November 17, 2017 at 10:33 am PST | by Dawn Ennis
LGBTs on TV: Why more is less

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis. (Photo courtesy of GLAAD)

GLAAD’s latest “Where We Are on TV” report celebrates the inclusion of more LGBT characters on American television in 2017 than ever before.

“The emergence” of these new LGBT characters and their stories, wrote GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, is “reflective of the real world.”

Or is it?

“Of the 901 regular characters expected to appear on broadcast scripted primetime programming this season,” a summary of the annual report states, “58 (6.4%) were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. This is the highest percentage GLAAD has found in the history of this report. There were an additional 28 recurring LGBTQ characters.”

According to the organization’s director of entertainment research and analysis, Margaret Townsend: “This is 86 total LGBTQ regular and recurring characters on primetime scripted broadcast TV, up from the previous year’s 71.”

Those encouraging numbers were obtained utilizing research and data provided by the Hollywood studios themselves, according to a GLAAD spokesperson.

But behind this rosy outlook and “Hooray for Hollywood” optimism is some outdated and questionable data on “the real world” of LGBTs in 2017 America.

In her introduction to the report, Ellis cited GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance 2017 survey, conducted roughly one year ago. She said it found that “20 percent of Americans aged 18-34 (a key demographic for networks) identify as LGBTQ.”

But that didn’t sound right to Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, and a market research consultant who has collaborated with the Harris Poll for nearly 20 years to do LGBT-specific research.

Witeck reviewed the Harris & Associates 2016 survey and told the Los Angeles Blade that GLAAD’s 20 percent figure is “likely overstated” and possibly the result of the online survey’s “unique design,” outside the familiar conventions of more traditional polling. After consulting with contacts within Harris, Witeck said. “GLAAD sought a more complex scale, and broader definition of sexual orientation and gender identity to arrive at the percentage of LGBTQA.”

The GLAAD spokesperson called Witeck’s last statement inaccurate. “GLAAD and Harris Poll together sought an inclusive scale,” he said, “but GLAAD did not seek a ‘more complex’ scale solo.”

Why does this matter? Because GLAAD’s president is promoting results based on a year-old survey, calculated by Harris, derived from the answers of only about 100 of more than 2,000 respondents. Those answers were used to determine that two out of every 10 Americans ages 18 to 34 are LGBT—a conclusion that raises more than a few eyebrows.

“These are not conventional demographics,” said Witeck. “I mean, if we were social scientists we might choose to frame these responses differently, especially to understand notions of representativeness.”

According to the Harris sampling methodology for online samples, “one hundred is the lowest number typically used for projecting an outcome. Stronger estimates of representativeness may be found in larger sample sizes of 400 or 500,” said Witeck. “Or repeated queries with the same questions over time.”

That, Witeck said, is why the pollsters used a scientific technique known as weighting — a method described by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, by which a researcher “adjusts the poll data in an attempt to ensure that the sample more accurately reflects the characteristics of the population from which it was drawn,” before solid conclusions can be made.

In this case, the raw number of 18- to 34-year-olds sampled was merely 100, and the weighted number in the survey conducted online amounted to just 66 people.

And a reminder: this survey was conducted November 2nd through November 4th, 2016 — before Donald Trump won the presidential election. “That’s very key,” said Witeck. “Timing always matters.”

Since Election Day 2016, there have been significant societal changes, with more and more women, people of color and LGBT Americans resisting, marching, and running for office. More people, especially those 18 to 34, have come out. None are reflected in the Accelerated Acceptance 2017 survey.

So why would Ellis cite outdated and minimally representative data?

The survey was published in January, which is why it’s titled Accelerating Acceptance 2017, said the spokesperson. “What Sarah Kate is referring to in her quote is the increase in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, anti-LGBTQ legislation, rollbacks from the federal government, etc, that our culture has been seeing lately.”

He explained how they reached their conclusions: “The data and methodology were generated by experts at Harris Poll, one of the world’s most credible authorities on public polling. GLAAD did not conduct additional analysis of the data. Original questions were a collaboration between GLAAD and Harris Poll, with Harris Poll vetting questions for statistical accuracy,” he said.

“The LGTBQ figure reflects what happens when additional answer options are added to the list of sexual orientations and gender identities in a survey. LGBTQ here not only includes strictly binary terms (like gay or straight), but the broad spectrum of sexual orientation experiences (like pansexual or asexual) as well as gender expression separate from gender identity (like genderqueer or agender),” he said.

GLAAD is currently conducting a new survey to see “if the 2016 presidential election will impact results.”

Meanwhile, sexual harassment allegations leveled against TV stars and producers have significantly impacted the entertainment industry—and who knows how many LGBT characters will survive the repercussions.

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