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Should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Today’s social media controversy comes courtesy of former Doctor Who show-runner Russell T Davies who has gone on record in an interview that he believes gay roles should generally be played by gay actors.

As you might expect, the response to this argument has been both immediate and strong. Some people have argued that it’s against the whole principle of acting to say that people should only play people like themselves (while obviously skipping over the obvious complexities of a white actor playing a black character or a man playing a woman’s experience in a serious drama). Others have argued that if straight actors can’t play gay, then gay actors should not be able to play straight characters either.

In the middle of a lot of this is the same sort of generalized tedious sentiment we often get in these kinds of discussions – stuff that goes along the lines of, “it’s all political correctness gone mad” along with groans about the “woke brigade”.

Now, these positions are infuriating, frustrating and wrong, but it’s not always obvious to people why they are wrong. Superficially, they seems simple, commonsensical, obviously right. So for that reason I thought I’d go a bit above and beyond the call of duty and write a little piece explaining why subjects like these are more complex and intricate than they might initially appear, and why—in my opinion—even if it may not be desirable long-term, it is far from unreasonable to argue that gay parts should generally be played by gay actors.

I’m going to break this into three sections which I think has bearing on the question of who should play which roles:

  1. Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?
  2. Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?
  3. If straight actors shouldn’t play gay, does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

I’ll then try and wrap things up with a brief summary (you can skip to that right now if you can’t be bothered to read everything) and a position about what I think it means going forward.

But if you’re with me for the long read, let’s jump right in…

Question 1: Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?

No. The truth is that there is not equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors, any more than there has been equality of opportunity for women, people of color or non-gay members of the LGBT community.

While it has become considerably easier for gay actors to get ahead in Hollywood or in acting generally in recent years, being gay is still often an impediment to a successful acting career at the highest levels.

It is simply the case that actors who are out and proud and well known as being gay simply don’t get given straight roles as often—particularly straight leading roles—in movies or TV. Out gay actors who take on these roles are often characterized as ‘not believable’, meanwhile when a straight actor historically has played a gay role (at least over the last thirty years or so), they have been more often characterized as ‘brave’.

So here is our first argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people. There simply aren’t very many LGBT roles on TV or film, gay people are under- and often mis-represented, and (if they’re out) they’re often simply not allowed to play high profile non-gay roles.

Surely then, if gay actors are being purposefully excluded from many prominent straight roles, they should at least be considered preferentially for gay roles?

Question 2: Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?

Let’s be clear – gay people are still disadvantaged in contemporary society. Gay men generally earn less than straight men, gay people still often don’t feel comfortable express affection to their partners in public, gay teens are twice as likely to attempt suicide than straight teens, and twice as likely to ‘succeed’ when they try. Gay kids also represent 25-40% of homeless youth across the US and UK, and well over 90+% of gay kids report hearing homophobic abuse in the playground on an almost daily basis.

I mention this because I would think it fairly obvious that one of the major ways that we can fight misinformation and discrimination against LGBT people is by representing them properly on TV and film. This does not mean by any means making every gay character a paragon of virtue. But it does mean representing gay people as they actually are, rather than resorting to stereotype or discriminatory tropes.

Which brings us to our second question – can straight actors accurately portray gay people?

The short answer here is yes. They absolutely can. And they sometimes do. I can name a number of films and movies where I think straight people have done tremendously good work portraying gay characters.

But as always, the devil is in the details. And the longer answer is that even today, many straight actors do not truly understand the lived experience of gay people and so—rather than depicting rounded characters that reflect real life—they either portray two-dimensional figures without any richness or understanding, or they resort to codes or symbols or stereotypes to communicate ‘gayness’.

The reality is that LGBT people often have some commonalities of experience that are often invisible or simply not understood by straight people. There’s the common experience of growing up around homophobic comments, and then coming to realize that those comments are about you. There’s the common experience of having crushes on people and knowing that you have to be completely secretive about them. There’s the common experience of lying to people around you and misleading people because you’re scared of how they’ll react if they find out the truth. There are the common experiences of coming out to friends, family, colleagues – over and over and over again as you meet new people. The common experience of someone you like making homophobic comments because they just don’t know. The common experience of not knowing how much of yourself you can reveal on the street without fear of attack. There’s the different way you meet people like yourself, the different support infrastructures you fabricate for yourself.

Not all LGBT people experience all of these things, and no doubt some experience none of them. But for most LGBT people, their path has been different from most of their straight peers and there will be things that most LGBT people experience that most straight people will not. And these things are a part of the complexity of the character and backgrounds of almost every fictional gay person.

For many straight actors, their experience of gay people will be via their most confident out gay friends, or via previous representations of gay people in movies and TV. Forty years ago those representations were of sad, disillusioned, broken people who had horrible times coming out or were in the process of dying of AIDS, or ultra-camp flamboyant people with limp wrists and catch phrases. Twenty years ago they were more often than not very attractive and well-groomed men who were slightly bitchy best friends to nearby career women. Today they’re a lot better and more nuanced, but they’re still flawed. And you only have to look at fantasy fiction to see that there’s still prejudice in movie making. How many daring archaeologists are gay? How many leather coat wearing space cowboys are gay? How many secret agents?

So here’s our second argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people – while there are a number of examples of particularly good straight actors who have very effectively played gay characters, they are uncommon and massively overwhelmed by bad ones. If you want to fix that misrepresentation (and in turn have a positive effect on the lives of gay people) then one thing you can substantively do is cast gay actors in gay roles.

Which brings us to our final question…

Question 3: Does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

Perhaps surprisingly, this is—for me—the most complicated question to answer. I think if you look through the arguments above, you’ll see threads of the position I’m about to make here, but I think it’s important to bring out those threads explicitly and surface what I think is the most common mistake people make when they talk about minority groups.

The position as expressed is simple – if straight people should probably not play gay characters, then surely it’s only fair to say gay characters shouldn’t play straight?

But the basis of this position is fundamentally flawed. The basis is that the experiences of gay actors and straight actors — more still, gay people and straight people — is fundamentally symmetrical. The two sides are effectively equivalent and therefore what follows is some kind of version of ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’.

The problem is this is simply not true. When you’re talking about minority groups in this way, the two sides are not symmetrical. The two sides are in fact very different. And the logical consequence of this difference is that things that might be okay for one group are actually not okay for another.

The best way for me to explain this is through an example. A position based on symmetry might be a bit like this: “If there are gay bars, why aren’t there also straight bars!?”

(For the moment, I’m going to ignore the reality that there are often straight people in gay bars, and that most non-explicitly gay bars are effectively de facto straight bars containing an equally small proportion of gay people. Instead I’m going to talk about why explicitly gay bars are a thing and explicitly straight bars are not.)

So here’s the first bit of asymmetry. A very small proportion of people in the world are LGBT. It is strongly debated what that proportion is, but for the sake of simple maths let’s say one person in fifty is explicitly gay.

Now, one of the most common places to meet someone you end up forming a relationship with is at work. The percentage varies depending on who you ask, but it’s somewhere around 15-25% of relationships are with someone you work with.

So let’s imagine an office containing fifty people with an equal gender split and one in fifty people being gay. A straight person who joins that company will meet 24 heterosexual people of the opposite sex. A gay person who enters the same office will most likely meet no other gay people. The company would need to be twice the size (100 people) for them to meet one other gay person. And for them to be sure they were of the appropriate sex, the company would have to be twice the size again (200 people). In comparison, in a company of two hundred people, each straight person would meet 98 heterosexual people of the opposite sex.

Let’s take that further. It’s still the general assumption that people you meet are straight, and there are still a number of reasons why gay people might not be out at work. So let’s imagine only 50% of gay people come out. So now we need to double the size of the company again. We’re now in a company of four hundred people, where each straight person is associating with 196 heterosexuals of the opposite sex. The gay employee meanwhile knows one out gay person of their preferred sex.

That’s an asymmetry in action. And it means for gay people to meet other gay people to date, they can’t rely on meeting people at work in the same way that heterosexual people might. Instead they have to make special and unusual efforts to find other places with gay people. As a result, gay people need ‘gay clubs’ and ‘gay bars’, while straight people do not need ‘straight clubs’ and ‘straight bars’.

So how does this apply to our final question – does it follow that therefore gay actors should not play straight roles?

Well, let’s look back at our first question – are gay actors given an equal shot at straight roles? The answer was no, there’s an asymmetry there. Out gay actors were less likely to get leading straight roles than straight actors were to get gay roles. Giving gay roles to gay actors starts to fix that problem, but as long as there are disproportionately few gay roles, making things equitable also means letting gay actors play straight roles.

Does the same apply to our second question? Are there asymmetries at play that mean that it’s more okay for gay people to play straight than vice versa? I would argue there are at least three worth mentioning:

  • An asymmetry of knowledge
  • An asymmetry of power
  • An asymmetry of number

First up – the asymmetry of knowledge – most straight people do not grow up or live in predominantly gay environments, whereas most gay people do grow up and live in predominantly straight environments. Gay people are much more likely to be comfortable and convincing and accurate playing straight – at least partly because they may have spend good portions of their lives doing precisely that.

Second – the asymmetry of power – unlike gay people, straight people generally do not grow experience prejudice because of their sexuality. This means that accidentally misrepresenting straight people is much less problematic. Instead of furthering or creating a negative view of all straight people, it’s more likely to simply make that character look objectionable or unpleasant.

Third – the asymmetry of number – because there are far more straight characters and straight roles, the negative effect of one misrepresentation of a straight person—among all the thousands committed to film and TV each day—is also much less pronounced or important.

Conclusion: So should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Okay, so let me bring that all together. In short, the argument I’ve made goes like this:

  • The argument is that anyone should be able to play anyone else and that if straight people can’t play gay roles, then gay actors shouldn’t play straight ones sounds intuitive but is in fact wrong;
  • On the whole gay actors have fewer opportunities than straight actors, and if we’re not going to give leading straight roles to gay actors, then the least we can do is give gay roles to gay actors;
  • Straight actors often are more ignorant of the lives of gay people than gay actors are of straight people – and since accurate representation matters, gay actors are better placed to play gay roles;
  • These situations are built on asymmetries of knowledge, power and number between straight and gay people, which mean that straight actors playing gay roles are much less likely to be accurate and much more likely to be damaging than gay actors playing straight roles.

For these reasons, I think it is perfectly reasonable to make the argument that Davies’ arguments are not self-evidently wrong or hypocritical.

But I’d like to go a bit further. These positions are fundamentally based on these asymmetries between gay and straight people. Some of those asymmetries just won’t go away – it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a time where there are as many gay people as straight people in the world.

But some of them can be fixed. We can make the experience of growing up gay or being gay in the world less alarming, dangerous and scary. We can make straight people more aware of the experience of being gay with more accurate representation and education. We can work to help audiences feel more comfortable with gay actors to take on straight leading roles. We can increase the number of LGBT roles in drama so that it’s truly representative.

And my position is that if we do that, then at least some of these arguments over time will lose their potency. We actually can work towards a day where it is at least more okay for any good actor working in good faith to play gay or straight whatever their sexuality. Where we don’t have to think continually about how we make sure that gay people are represented and gay actors have equal opportunities and we genuinely can just give the right roles to the best people. We’re just not there yet. And to get there we probably have to follow a narrower and more complicated path – much like the path that Russell T Davies has mapped out.

In the meantime, we work and we push and we explain, in articles in the Radio Times or in never-ending blog posts, to those few who are willing to listen, always hoping that together we might get a little closer to that day.

Thank you for listening and goodnight xx

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