Playing it Straight: Why LGBT People Should Play LGBT Characters
The debate over straight actors playing gay characters has been bubbling away for a number of years. It’s not a new or “woke” subject matter. From films such as Philadelphia and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, to more recent adaptations of LGBT History such as The Danish Girl and stories such as The Prom (and we will be returning to The Prom later), straight and cis-gender actors have been “playing” it Queer for decades.
In a recent interview, director, screenwriter, and producer Russell T. Davies has argued that “straight actors can not bring ‘authenticity’ to a gay role” later continuing that “authenticity in casting is imperative, in the same way you wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair.”. Whilst the last point is not entirely that accurate, what with several films still featuring a non-disabled actor playing a character who’s disabled (see: Sia), the sentiment is entirely accurate.
This post is not to argue a point of banning all heterosexual people from playing queer characters, however I do feel that there now needs to be some sensitivity (some regulation if you will) over who should play a queer character and how it’s eventually performed. Whilst there are several successful stories of LGBTQ+ actors playing straight roles, the industry is certainly not equal and statistically, LGBTQ actors still have to work a lot harder to be seen and hired.
Time and time again, when I’m making a point about only gay people playing gay characters, people argue “wELL, ThEn hUmAns sHouLdN’t pLaY aLiEn cHarActeRs!” and “nOn-mUrdEreRs sHouLdn’T pLaY mUrdeRrs tHeN”. Quite frankly, I am not interested in this discussion if this is their only response. Mainly because neither of those pieces of acting will ever harm or offend a community!
Some of my favourite LGBT films have featured straight actors, and some of my favourite straight actors have played gay characters well. But no matter how strong an ally a straight person is, they will never understand our nuances or be able to empathise with the trauma of a queer person. Equally, they have not had to hide their sexuality to be seen in the industry.
Whenever this debate rears it’s head, a lot of arguments will revolve around openly gay actors such as Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) taking leading “straight” roles and how I’m taking a very one-sided view, and maybe I am, however let me make this clear. Heterosexual people are not a marginalised community. Therefore, the “playing” of a straight person by a gay person will never be harmful or detrimental to a community, so you really cannot compare the two.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a long way in the industry. Trans actresses such as Laverne Cox and Angelica Ross are taking supporting roles in mainstream TV shows and just last year we had our first Lesbian Christmas movie with LGBTQ+ actors taking centre stage. Again, this is not a ban on diverse casting. Acting, at the end of the day, is researching the role and becoming someone you’re not, however where do you draw the line when it comes sexuality, especially when it’s relevant to a role?
This year, actress Seyi Omooba was fired from playing Celie, a Lesbian character in the film ‘The Colour Purple’ after it was revealed that Omooba previously made a series of anti-LGBTQ remarks in 2014. Rewind to the previous year, James Corden is cast in The Prom, a film about two Lesbian students who want to go to Prom together. The film should be a Queer celebration of music and theatre, however for a large majority of the LGBT community it’s been tainted by Corden playing a “camp” gay man. But not just any gay man (and this is where it becomes problematic), one that uses stereotypical gay “mannerisms” that many gay men over the past few decades would have been abused and murdered for.
Jump to February 2021 and Corden is later nominated for a Golden Globe award for “playing it gay”! The same heterosexual man who deemed it appropriate and necessary to use the word “f*ggot” during a Christmas special of his show Gavin & Stacey. With this in mind, it’s no stretch to the imagination to say that this choice of actor, this nomination choice, is offensive. Especially when there are other actors who probably would have been more suited to the role.
Over the past few years I can think of dozens of straight, heterosexual actors who have played gay characters well (in my opinion). Stanley Tucci in A Devil Wears Prada, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. I feel that if a particular actor can add value to a role then they need to be cast, and their sexuality should almost remain irrelevant, however my issue lies with the following:
- When it’s evident that LGBTQ+ actors aren’t being given the same opportunities.
- When straight actors use harmful stereotypes to play the role (see: James Corden).
In another interview given by Russell T Davies, Davies was pressed on his choice of casting for It’s A Sin, with Steph McGovern sharing “fears” that “restricting gay roles to gay actors could lead to queer stars being snubbed for straight parts“. In response, he stated “No, because it’s not equal”. He continued “And frankly, if you do get gay actors to play straight parts, we’ve been pretending to be straight since the age of 11!”
As Jim Parsons recently stated; “it’s not about having only gay people play the gay parts but to ensure that all parts are open to all actors.” When straight actors have to perpetuate harmful stereotypes whilst gay actors are rarely given a role that doesn’t make their sexuality a “thing” it shows that we have a long way to go.
In July 2020, GLAAD released their Studio Responsibility Index. It looks at LGBTQ+ representation across the eight main studios. The report showed that despite an increase of representation for white gay males, the same could not be said for lesbian, bisexual and trans characters, along with people of colour and disabled people. Surprisingly, 2019 saw a record high percentage of LGBT-inclusive films, however the industry “still has a long way to go in terms of fairly (and accurately) representing the LGBT+ community“.
So where do we go from here? On one hand, having an LGBTQ actor play an LGBTQ+ character, when it’s an integral feature to the character, adds such prominent value to a role. They can empathise with the character in the most natural way and you’re quite literally not having to take on harmful stereotypes to make a character appear more “genuine”. But, if a heterosexual actor can increase visibility for our community, encourage others to include LGBT characters in their writing, or simply push people to look at more LGBT Film the way Ang Lee did, then that’s a win also.
I honestly don’t have the answer – it’s above my pay-grade – but I do feel there now needs to be some regulation and damage is still being done. Our friend Mark over at Now That’s Just Gay have also shared their thoughts on this matter, I’d love it if you gave it a read.
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