Setting it straight - should LGBT+ roles only be played by LGBT+ people?
In the eve of a cold winter night, It’s a Sin arrived to take us back to one of the most vibrant yet painful eras for queer communities: the 1980s.
The Channel 4 series follows the lives of three young gay men as they move to London, experiencing the joy and fear of living in a city where the risk of AIDS is neither understood nor appreciated.
With praise from viewers and critics alike - and a timely release with LGBT+ History Month just around the corner - It’s a Sin is an excellent reminder of the power the screen has in the telling of stories we won’t hear about through the national curriculum.
But what makes this such a brilliant example of queer storytelling? Maybe it’s how the hard-hitting subject was written. It could also be the great acting on display. Perhaps it’s the portrayal of LGBTQ characters by LGBTQ actors which makes it feel so captivating. Maybe it’s the combination of all three.
What got us talking the most, was a debate about who should be playing queer roles in contemporary productions. It’s a Sin creator Russell T Davies - who previously cast straight, cisgender men for LGBTQ roles in Queer as Folk 20 years ago - says he now believes casting gay people for gay roles is the right thing to do - so should everyone else in the industry follow suit?
The answer, we concluded, is neither straightforward nor clearcut. As with so many of the cultural conversations we facilitate across our business, we rarely land on yes/no answers without exploring lived experiences and insights, and nuances that allow us to avoid entirely polarising views. This nuance is something Russell himself has said is what we need.
Having had the debate this week, with views across our business, commentators and social media, how can we take what we learned to help film and television give us the best possible representation of queer identities?
Opportunity: To level the playing field
When talking about a level playing field we have to take a step back from LGBT as a grouping and consider the nuances within it to understand what’s really going on. Opportunities for LGB people in the industry have never equaled those of straight people, and it’s not unusual to hear of Hollywood actors who have been offered fewer roles after coming out (Rupert Everett has been very vocal about this). But with the increasing representation of LGB characters in mainstream productions, it seems careless to ignore this chance to give those opportunities back.
The disparity of opportunity is of course even bigger for those of trans and other gender identities, whose characters have historically been mockingly played by cisgender people to capitalise on humour - and reinforce stereotypes - more than anything else (watch Disclosure on Netflix for an overview of this issue).
This narrative, however, is beginning to change, with series’ like Pose, Tangerine and The Politician allowing trans people to tell their own stories authentically.
Compared to television, film is a little behind with this sentiment - although it is being forced to catch up. In 2014, Jared Leto won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Dallas Buyers Club, in which he played a transgender women. Fast forward just four years and Scarlett Johansson is forced to back out of her role as 1970s transgender crime boss Dante "Tex" Gill, after complaints that the role should be given to a trans actor. Halle Berry also found herself in a similar situation. Why? The audience demand for authenticity has perhaps overtaken its appetite for Hollywood status.
TV & film is more accessible than ever. But with great accessibility comes great responsibility. GLAAD reported that only 20% of Americans personally know someone whos is trans (compared with 90% who know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual). This means that a vast majority form the public’s perceptions of transgender people stem from what they see in the media. UK data is not currently available, but it seems fair to assume a similar observation is applicable here.
Director of entertainment research and analysis at GLAAD, Megan Townsend criticised the casting of cisgender men for transgender characters, saying that “when that happens, viewers are receiving two wrong messages, which is that being trans is a performance, it's a costume, and also, underneath this ‘pretense’ that a trans woman is really a ‘man in a dress’ who's pretending.”
So when we talk about responsibility, we’re talking about the responsibility to show authenticity. This benefits the quality of the production, and crucially empowers the people the story reflects and represents to have a say in how the world perceives them (as humans and not just characters).
Respect: The talent
Despite the argument for authenticity, many view acting as a skill unattached to gender or sexual identity. Neil Patrick Harris, who stars in It’s a Sin, recently defended straight people’s right to play queer characters, saying that "in our world that we live in you can't really, as a director, demand that [an actor be gay or straight]. Who's to determine how gay someone is?" As a gay man whose career was accelerated while playing an explicitly straight character (How I Met Your Mother), this seems quite fair.
Other actors aren’t so sure. Kristen Stewart, whose career also boomed after playing straight characters (albeit before coming out), told Variety, “I would never want to tell a story that really should be told by somebody who’s lived that experience. Having said that, it’s a slippery slope conversation because that means I could never play another straight character if I’m going to hold everyone to the letter of this particular law.”
What seems non-negotiable is that all actors are given the opportunity to explore the full breadth of their talent. This means more trans people being cast as cisgender characters, LGB people for straight roles and yes, maybe there are scenarios where a straight person can do a queer character justice - this just can’t be the default move. The only way this can work is if authenticity is injected into other stages of production.
Representation: Behind the scenes
This conversation doesn’t start on the screen. In fact, what goes on behind the camera is equally essential for authenticity. For anyone playing a character outside their personal experience or identity, the appropriate voice has to be there at some point in the earlier stages to support the role. It’s the same reason we work so hard at bringing the right people into our workshops - knowing the value of speaking with people, not about them.
Luckily, standards are now being put in place to embed diversity into film. As of 2024, filmmakers hoping to bag an Oscar will be required to meet at least two of four on-screen and off-screen diversity standards set out by the Academy, including an outline for the percentages of actors, production staff, marketing staff and interns that must be filled by LGBT+ people, people of colour, or people with disabilities.
The answers aren’t rigid
Opportunity, responsibility and authenticity, representation, and respect. This is what straight and cisgender actors have been granted in the past and it’s what queer actors are overly due now. But being in front of the camera isn’t the only way this happens. We need the film and television industry to holistically build an environment which has inclusion embedded at every stage, so that what we see on our screens is a reflection of positive and intentional progress.
Instead of asking whether straight actors should or shouldn’t play queer roles in film and television, we should actually be asking: how can this production best serve the people whose story it is seeking to tell (and - to be frank - capitalise upon)?
LGBT+ History Month runs from the beginning to the end of February every year. Click here to find out about this year’s theme and how you can support the cause.