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The Never-Ending Neutrality of the “Straight Playing Gay” Discourse



Feature By: Matt St Clair

It’s no secret Hollywood has a spotty track record regarding LGBTQ+ representation, both in terms of the number of stories being told and who’s being cast in those stories. As long as Hollywood has made movies is the practice of casting straight actors in queer roles. Given how we’re seeing more openly queer performers have thriving careers, it surely begs the question of whether this practice should continue. 

This writer’s answer is as follows:

I say…it’s complicated.

Recently, we’ve seen signs of a positive industry tide shift. For example, out actors Colman Domingo and Jodie Foster received Oscar nominations for playing queer characters in Rustin and Nyad, respectively, while Andrew Scott was at least in the Oscar running for his Golden Globe-nominated turn as a gay writer in All of Us Strangers. Furthermore, Lily Gladstone, who’s non-binary and uses she/they pronouns, earned a historic Best Actress nomination for their portrait of Mollie Burkhart in Martin Scorsese’s crime epic Killers of the Flower Moon, showing it wasn’t just queer roles that LGBTQ+ actors were cited for this past Oscar season. 

Because more openly queer performers are cast in stories that reflect them and cited with awards recognition like how Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey are garnering Emmy buzz for the Showtime miniseries Fellow Travelers where they play closeted lovers, that inevitably leads to heated criticism when a straight actor is cast in such roles. Such is the case with Oliver Hermanus’ upcoming period drama The History of Sound starring Josh O’Connor and Paul Mescal. Right as the cameras started rolling came a range of reactions on social media, including from people angrily proclaiming that openly gay actors weren’t cast as the leads

The fact that this isn’t the first time both Mescal and O’Connor are playing gay characters is likely adding more fuel to the fire. However, this heated discourse is over the fact that people assume what the actors’ sexual orientations are. I’m not trying to pretend to know how they identify privately, nor is it my place to try and know. I’m just saying that when people cry “OMG! Stop casting straight people in gay roles!!!” on social media whenever that happens, for all we know, said actor might publicly identify as one label but privately go by another and choose not to come out either due to reasons involving their career and wanting to avoid typecasting, their family, or, above all, because they feel like it’s their business. 

As a queer person myself, I believe that we should recognize openly queer performers who’re thriving in varied ways and, to avoid being pigeonholed, they should be considered for both straight and queer roles. Actors like Jonathan Bailey and Colman Domingo avoiding being put in such a box with some of the roles they have lined up is a step in the right direction. However, actors shouldn’t have to disclose their sexual orientations when cast as queer people automatically. Part of the reason is that one’s sexuality is not only a personal matter, but exists as a spectrum where some will experience an awakening later in life than others or feel like they identify as one label yet aren’t ready to come out because they’re not fully sure what their orientation is.

Surely, queer filmmakers who cast straight actors as queer characters recognize this kind of fluidity themselves. Filmmakers like Emma Seligman who, in an interview with Vulture last year while promoting Bottoms, agreed that actors shouldn’t have to reveal their orientation if they don’t want to. Similarly, directors such as Oliver Hermanus, the director of The History of Sound, and Luca Guadagnino, who’s re-collaborating with Josh O’Connor on Separate Rooms where O’Connor will play a gay Italian writer, clearly have no qualms casting actors who don’t identify as queer in the central roles of their films. 

When it comes to conversations regarding representation in the LGBTQ+ community, because we in the said community are more than just our sexual preferences, some worthwhile discussions worth having include ensuring the practice of cisgender actors being cast as trans people continues being left in the past and also, the fact that stories involving two men falling in love mostly tend to depict men of a certain body type, phenotype, and age demographic. Conversations such as those should hold more weight than pondering what a strange person we only know through their work and the characters they play prefers dating in their private life. Otherwise, we’ll have more situations like with Heartstopper’s Kit Connor, where people become so invasive of an actor’s privacy that they’ll break social media boundaries to figure out information they aren’t obligated to know. 

Admittedly, this topic strikes a heavy chord with me because of the scars from my early teenage years involving being badgered about who or what I like almost every day at school. Because of what happened then, I’m adamant about people affording others the courtesy of not intruding on their personal lives, famous or otherwise. Especially after what happened with Kit. While actors coming out of the closet does provide a positive platform and make viewers feel seen, it’s still best to let actors come out on their terms. We can feel moved by the performances they give in some way when we see them on screen. But at the end of the day, we still strictly know them through the work we see on screen. 

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