LGBTQ+ Pride Month

Pop Culture Advice: Should Straight Actors Play Gay Roles?

Let's explore.

At A Plus, we're addicted to pop culture, and Pop Culture Intervention brings that obsession to the soapbox. Through this series, we'll recommend what you should be watching, reading or listening to; explore how arts and entertainment affect us; and interpret the important messages contained within various works.

It seems that for almost every major piece of mainstream LGBTQ cinema that comes out, a debate continues to rage: should straight actors be playing gay characters or should those roles be reserved for gay actors alone? It's a question worth asking and, as usual, the answer is a little more difficult than "yes" or "no."

Let's explore this complex issue in the latest installment of Pop Culture Advice.

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Digital publication Them called this predicament the "Gay for Pay Problem," and describes it as "Hollywood's preference to pay and reward straight actors for playing gay." It's this definition that helps explain my personal stance on the issue. I have no problem with straight actors playing gay — just as I would have no problem with gay actors playing straight — but with the way in which society reacts to these projects. And, since we're talking about the film industry, I'm talking about the Academy Awards.

In the history of the Oscars, out LGBTQ actors have rarely — if ever — won the top prize for acting. The same cannot be said for straight actors who have played gay roles, as they are almost always included as a nominee and often go on to win — such as Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) Charlize Theron (Monster), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), and Sean Penn (Milk) — for being "brave enough" and "daring enough" to take on an LGBTQ part. Somehow, to those in Hollywood, this makes them deserving to take home the coveted trophy. (Perhaps we need an #OscarsSoStraight moment, huh?)

The last few years have been big for LGBTQ films getting major Oscar attention — just look at the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Milk, The Kids Are All Right, Dallas Buyers Club, The Imitation Game, Carol, The Danish Girl, and Call Me By Your Name, just to name a few in our post-2000 world as Medium notes. Moonlight also made history as the first LGBTQ movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture but, like all the others, didn't have LGBTQ actors in the LGBTQ roles.

The dilemma here is that some actors are still afraid to come out as LGBTQ because they believe it could potentially ruin their career, as IndieWire so eloquently points out. That makes the applause of straight actors for playing gay roles a harmful thing because, if anything, it'll propel their career ahead leaps and bounds. This sends the message that you're less desired if you're gay, but playing gay is totally fine — great even. The fear when actors are coming out, even still, is that you won't be considered to be material for "leading man" (such as Rupert Everett) or "beautiful love interest" (like Kristen Stewart) because it would be hard for audiences to digest.

Somehow, though, this fear doesn't work in reverse. When being straight is already the cultural norm, the default, it makes those who identify as LGBTQ feel just that much more like the "other." It's saying we love LGBTQ stories, just not LGBTQ people themselves.

It's my belief that straight actors should be able to play gay characters — just as gay actors should be able to play straight characters. It would be quite unfortunate if we pigeonholed anyone into only playing what they know because isn't that the whole point of acting? To step into someone else's identity, to explore something that pushes the boundaries of who you are as a creative individual? If we tell people to stay in their lane, we are essentially taking that freedom of exploration away.

There's a lot of hubbub these days about whitewashing diverse roles meant for actors of different races and how wrong that is — but what about when the same thing happens to roles that are sexual orientation-specific? Yes, I understand the obvious difference here is that race is an outward trait and one's sexual orientation is an inner trait, but there's no way to say that one is more important than the other.

We get so few LGBTQ films in mainstream pop culture — especially ones that don't center around coming out or HIV/AIDS — that it would be a welcome change to see more LGBTQ people represented in those roles. We deserve to see LGBTQ actors playing their authentic selves in these movies. Straight people get to, so why not us?

Cover image: Focus Features | Sony Pictures Classics

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