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‘Law & Order: SVU’ has a longstanding LGBTQ+ problem

· Updated on October 30, 2023

Law & Order: SVU should be more relevant than ever. Judging from articles born from their PR machine, that’s what NBC, Dick Wolf Productions, and SVU showrunner Michael Chernuchin would like you to believe. That the last of the Law & Order franchise left standing at NBC (now Peacock) is part of a timely national conversation about sexual assault.

“We’ve been crying out for 19 years,” Chernuchin said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “Now people are actually listening.”

The problem begins when looking at the stories the show is telling this season under Chernuchin’s direction. The show isn’t nearly as feminist, intersectional, or relevant as it pretends to be. In fact, one of the most highly-successful series in network history has a higher LGBTQ+ character death count than it does screen time for leading queer characters.

George Huang: SVU’s brief LGBTQ+ representation

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over SVU’s long history, its track record with LGBTQ+ issues, specifically, has been mixed at best. Only one character even approaching leading cast status has ever been explicitly out on the show: George Huang. An FBI psychiatrist who consulted on cases in regular guest appearances in seasons 2 through 12. Even then, the show didn’t acknowledge Huang’s sexuality on camera until Season 11. So, it goes without saying that his time as an “out” character was brief.

Appearing even less often than Huang is our other crumb of representation on SVU: Detective Tutuola’s son, Ken. He’s appeared in several episodes, but the story is never about Ken. It’s more about how Ken, and his status as an out black gay man in social work, affects his father. While Ken avoids becoming a victim, his fiancé Alejandro isn’t so lucky in Season 13’s “Learning Curve.”

Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba

The subject of representation seems to have reached a new level following the midseason exit of actor Raúl Esparza. Esparza had been the only (known to the public) LGBTQ+ member of the current cast of SVU. Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba was created by then-showrunner Warren Leight after he and Esparza met during the Broadway production of Leap of Faith. Much of Barba’s backstory and character was informed by Esparza’s personality (Esparza is openly bisexual).

The character was often coded as queer. An episode featuring his childhood friends made it unclear whether Barba dated the woman, the man in the situation, or both. His loud, colorful wardrobe earned him coded sleights from guest stars like “Spanish dandy.” Still, Barba was a favorite among many fans. Queer fans in particular glommed onto him as even a hint of representation on SVU.

The ADA’s rushed demise

It would have made sense for the character to come out at some point during his tenure on the series. Esparza is a member of the LGBTQ+ community and had spoken openly about how there should be representation on SVU. Still, nothing ever came of it. After Leight ended his tenure as showrunner, Esparza hung around for another season and a half. It became clear very quickly that no one but Leight knew what to do with him as a character. Barba was written off the series at Esparza’s request in an episode that featured the ADA uncharacteristically unplugging a baby on life support. Ultimately, his character arc ends while sharing rushed screen time with his replacement. A straight, painfully chiseled-looking, dangerously bland, white, nepotism hire.

After Esparza’s sign-off in Undiscovered Country, the 13th episode of Season 19, queer fans were understandably upset. The show had slandered and dumped the only hint of queer representation on the show. Then, they replaced him with the almost-unbelievably straight person your mom would try to introduce you to. He’s probably from her church baseball team because she refuses to believe you’re queer. (Thanks, Mom.)

Dick Wolf’s stance on LGBTQ+ representation

Image courtesy of [email protected] on X

Fans who had already been mounting a campaign asking the creative team behind SVU for real, overt LGBTQ+ representation doubled their efforts. Executive Producer and writer Julie Martin took to Twitter to reassure fans that she heard them and that “we all want to make the best show we can.”

“Best show we can” is not exactly inspiring. It speaks perhaps to the possibility that somewhere higher up the ladder, someone is placing restrictions on what the creative team and writers can do with SVU and its characters.

Common sense would dictate that if anyone is hemming in the writers, it’s Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the Law & Order and Chicago franchises on NBC. Wolf was previously asked about LGBTQ+ representation on his show Chicago Fire. Which, by the way, apparently exists in the same fictional universe as the Law & Order franchise. The character Shay on Chicago Fire was killed off early in the series. As an out lesbian on the show, she’d been the show’s lone bit of LGBTQ+ representation. After she was killed off, fans were angry. 

On the subject of LGBTQ+ representation on his shows, Wolf gave a fairly typical “out of touch straight white guy in power” response:

“We don’t go out of our way, and we never have on any of the shows, to integrate specific groups,” Wolf said. “I think that that’s shortsighted. I think that if it’s a natural story development, it should be utilized, just like I’ve never counted heads in any of the shows and said, Oh, black, Hispanic, white.’ It doesn’t work that way. You cast actors who you think are going to bring a new color to the palette, but I honestly it has certainly not been avoided, but it is not something that the writers feel that they have to include. If there is a character who lends itself to any designation, we have absolutely no objection to using them or to developing characters who have that as part of their makeup.”

Dick Wolf on LGBTQ+ representation on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

The problem here is evident to anyone who has fought for representation in media. You have to “go out of [your] way” to make equal, or any, representation happen. Basically, since the power is still primarily being held by hands that are straight, cis, male, and white…default will always be straight, cis, male, and white. If the executive producer doesn’t care about representation enough to make it a mandate, no one else will either.

The disconnect between LGBTQ+ reality and SVU’s narrative choices

Sometime after Esparza left the show, Chernuchin interviewed with E! News and spoke about LGBTQ+ representation on SVU. He responded that “not one” of the current characters on SVU “is a member of that community.” It’s a statement that sits at odds with queer fans of the show for a few reasons. One is that fans of the show have long read Benson as queer. I think fondly back to her peak butch look from seasons 2 through 4 very often. I know you do, too. Fans read a lot into Olivia’s distress in the episodes that followed ADA Alexandra Cabot’s murder. Oliva’s uncomfortable but thankful relief when she discovered Alex wasn’t dead. Just in witness protection.

Stephanie March and Mariska Hargitay have chemistry, and it’s pretty undeniable. It’s something LGBTQ+ fans of SVU have written entire overtures to on the internet (rightly so). The show seemed to pick up on these fan readings. They wove in some winks to it in episodes. Olivia had to play gay while undercover, and even asked her partner about whether she has “gay vibes.”

Kathy Griffin guest stars

The show always stopped short of making subtext text. In one case, when Olivia was investigating a lesbian political action organization, guest star Kathy Griffin and Mariska Hargitay shared a kiss. The show, or the network, later cut the kiss out of the episode. It turns out the kiss itself is pretty problematic, as is the episode (“P.C.” from Season 13). Griffin’s character and her organization are described as “militant lesbian.” The kiss shared with Hargitay is portrayed as a predatory lesbian character lunging at a very straight Benson. Of course, the problems with that episode don’t stop there. Eventually, Griffin’s character is outted as bisexual. As such, she’s quickly expelled from her own political action organization. This move showed the politically active lesbian community as one that is predatory, unforgiving, and pretty oblivious to the intricacies of the larger queer culture that they are part of. Not great, SVU. Not great.

The power to change: Why queer characters aren’t in SVU

Video credit: svufans on YouTube

The other reason Chernuchin’s flat categorization of all the current main cast characters on SVU as being straight feels off to queer fans is that, really, if Chernuchin wanted to have one of the existing characters on SVU to be LGBTQ+, it would be within his power to make that happen. It doesn’t seem to occur to Chernuchin that a previously assumed-to-be straight character could become written as queer. It doesn’t seem to occur to Wolf, either.

This flies in the face of the lived reality of LGBTQ+ people, many of whom, at some point in their lives, believed they were straight and, over time, discovered new, queer parts of their identity. It wouldn’t even be shocking for a cop show to do such a thing. Look at Brooklyn 99 and its evolution of Rosa Diaz. There’s NBC’s own Homicide: Life on the Street, which in the late ‘90s had Detective Tim Bayliss discover his bisexuality throughout the show.

The flawed, queer guest stars of SVU

SVU has even shown, albeit flawed, instances of this in guest characters. Remember Maria Bello’s appearance in Season 12’s “Trophy and Rescue?”

In her first arc of the show, there’s no indication that Bello’s character is gay. However, in “Rescue,” she has a girlfriend–who, of course, is later shot in the head. Because one step forward, three steps back, I guess.

Bello’s character is even presented to be like a mirror of Olivia Benson. In her early queer-coded potential (that, unlike Olivia, becomes text) and being a child of rape. Olivia even believes at one point that Bello’s character could be her sister. In the end, Bello is like Olivia if Olivia were an addict and gay. She gets to reclaim her son, whom she had previously left in Olivia’s care. This is portrayed as a betrayal. That Bello’s character, gay and in recovery, gets to be a mother. At the same time, Olivia is not framed as being deeply unfair, narratively. And what does that say about how SVU views lesbian women? Not anything great.

The importance of LGBTQ+ representation in a show about survival

Oof, not the best writing, SVU. (Video credit: spring grapevine on YouTube)

In his E! News interview, Chernuchin went on to add that SVU deals with “those” (read: LGBTQ+) “subjects weekly.” This statement is a flat-out lie. Meanwhile, Chernuchin continues to use “they,” “them,” and “those” when he discusses LGBTQ+ themes and characters. It’s also something that Dick Wolf did in his statement, and it’s a disturbing habit. To me, it’s a linguistic choice that immediately affects LGBTQ+ people. As if we’re rainbow-clad fun-killers with our requests for representation. We live far off in the corner of the internet that Wolf and Chernuchin would rather don’t exist.

And obviously, there’s no way that SVU is actually dealing with LGBTQ+ subjects every week. There hasn’t been a case that involved an LGBTQ+ survivor since season 18 before Chernuchin took over as showrunner. Even when SVU did address LGBTQ+ survivors, it was rarely in an empathetic, positive way.

The most transphobic SVU episode ever

Kate Moennig appeared in “Fallacy” in Season 4. In that episode, the show succumbed to one of the worst tropes when it comes to showcasing trans characters, hiding her trans identity from her boyfriend. Detective Stabler tells the boyfriend that his girlfriend “is a man” in the most blatant, transphobic way. The boyfriend, feeling betrayed, commits suicide.

The show tries, too late, to make the audience feel sympathy for Moennig’s Cheryl. She’s abused and facing murder charges that will land her in a men’s prison. At the end of the episode, she’s brutally gang raped in Rikers. The whole episode feels like an exercise in torturing a trans character for not sharing her trans identity.

It’s a storyline that has, toxically, played out across media in the years. It’s also very much a fundamental part of why so many trans women are murdered. Because men fear they will fall prey to “gotcha” moments. Even when trans women are honest, or are just trying to protect themselves and their peace of mind, by not immediately disclosing.

SVU’s saving grace: Olivia Benson

Apologize Olivia Benson GIF By PeacockTV

Season 19 moved the show tonally away from that of a procedural that centered victims and towards a Shondaland rip-off. They emotionally torture lead character Olivia Benson in every storyline, with little attention to other matters.

Chernuchin, in that same E! News article, admits that he told star Mariska Hargitay that he intended in Season 19 to “lead her through the woods, basically. She was going to hit bottom[…].” The decision, while it may have pleased Hargitay and Chernuchin, to me, speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of why the show is as popular as it is. It ties directly back to why LGBTQ+ representation is so important.

A significant part of SVU’s audience has been, at some horrible moment in our lives, a victim. And many of us do not see ourselves in the straight white women SVU has showcased this season. 46% of bisexual women report having been sexually assaulted, almost double that of heterosexual women (17%). Gay and bisexual men are over 10 times more likely to experience sexual assault than heterosexual men. A quarter of trans people have been sexually assaulted by the time they’re 13. Within the LGBTQ community, the populations most vulnerable to sexual violence are trans people and bisexual women.

A call for Olivia and representation

Many fans calling for LGBTQ+ representation started watching the show because they wanted catharsis, simplicity, or escape. The college girls forced to say yes after trying to say no. A guy just looking for a night out who had something slipped in our drink. We had to give statements to official-looking people under the harsh, unforgiving glare of fluorescent police department lights. We were told it didn’t matter, the investigation would go nowhere, or worse–that we had it coming. The women, the men, the nonbinary, the queer, the young, the too young, who had to survive all of that.

And what we wish we had was an Olivia Benson. We wish we had someone who, while she operates at times within a frustrating and flawed system, cared about us. She would try the best she could to seek justice for us. And she would tell us it’s not our fault.

I think that’s why Facebook groups like “Forget God, I’m telling Olivia Benson” exist.

And this, ultimately, is why LGBTQ+ fans and survivors want so desperately to see representation on the show. We want to be more than victims. We want to imagine that inside an imperfect system is someone like us who will fight for us.

Until SVU takes a serious look at itself and the narrative choices it’s making, the show will continue to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Without LGBTQ+ main characters on the show, the show not only neglects significant narrative opportunities but also fails its audience.

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