Buffy the Vampire Slayer actor and Instagram star Tom Lenk as the perfect choice to critique the looks at the 90th Academy Awards. In recent years, Lenk's online following exploded after he began sharing shots of his re-creations of red-carpet looks with household items.
"I did it as a joke," Lenk ( who said he watches a lot of Project Runway and RuPaul's Drag Race ) said about his initial forays into transforming garbage into fashion. "It's really a fun way to encourage people to be creative." Yet his oddball outfits have gotten the attention of high-profile divas and leading ladies like Kylie Minogue, Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Biel. This year, at Center on Halsted's A Night With Oscar, Lenk looked forward to give out fashion awards among the onscreen celebrities, and perhaps, the attendees.
In a media landscape where LGBTQ people are still looking for opportunities or perhaps even poorly represented, Lenk is grateful for his platform of more than 400,000 fans.
"I do have my own show, it's just a different format from what I thought it would be," said Lenk ( who talked with Windy City Times the day before the Oscars ). "The stuff I'm putting out on Instagram, I'm putting out on my terms."
Lenk is aware of how groundbreaking "Buffy" was in its portrayal of open LGBTQ characters. "Lesbians that I've meet over the years are so grateful to that show for allowing them to see themselves on TV," he said.
While a lot of changes have happened in LGBTQ media representation since "Buffy," Lenk's personal experiences suggest that more work needs to be done. He recalled both watching and auditioning for various shows and instantly knowing, based on how LGBTQ characters are portrayed, if an LGBTQ person wrote a particular episode or script.
"We're still highly underrepresented in entertainment," Lenk said, adding that even if many shows now feature LGBTQ characters, straight people are by and large the intended audience. He also talked about gay people's lack of opportunity to play straight roles, comparing it to how British actors are often cast in American films with American accents, but Americans rarely get the opportunity to do the same.
"I'm auditioning for mostly gay parts. I don't get to go the other direction," Lenk said, adding that was why casting from the community for LGBTQ roles is so important. "If we're going to be limited to gay parts, at least let us try out for those."
A longtime partner of the Center on Halsted, Xfinity has made a concerted effort to elevate LGBTQ voices and programming. This is not just mere outreach; according to Comcast Executive Director of Multicultural Product Development Jean-Claire Fitschen, among Xfinity subscribers, LGBTQ content is searched just as often as soccer.
Available since June 2016, Xfinity's On Demand LGBTQ Collection integrates Netflix and even high-quality YouTube content as well as content available to Xfinity. The platform's commitment to community input is apparent not just from the sassy editorial tone—with voice recognition activated, one can summon Rupaul's Drag Race by saying "Shantay you stay"—but from their efforts to partner with groups such as GLSEN, PFLAG and the Center to create unique lists of content.
"What we want to amplify is the stories the community recommended," Fitschen explained ( also the day before the Academy Awards ). In addition to those lists, search options include genres like horror, the identity labels inside LGBTQ, work by out directors, actors, and curated lists by out celebrities like Tyler Oakley ( Lenk's list is in the works. ) Even "happy endings," sometimes elusive in LGBTQ media, is a unique category.
For community organizations like the Center, Xfinity's amplification, including an online profile of the Center, helps them reach Xfinity's 22 million subscribers. Fitschen in particular knows what a difference places like the Center can make. She was raised by her godfather, a closeted gay man, four blocks from where the Center now stands, and remembers how she felt on entering the building for the first time.
"To have had those kinds of services available would have made a difference in his life," Fitschen said.
In the spirit of sharing personal stories, during the breaks at "A Night With Oscar," Xfinity showcased vignettes from members its Out at Comcast employee group. And in an Oscar year where a gay romance was up for Best Picture and an out trans director has been nominated for the first time, Fitschen feels that the popularity of diverse stories is more obvious than ever.
"Everyone really loves diverse stories," Fitschen said. "And Center on Halsted's A Night With Oscar gives us a platform to celebrate these stories."