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Why are LGBT+ Characters Nearly Always Played By Straight Actors?

December 4, 20177 min read

I would like to begin by saying that I am incredibly proud and enamored with the recent LGBT movies in cinema. From Moonlight to Carol same-sex love has finally received some of the attention and care it deserves on the big screen. However, with the recent release of Call Me By Your Name and it’s brilliant but ultimately straight lead actors I have been struck by a realization.

Nearly all my favorite LGBT movies are not played by actors who are part of the LGBT community, but instead straight and cis actors. It seems as if Hollywood is now okay with LGBT cinema but only when the person behind the character is heterosexual or cisgender.

The same way a non-POC actor cannot completely understand the experiences of people of color, truthfully a straight person cannot fully understand the experience of a queer person or a cis person cannot fully understand the experiences of someone who is trans. The argument that LGBT movies are about love no matter where it comes from, is simply a safety blanket to excuse the lack of LGBT actors playing LGBT characters.

Think of a young queer person watching a gay romance like Call Me By Your Name or Imagine Me and You, they become completely infatuated with the characters and actors. They quickly look up the movies cast only to find that the dashing Armie Hammer is heterosexual and married with kids or that the beautiful Lena Headey is similarly opposite-sex oriented. This young person has just lost someone they can relate and look up to, someone who is portraying a piece of who they truly are on screen for they can feel connected to. Like so many others, this young queer person is destined to crush on a straight actor and lose a possible role model.

If you think I am exaggerating the problem, think back to some LGBT blockbusters. Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Philadelphia, But I’m a Cheerleader, Moonlight, and countless others have all been led by straight actors. The problem is not only regulated to sexuality but cis actors playing trans characters. Popular show Transparent is about how a family’s life changes as their parent transitions from male to female yet parent Maura Pfefferman is played by cisgender actor Jefferey Tambor. Another example is Elle Fanning who plays a trans teenage boy in the movie 3 Generations. 

Could the roles in all these movies not have been filled by LGBT actors? Of course, they could have but producers choose not to.

We have seen that they can with Laverne Cox’s wonderful performance as Sophia Burset in Orange is The New Black and with the character, Nomi in Sense 8 who is rightfully played by transwoman Jamie Clayton. We have seen it with the online show Carmilla about a lesbian romance between a vampire and a nerdy college student, the leads are played by pansexual actress Natasha Negovanlis and bisexual actress Elise Bauman. There is burgeoning talent in the LGBT community, particularly in film and television industry yet we never get to see it.

A big reason is because, as in nearly every other field, there is still discrimination within the film and television industry towards LGBT people. In a study by the Screen Actors’ Guild more than half of LGBT performers have heard homophobic comments on set. Furthermore, 53% of LGBT respondents felt that directors and producers are biased against LGBT performers.

45% of LG performers “strongly believed that producers and studio executives think LG performers are less marketable,”. It seems that film companies and directors want to seem more “original” and liberal by once in a while telling LGBT stories but only if they are played by heterosexual and cisgender actors.

While straight actors have the privilege of playing both straight and gay characters, queer actors do not rather they are suddenly “not believable” in the role of straight characters. Actor Jonathan Groff, who is out as a gay man, was disparaged in a review of his role as Rachel Berry’s love interest in the show Glee.

“In half his scenes, he scowls—is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rache…He is so distracting, I’m starting to wonder if Groff’s character on the show is supposed to be secretly gay,” entertainment critic Ramin Satoodeh said.

In contrast, heterosexual actors are revered for taking the supposed jump to play LGBT characters, as seen recently on the show Ellen where the host praises Timothee Chalamet for taking on the role of bisexual teen Elio. Actors such as Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, and Jared Leto have won Oscars for playing LGBT characters, yet no openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender actor has ever won an Oscar.

This is not a criticism of the straight and cis actors who play these characters, but for an industry does not give LGBT performers the chance and environment they deserve to flourish. It is a call to attention for LGBT characters to be played by LGBT actors for a change.

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Anais Rivero

Aspiring journalist, Latina woman, and film lover trying to stomp the patriarchy with my large combat boots.