There is a question that’s been asked to death in recent years, as Hollywood reckons with the representation and diversity problems that have long plagued the industry. Kristen Stewart was asked about it after the debut of the lesbian holiday rom-com Happiest Season. Filmmakers have been asked to weigh in. Neil Patrick Harris has offered his thoughts. A search pulls up endless news articles begging the same question: Should straight actors be allowed to play queer characters?
Shows and movies that cast queer actors in queer roles have been celebrated by fans, including Jasmin Savoy Brown’s casting as a queer teen on Yellowjackets and as the Scream franchise’s first openly gay character. Jojo T. Gibbs’ casting in Twenties, as well as a bisexual main character in the Hulu horror-comedy Fresh, has also been well-received. The fact that we’re starting to see more and more instances of queer actors playing queer characters makes it stand out even more when straight people are given these roles — especially when they’re awarded for them.
While it’s an improvement to see more and more people joining the conversation, the question “can straight people play queer roles?” continues to center straight people, who haven’t historically been excluded from Hollywood the way queer folks have. For that reason, the conversation should be more about increasing access to the industry for LGBTQ+ folks.
The debate over the casting of LGBTQ+ characters in movies and TV isn’t about ability. Actors obviously do not have to have things in common with the characters they play to make their performances convincing. That said, the lived experiences of marginalized groups are so specific and complex that a level of personal understanding can make the portrayal more authentic. “Of course we play characters that are nothing like us, and we don’t always have a shared identity, but when we do… I do think it makes it more, to me, compelling, and maybe I’m biased just because of my preferences,” says Leo Sheng, a queer and trans actor and regular on the series The L Word: Generation Q.
“I’m sometimes frustrated when I see straight actresses specifically playing lesbian roles that I don’t necessarily believe them,” adds Sheng’s co-star Jacqueline Toboni. “Sometimes I feel like, oh, this is supposed to be our story, and it’s not. It’s getting lost in translation…It can be as big as the writing or as simple as these two girls do not look like they like kissing each other. It just makes you feel horrible.”
Sheng adds that when it comes to straight actors being cast in queer roles, it absolutely matters who is controlling the narrative. Representation alone only means so much: In 2020, when the number of queer characters on TV was at an all-time high, acceptance of LGBTQ+ people was in decline. And perhaps casting straight actors in queer roles would matter if there were an abundance of queer roles available, but there isn’t. The 2020-2021 GLAAD TV report — an annual deep dive on television’s LGBTQ+ representation landscape — notes that of the 773 series regular characters set to appear on broadcast scripted primetime television, 70 are LGBTQ+ — or just 9%, which is down from 10.2% in the previous year’s report. While the study attributes that decline to the impact of COVID-19 on the industry, the fact of the matter is that straight roles consistently outnumber LGBTQ+ roles on television. And access and the scarcity of queer roles are important factors to consider when looking at whether straight actors should be cast in queer roles.
Even as LGBTQ+ characters become more prevalent on screen, LGBTQ+ people aren’t necessarily being brought into production or into writing rooms at the same rate. “Are queer people in the driver’s seat of these stories? Are they the ones writing and producing it? And if they are, are they casting somebody who maybe is not queer but feels like they embody this character?” Sheng asks. “I think that’s different to me than cishet writers and directors and producers not even bothering to audition queer people and not even having that be a thought in their mind.”
The aforementioned 2020 holiday rom-com Happiest Season, for example, was directed by openly gay multi-hyphenate Clea DuVall and also featured out actress Kristen Stewart in one of the leading roles. Queer folks were involved in the film, and rom-coms and holiday movies that explicitly center lesbians are still underrepresented in the film landscape. But Mackenzie Davis was also cast as one of the lesbian main characters, even though she does not identify as a lesbian. Stewart told Variety at the time that she believed Davis was the only person who could have played the role opposite her. Stewart’s sentiments in the Variety interview about casting queer folks in queer roles was this: “So my answer is fucking think about what you’re doing! And don’t be an asshole.” Intentions matter.
But sometimes, good intentions just aren’t enough. The 2020 Ryan Murphy-directed musical film The Prom was criticized widely for casting James Corden as a gay man. The actor received backlash from a slew of critics and on social media, calling his performance “gay-face” and “offensive.” (Corden’s team did not respond to Refinery29‘s request for comment.)
There are just 29 regular or recurring trans characters out of 773 total characters on TV.
Corden’s casting didn’t exist in a vacuum: There were casting directors, writers, directors, producers that all signed off on that portrayal. In fact, in the case of The Prom, young queer actors were cast in other queer roles. Yet, many still found Corden’s casting harmful and reductive. This goes to show that the issue is nuanced and complex: Just because a project does cast some queer actors in queer roles and has a queer person at the helm (Murphy is openly gay), that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from criticism or controversy.
For there to be sustained and sustainable change, it’s essential to have LGBTQ+ people in decision-making positions. “It is 100% important that we have queer actors in front of the camera,” says Jasmine Johnson, the senior vice president of development at the entertainment company Crypt TV. “But it is just as important that we have that representation behind the scenes.” Representation and authenticity are inherently impacted by those off-camera positions. The people in higher positions are the ones who can enact actual change. “We as an entertainment industry need to pick up the pace when it comes to making sure that we have those voices in those authority positions behind the scenes,” Johnson adds.
In fact, Sheng notes that most of the people who took a risk on him as an untrained queer actor in the beginning of his career were fellow queer folks. “There are many, many people that go into decision-making when creating a piece of art, and I don’t think it’s one person’s fault,” Sheng says, when it comes to straight actors cast in queer roles. “I do think it’s very much a systemic issue and a structural issue.”
Sheng also notes that trans actors and creators are often excluded from this conversation entirely. “When we talk about queer representation, yes, it should include trans folks, and yes, trans folks do have a very different experience.”
There’s a long history of cisgender actors playing trans roles and winning awards for those performances. Sheng is one of the many trans folks interviewed in the 2020 documentary Disclosure, which explores the harm caused by this trend. “Having cis men play trans women, in my mind, is a direct link to the violence against trans women,” actress Jen Richards says in the documentary. It reinforces the dangerous and transphobic idea that trans women are not women. For this reason, trans folks in and out of the entertainment industry say this type of casting is never okay. Some cis actors, including Annette Bening, have also vocally taken this stance.
As with LGBTQ+ roles, there has been a shift in the way trans roles have been cast in recent years, but there’s still definite room for improvement. GLAAD’s TV report also notes that 26 of the 29 regular and recurring trans characters on television for the 2020-2021 season were voiced or played by trans folks. Still, few trans stories ever get told — there are just 29 regular or recurring trans characters out of 773 total characters on TV as of the time of the report.
Sheng says he often hears, but pushes back on, the idea that trans actors don’t get cast because the talent pool isn’t big enough. This is something Toboni has also heard about queer actors in general, and is exactly the kind of insidious narrative that results in trans and queer people having their opportunities and access to work limited. “What are ways we can increase the chances of that trans person becoming a bigger name? Cast them,” Sheng says. “People will take chances on untrained cis actors all the time. Take chances on trained and untrained trans actors, and also understand that formal training requires a certain level of access not always available to trans people.”
Some people argue that criticizing straight people for taking roles that depict LGBTQ+ characters can have the effect of further limiting opportunities for queer and trans people to take roles that depict straight or cis characters. But Johnson makes a case for the opposite being true.
“I do not feel like queer actors are given the same opportunity to play roles outside of their queerness that straight actors are given,” Johnson says. “When we start to have conversations around should straight actors be allowed to play LGBTQ+ roles, I just don’t understand why people aren’t asking the tandem question to that, which is why aren’t more queer actors being allowed to play roles outside of their queerness?” In other words, whether or not it’s “okay” for straight actors to be cast in roles depicting LGBTQ+ people, they’ve been doing it for years — all while out LGBTQ+ people have been quietly blocked from taking roles that depict straight people.
This is meaningful for other folks working in the entertainment industry, but also for young viewers. It can be supremely powerful for young LGBTQ+ viewers see these queer characters on screen and then go to social media and see the actors who play them also living out and proud. Casting director Andrew Fem, who is queer and non-binary, similarly notes the significance of representation beyond the screen. They mention how powerful it could be for Black and brown trans and queer youth to be able to see actors like Michaela Jaé Rodriguez and Billy Porter of Pose not only as their respective characters on television but also in their real lives, being nominated for and winning awards. Or Special star Ryan O’Connell, as well as Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang of the Hulu smash hit Fire Island. “[They’re] living proof you can be openly queer and successful and happy and that there’s a place for you in the world,” Fem says.
As a casting director, Fem pushes authentic casting a step further: They center identity-conscious casting in their work. In an email with Refinery29, Fem says authentic representation looks like casting queer actors as queer characters, and that should also be the bare minimum. “Identity-conscious casting says, I know this role was conceived of in this one particular way — let’s say cishet and white — or maybe we haven’t necessarily been thinking about actors like this for this role, but actually if we hire an actor with these other identities, it actually enhances the story and/or makes it more relevant, and here’s why,” Fem explains.
“I do not feel like queer actors are given the same opportunity to play roles outside of their queerness that straight actors are given.”
Jasmine Johnson, svp of development at Crypt TV
There are obvious logistical obstacles to an identity-based approach to casting. Toboni notes that certain actors might not be out as LGBTQ+ or aren’t sure exactly how they identify yet. Because of that, she cautions speaking in absolutes about straight people not playing queer roles, which might give journalists license to ask actors if they’re gay and put pressure on someone to come out before they’re ready. There are legal obstacles as well: Casting directors can’t ask outright about an actor’s sexuality without it veering into what might be considered discriminatory practices — even if the intent is positive. “We have to rely on actors to make themselves visible, which it’s not always safe for actors to do,” she says.
Fem notes that the fear of being typecast also can come into play here. “I think a big part of the reason people stay in the closet or keep their identities super under wraps is because they’re afraid of how they’ll become put in that box and only thought of for roles that speak to that particular aspect of their identity,” they say. Toboni, for instance, says that since she’s come out as queer, she has felt pigeonholed in the casting process. She says she even experienced this before she came out just because she has short hair, an absurdly rare sight on American television. “I feel too butch for this industry, and I don’t even feel that butch!” she says. Fem echoes Johnson’s sentiments that queer actors should be able to play roles that have nothing to do with their queerness, and even straight characters.
Johnson can speak from personal experience. “I don’t want someone to tell me that I can only write stories that are whatever they have deemed my signifiers are,” Johnson says, “because we are so much more. That being said, we are not in the sort of world or society yet where there is equal representation, where there is equal opportunity, where all people understand what it’s like to struggle with your gender identity or sexuality.” The power dynamics of a person from a marginalized identity playing a person from a privileged or dominant identity as opposed to the other way around are significantly different.
Fem is clear about this distinction as well, noting that people from excluded and marginalized communities should be provided with opportunities beyond the parameters of their identities — but that is not an invitation for cishet actors to flip the script. “That’s not how exclusion and oppression work,” they say.
Ultimately, Johnson, Sheng, Toboni, and Fem all agree that when creating a film or show that includes a representation of the LGBTQ+ community, the casting process should be just one of a series of thoughtful, intentional conversations around the topic. Producers and studio or network executives must be asking themselves, “Are we authentically representing the community that we’re trying to represent, or have we created a caricature that’s probably damaging to that community?” Johnson says. “That conversation should happen before casting.” The consideration of how to cast authentically then follows.
“I’ve said many times: Everybody’s supportive of authentic representation… until it comes time for auditions,” Fem says. At this stage, they explain, it can turn into a matter of someone trying to get themselves or their client a job. Quick and easy solutions become more important than authenticity. But it’s clear that both queer actors and queer viewers crave that authenticity, and in practice, it will have to come from all levels of production and involve not only queer folks making the decisions but straight folks as well.
Fem emphasizes the importance of “united liberation” in this work. “There are so many obstacles for each of us in our individual roles — casting, talent reps, producers, actors, etc. — that no one of us on our own can create the kind of change I want to achieve. We all need to be committed to the cause and support each other in that mission.”
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