There has been some controversy surrounding the question whether straight actors can or should play LGBT roles. The answers have been very short and very simple: usually it’s something along the lines of “yes, it is called acting”. But this question is actually a very complex one, and sassy one-liners really don’t do the job of providing an adequate answer.
The debate around trans roles has been going on for a little longer. The general consensus – cisgender actors can play trans roles – has shifted since there are trans artists with a more prominent place in the media, who are able to influence the conversation. Hollywood tends to cast cisgender men to play trans women and cisgender women to play trans men. This is dangerous, because it plays into the idea that trans women are just men in a disguise and vice versa. This is especially problematic for trans women, because it gets them killed – more information on that here. If for some reason a cisgender actor needs to play a transgender role, let it at least be an actor of the right gender. But truly: there are more than enough trained and talented trans actors who deserve an opportunity.
But what about sexuality? Human rights organisations have criticised Hollywood for giving its sparse queer roles to straight actors (and trans roles to cis actors). Sir Ian McKellen pointed out that no openly gay actor has ever won an Oscar for a best actor, while many straight actors have received an Oscar nomination or the statue itself for playing gay characters. Is it just an issue of the best actor getting the role – and queer actors being a minority means more straight actors getting the role – or is there something more going on?
There are some issues with how this debate is being conducted. Generally, the media asks the opinion of said straight actors. They unsurprisingly look at it on a personal level and defend their right to play queer roles, as Cate Blanchett recently did. She compares playing a character with different sexual orientation to playing a character with different political views than her own. Comparing the experience of being queer in this world with having certain political standpoint is tone deaf, and if anything it is representative of the (unintended) ignorance of cishet (cisgender & heterosexual) people when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues.
Queer creators Alexis G. Zall and Gaby Dunn made this satirical video to illustrate the issue of representation of queer women in media. They criticise the fact that queer women are often used to appeal to male viewers, and to queerbait: promising representation to lure queer people into watching their shows, without offering substantial, complex or truthful storylines for their queer characters. They also point out that straight actors tend to be quite uneducated on these issues.
But the most important message comes at the very end: “I know we promised the new queer cast of the new queer show directed by queer directors with an all queer writing staff and an all queer crew, but that show has been cancelled.” Queer creators have been trying to tell their own stories, but are unable to get the funding. If they are lucky, they are able to make a webseries with a majority LGBTQ+ cast and crew – like Carmilla or Her Story. But the gold and silver screen continue to be difficult borders to cross.
It is striking that usually straight people have been the driving forces in mainstream queer films. Perhaps producers need the reassurance that the film won’t be too gay for the general (read: straight) audiences to enjoy it. For films like ‘Carol’ or ‘Call Me By Your Name’ the sentences “it’s not a gay love story, it’s just a love story” or “this film is not about gay people” could apparently not be said enough during press and in reviews.
This is not a debate about acting ability. As well as glorious failure, there have been excelling performances by cishet actors in these roles. I also do not think it is inherently wrong for a heterosexual actor to play a queer character – although there is definitely something to be said about personal experience. It is however about the massive potential value of giving a vulnerable community, which has been and is being underrepresented and misrepresented in all media, the chance to tell their own stories. They are not trying to steal something: they are merely reclaiming what has been taken from them.
Actor Jameela Jamil made a better comparison. She mentioned that women’s roles were for a very long time played by men. Dark make-up and fat suits were common, instead of giving actual people of colour and larger people the opportunity to play these parts, being able to bring their personal experience to the table. Moreover there is the economical aspect: it simply creates jobs and growing opportunities for a marginalised group like the LGBTQ+ community, for people who do not always have the privilege to play straight roles.
Silencing and diminishing these very fair concerns with “it is called acting” is a testament to the ignorance of non-queer people and the sudden boundaries of their inclusivity when it might impact their own privileges.
The real question is not whether straight actors can play LGBT roles, but which is more pressing in our current society: the ownership of marginalised communities over their own stories, or the assumed right of more privileged actors to play these roles.
We deserve our stories. LGBTQ+ are made to feel thankful for getting just any representation, even if it’s untruthful and exploitative. Perspective shapes storytelling. And sometimes our stories are all we’ve got.
Written by Evelien Feys, student at KU Leuven.
Every author of an opinion writes in their own name and is responsible for their own text.