Whether or not you agree, the television industry wields a huge amount of power in our society these days. What it does with that power and channeling it into a positive light for LGBTQ representation is something that actor, director and writer Peter Paige has spent his entire career working towards. After starring as Emmett Honeycutt on the groundbreaking Showtime series Queer as Folk, Paige co-created the Freeform family drama series The Fosters, which centers on a lesbian couple, with Bradley Bredeweg.
Paige recently spoke to The TV Junkies as part of our our Queer Representation on TVseries. He recalled for us why Queer as Folk was like nothing else television viewers had seen when it premiered in 2000 and the response he got when pitching The Fosters to networks. Paige also discussed the importance of showing full, complicated and even flawed queer characters on television, and where he still sees room for improvement as far as LGBTQ representation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: There’s so much discussion about the need for proper LGBTQ representation on television lately–what that consists of and how we get more of it–so first off, why is it so important that we’re having these discussions and why do we need to show these people on television?
Peter Paige: Culturally we have chosen television as the great truth. If you do not see yourself reflected in that 42 inch plasma in everyone’s living room you feel invisible. That’s incredibly damaging to an individual psyche but also to a communal one. It’s something I’ve dedicated my entire career to–making sure there are positive, healthy, whole representations of LGBT people and other minorities on that screen.
TTVJ: Queer as Folk was groundbreaking in regards to representation when it premiered. What kind of response did you get out of the gate and looking back now, how big of a risk was it to put something like that on the air at the time?
PP: No one had ever put anything like that on the air in the United States, so Showtime took a huge risk doing it. They prepared us for bomb threats when the show went on the air. They were very concerned about the response and what ended up happening was almost negligible in terms of fallout.
But it was so refreshing and exciting to be a part of something that was showing full, complicated, flawed but sexualized gay people. Up until then we had been relegated to the comic or victim sideline. I think that was a big part of what changed the conversation, and I personally believe that entertainment is a huge part of what has shifted the needle in relationship to how gay people are thought of in this country.
TTVJ: Can you talk a little about the response you and Bradley got when you were first pitching The Fosters to networks and telling them that it had a family led by two moms?
PP: It was interesting because there were people that said ‘sounds like a great show but you’re never going to sell it and no one is going to buy it.’ We had faith in it and ended up getting Jennifer Lopez on board, which having someone like her throwing her support behind a project like this was pivotal. Hollywood is interestingly both in front of and behind of every social curve. The notion of same-sex parents to people in Hollywood is nothing new, revolutionary or even edgy, but putting them at the center of a TV show, that becomes a different story. There were people that said ‘sounds good, but probably not for us.’ Then there were other people that didn’t even catch there was a hook until someone said ‘there’s two moms! That’s the angle!’ Apparently someone said ‘I don’t think we should put this on the air,’ for those conservative reasons and that’s what pushed it over the edge. That little whiff of controversy and that was the thing that made them say ‘let’s do it!’
TTVJ: In the same way that Queer as Folk didn’t only show successful gay characters, Stef and Lena have a very realistic marriage with ups and downs, problems and bumps in the road. How important is that for you guys to show that they aren’t happy 100% of the time?
PP: Perfect characters are not interesting. If they were perfect we wouldn’t be in Season 4. It’s just boring to watch perfect people and no one is perfect. I think this notion that we have to hold ourselves as gay writers and creators to a perfect gay standard, a best foot forward philosophy about creating characters, is really flawed. I don’t think that’s useful. I think when people get engaged by flawed and interesting characters that they can relate to they come back again and again. That’s where the change happens.
TTVJ: Given the positive response you’ve gotten from not only organizations like GLAAD, but the LGBTQ community, what sort of responsibility do you feel for telling these types of stories and bringing LGBTQ characters to the forefront?
PP: Responsibility is a bit of a tricky word. We do it because we love it. Because we believe it. Because that is the show we created. We tell Stef and Lena stories because they’re at the center of our show and I love those women. I think they are amazing and fascinating and they drive me crazy with their faults and peccadillos. It’s an honor to get to write stories for them. That’s true for Brad, Joanna [Johnson] and all the writers. LGBTQ stories are part of the fabric of our lives and they are part of a fabric of these characters lives, so that’s where we go when we’re trying to break episodes.
TTVJ: In your season finale, you had a character, Jack (Tanner Buchanan), that was killed not long after viewers saw him kissing Jude (Hayden Byerly). Jack was not a gay character, but can you just talk a little about the process and discussion you guys went through when deciding that you were going to kill Jack, especially given he was so young? Were you aware of the “Bury Your Gays” trope and at the time did that factor at all in your decision?
PP: Jack is not gay. Yes, he kissed Jude, but he did it from this co-dependent friendship place. Jude was so upset and he wanted to make him feel better, so he kissed him and then realized that was not the right thing. He was open, non-judgemental and not homophobic, but he wasn’t gay. So it didn’t feel like we were killing off a gay character.
I’ve been asked a lot to sign The Lexa Pledge and I very much appreciate the movement behind that and the seriousness with which everyone is talking about this issue. But I’m not a believer in absolutes and I hesitate to sign something that says ‘I absolutely won’t ever do XY or Z.’ I’m not sure those are the best conditions under which to create stories. I think you have to look at the entirety of what you’re putting out in the world. Let’s say we did a story where Stef and Lena’s older lesbian mentor died, I wouldn’t want to feel like I was betraying some pledge I signed. I certainly understand people’s outrage over everyone killing off sometimes the only gay character on a show, but that’s just not the universe that we operate in. So I didn’t feel like it was the right thing for me to do to sign it.
TTVJ: What are some of the major obstacles and hurdles we still need to overcome regarding LGBTQ representation on television?
PP: There’s plenty of room for LGBT representations of color. I still think it’s largely a white person’s game which we need to correct. There’s certainly room for LGBT representations woven into the fabrics of all kinds of different shows. We are doctors, lawyers, dentists, FBI agents, bosses and secretaries, in addition to being makeup artists, hair stylists and shoe salesmen. There’s always room for more. There’s always room for better. There’s around 420 scripted shows on television this year and probably not even 40 LGBT characters on TV this year. Less than 1% doesn’t feel like adequate representation.
TTVJ:Conversely, what positive steps do you see being taken for LGBTQ characters and representation on television today?
PP: Those representations are evolving beautifully and at an incredible rate. When you look at Transparent, Orange is the New Black, Faking It and others there are a lot of healthy, vibrant, full depictions of gay people out there. There’s always room for more, but not only are there healthy whole characters out there, but they are being used in compelling and interesting ways that are reaching more and more people.
Thoughts or comments? Share them below! Read more from our Queer Representation on TV series here.
The Fosters Season 4 will premiere on Monday, June 20 on Freeform.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.