s clear that the same ethos of inclusion and diversity still applies. “Authentic visibility helps us as a community,” Shangela says. “It helps people understand who we are and what we represent and the diversity within our own community. Working with HBO has been one of the biggest blessings of my career thus far. It’s been like being welcomed into a family. This organization showed up in a way I’ve never seen before.”