Four men run on the beach
Illustration: Ian Nicholson

Acting is just acting – until it isn’t

There’s a reason the subject of casting gay roles rears its ugly head every few years. Prominent LGBTQ dramas are relatively rare enough to cause headlines, and, more tellingly, people love to talk about diversity in terms of what it’s taking from others, rather than the opportunities it can offer.

What you may notice about this thankless debate around whether gay roles should only be played by gay actors is that the focus immediately shifts away from gay roles and actors and moves onto straight ones. In a world where nuance is just a mid-scoring round on Scrabble, and every minuscule shift in the gradient of the playing field is treated like an earthquake, the effect of casting gay actors in gay roles is measured only in what it means for straight actors and straight roles. ‘But how will this affect the straight people!?!’ scream the so-called ‘silenced’ majority.

A desire to cast true to sexuality is often countered with a threat, in the shape of establishing a rigid system that makes sure everyone stays in lane, that in the interest of ‘balance’ or ‘equality’ gay actors should then not be able to play straight roles, because if gay roles are for gay people, then straight roles must be for straight people. There’s also the school of thought that choosing to cast gay actors in gay roles compromises the creative meritocracy, that talented straight actors who may have given the performance of their lives will go unseen, and that positive discrimination will lead to only mediocre actors getting high-profile roles. This is just an attempt to derail any reasoned discussion about the actual issue – LGBTQ+ roles being underrepresented in TV and film – and turn it into an either/or dishwater-dull argument. And as anyone who’s sat through a play featuring a dead-eyed relative of a more talented famous person can tell you, mediocrity in the arts is not new.

This ‘equality’ argument would only work if the number of straight roles available matched that of gay roles. While there may have been a (very small) explosion in LGBTQ-focused film and television, recently – thanks in part to the advent of streaming services where more conservative viewers may not linger – it’s still very much a straight-dominated arena. Gay actors have long played straight characters very successfully, but when the first gay male roles on TV became available, they were largely played by straight men. I can’t speak on behalf of casting directors but I imagine it was because a) they didn’t want to spook straight viewers too much, and b) there weren’t that many out gay actors willing to deal with the scrutiny a (rare) gay role would attract. While viewers could just about stomach a gay character on TV, they didn’t like to see gay people playing them. To play gay was seen as a ‘brave’ move by an actor, as if might close off straight roles from them for ever – Billy Crystal was one of the first men to play a gay character on network television and to read interviews at the time, you would think he’d got the role through conscription, not audition. For a gay actor, being ‘out’ back then could seriously harm their career, but a straight actor had the opportunity to distance himself from it – which many of them did, in interviews, often complaining about how hard it was to be play gay in intolerant times. How sad for them.

One of the first gay men I remember playing gay on TV was Michael Cashman, who played Colin in EastEnders. I still remember the tabloid reaction, all the more vitriolic because this wasn’t just some straight guy nancying it up in the name of art, but a bona fide gay guy, giving a fairly unapologetic, but sanitised for the times, performance. Even when gay roles began to be more common and homosexuality started to become, dare I say it, fashionable, they were a very small proportion of roles available – and they were played by straight people. Anna Friel made her name playing lesbian Beth Jordache in soap Brookside, one half of the first lesbian kiss on primetime TV – which was snipped from an early evening repeat showing. Although they did introduce a gay character played by a gay actor shortly after, Coronation Street’s Todd, the first character to come out as gay in the soap, was played by a straight guy. Ditto EastEnders’ Johnny Carter, whose coming out scene was beautifully acted by Sam Strike and Danny Dyer, who played his father Mick. Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk, groundbreaking when it showed a rimming scene in its first ten minutes of broadcast, broke very little in the way of new ground with the casting – all the main characters were played by straight men. As wonderful as this representation was, and as fantastic as it was to see this stories told at last, lives we either dreamed about or experienced unfolding in front of us, we were merely observers. Gay actors, despite huge in numbers, did not get a seat at the table; all these milestones, missing.

During publicity rounds for his AIDS drama It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies said he very consciously cast gay actors in the gay roles – and some straight ones besides – to correct ‘an imbalance that goes back thousands of years’. His statement has dominated headlines and, in a way, this is annoying because it pulls focus – again – from a very important topic that’s not been sensitively told on British TV other than soaps. But what’s great is Davies has repeated this assertion in subsequent interviews and does appear to accept it was wrong not to have considered gay actor for roles in Queer As Folk – in one interview he says there weren’t many openly gay actors about, which is quite likely. There’s the other possibility the show would’ve been a less attractive prospect to commissioners had gay actors played lead roles, and it certainly wouldn’t have made so many headlines – it would probably have been dismissed as gay porn rather than a cultural watershed. Davies has said he’d never seen a press launch so busy, with the media preparing to slaughter the show, and I must concede that Britain in 1999 was definitely not ready to see actual gay men simulating gay sex on TV. Neil Patrick Harris, who shot to fame as a teen in Doogie Howser and spent a decade on the inexplicably successful How I Met Your Mother, came out in 2006, and has a role in It’s A Sin. In a recent Times interview to promote the show, Harris said Queer as Folk was ‘one of the real true turning points for me as examples of sexy guys behaving as leads in something of import, not as comic sidekicks’, before going on to say that ‘there’s something sexy about casting a straight actor to play a gay role, if they’re willing to invest a lot into it. There’s a nervousness that comes from the newness of it all. To declare that you’d never do that, you might miss opportunities.’

There’s quite a lot to unpack, as they say. I suppose at least he was honest about the motivation behind much straight casting, which is very refreshing in itself. It speaks to the common gay fantasy about straight men that Harris thought the best way to show ‘sexy guys behaving as leads in something of import’ was casting straight men. Gay men, presumably, wouldn’t have been sexy enough. Harris seems to subscribe to the idea that somehow straight actors bring something extra, or unique, to playing gay, which is odd considering those against casting true to sexuality usually tend to say it should make no difference, that it should be about the best person for the part. So which is it? Do straight people bring something extra or don’t they? And why is that ‘something extra’ bad when it’s a gay person? A gay woman, for example, will bring something entirely different to a role than a straight woman would – but if we take Harris’s view, it would mean the gay woman’s uniqueness was somehow less valuable than the straight woman’s. It’s bizarre and insulting to suggest gay people would be any less ‘sexy’ in gay roles than their straight counterparts and is more a sign of the deathless fetishisation of straight guys doing a ‘My girlfriend is out of town’ post on Craigslist – spoiler: these are usually gay men acting in a bit of role play of their own. Why are people so frightened of saying gay people might be better than straight people at playing gay on screen? Whether it’s his intention, I can’t say, but Harris’s words sound like someone pulling the ladder up after themselves. I wonder if some gay men who speak out against casting true to sexuality are worried supporting it will rule them out of straight roles in the future.

You could argue that casting straight guys in prominent gay roles might have avoided an actor’s gayness becoming a distraction. Ironic, really, because often, when you watch a straight actor tackle a gay role, it can appear they’re overthinking the gayness, concentrating so hard on conveying a layer of sexuality alien to them, it can detract from the overall personality of their performance. Yet the accepted view seems to be that when a straight man simulates licking another man’s arse on TV, it’s acting – but when a gay actor is doing it, well, he’s just doing what he already knows, no big deal; he probably even got a hard-on doing the scene. If, as many commentators have said during this debate, ‘acting is acting’, why are straight actors especially lauded for pretending to enjoy same-sex kissing scenes or faking gay relationships, than they are for straight ones? Why do we assume it’s any more of a struggle for them than playing a heterosexual might be? For some reason, the challenge of acting gay on screen is afforded more value if it’s done by straight actors because, presumably, being gay has negative connotations for many, and they don’t enjoy it. Why the general idea that a straight actor is brave or stepping out of the comfort zone if there’s nothing exceptional about playing gay characters? It’s all just acting, isn’t it?

My theory is much of this issue rests on whether we feel an actor or a character is sexually available to us. As an audience, as people even, we like labels, because they tell us what to expect, they assign us a position in a hierarchy – usually one of our own invention – and regulate our behaviour, switch on the right facets of our personality, and inform our feelings. This is why so many people tie themselves up in knots getting angry about other people’s expression of gender, or neutrality, or use of pronouns – it takes a tiny amount of extra thinking time, and we are, by nature, lazy. Who we see playing a role on TV or in film informs our response. We may feel an affinity with some characters based on sexual orientation or gender, and that affinity can fluctuate depending on who’s playing it, and how they’re playing it.

For example, in Call Me By Your Name, the two lead roles are played by straight men – Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. The characters themselves – in the movie at least, I haven’t read the book – present as straight at first, but enter into a gay relationship. By the end of the film, Elio is heartbroken and Oliver has gone ‘back’ to being straight, or at the very least hiding his bisexuality, which is very relatable for a number of gay or bi men, or anyone who’s been involved in a same-sex fling that was life-changing for them but small change for someone else. Chalamet and Hammer are, arguably, both attractive, which is enough for some to overlook other glaring issues with their casting. Others may struggle with glossing over how childlike Chalamet is and how Hammer looks old enough to be Elio’s dodgy uncle, but appreciate that the story is being told. Other may value the more explicit moments, rare for mainstream cinema. Others may have concerns that these sex scenes are as sensual as changing a duvet cover, inauthentic, and insultingly sterile. Straight people, and plenty of gay people too for that matter, view the film favourably because at least they know Chalamet and Hammer weren’t sucking each other off for real, that it remains a fantasy all the more valid because two straight actors ‘bravely took on’ the roles, going against their own sexual predilections. In the hands of two gay or bi actors, the performances would’ve been very different – and the sex scenes hopefully better – but there’s no denying the cultural reach and commercial impact of the movie would’ve been reduced. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of most of those LGBTQ+ films you see tucked away, 57 scrolls down the Netflix home screen. Audiences favour straight actors and feel warmer toward gay characters or stories if straight people play them. Nobody seems to say this when this gay casting argument comes up – the entertainment industry is worth billions of pounds, and nobody wants to be involved in a commercial or critical disaster. This fear of failure leads to less inventive casting and LGBTQ+ stories being told in a way, often, that centres straight people and what they find acceptable. This is not to say there haven’t been outstanding performances by straight actors in gay roles, I can think of plenty – but this is the problem, I can think of many more straight actors playing gay roles than I can gay ones.

A major risk of casting gay characters is that a performance can descend into parody, and reignite old rows about gay stereotypes. The backlash against the ‘stereotypical’ camp and sexless gay men that popped up on TV in the ‘80s and ‘90s – accepted at the time as a cultural shift, but grossly homophobic in retrospect – led to a different kind of ‘positive’ discrimination, where gay men on TV were portrayed as masculine or ‘just like any other guy’. The quickest way to squash stereotypes was to hire a straight person lacking any innate characteristics associated with homosexuality. It’s hard not to think of some casting decisions, especially in the ‘90s and ‘00s, as pandering to ‘straight-acting’ or so-called ‘lipstick lesbian’ stereotype . While people like this exist within the LGBTQ+ community, their dominance in the media almost erased anyone who didn’t conform and, I feel, encouraged internalised homophobia. Soaps righted these wrongs to an extent: Syed and Christian’s relationship in EastEnders was unashamedly sexual, and played by gay men – although it did make use of the ‘dark secret’ trope, with added religious impediment to spice things up. Their 2021 equivalent, however, is known as ‘Ballum’ – Ben and Callum – and, no offence to the actors, is two straight men in sportswear with zero chemistry, not a single gay sensibility between them. There’s a reason gay people claim to have ‘gaydar’: very often we recognise the slightest hint someone might not be straight. It can be in the way we move, or speak, or sit, it doesn’t have to be obvious. For more of us than would care to admit, our sexuality shines out; sometimes it’s the smallest chink of light, but it’s there. It’s in the way we kiss, for example – those dry, stilted gay kisses on telly convince nobody. Gay actors don’t even have to think about it, they can just be. I remember being gobsmacked when Coronation Street did eventually nail this, pairing straight-cast Todd with a gay vicar – I mean, fine – who was played by a gay actor. The bedroom scenes felt passionate and authentic, and indeed would be compelling evidence that any actor could play a gay role, but it’s worth remembering there was at least one gay actor involved in the pairing. It really makes a difference.

Cam and Mitchell, the gay couple in US comedy Modern Family do, in a way, hark back to camp stereotypes of the ‘70s, but now we’ve come full circle, it’s refreshing to see gay men like this on TV again. There’s room for all of us. It’s strange how this dynamic changes in the eye of a gay viewer, however, when the actor playing this outré stereotype is straight – James Corden’s performance in The Prom is particularly egregious, and Cam, the most flamboyant and dramatic of the Modern Family gay couple, is played by a straight actor. However convincing, somehow his hysterical performance starts to feel problematic, and perhaps if his partner weren’t played by a gay actor, this would feel more uncomfortable. If this sounds oversensitive, it’s because many camp gay men remember the playground jokes and mean-spirited impressions of our voices; we can just about cope with being sent up by our own kind, a gay actor in this role would be fine (to many, not all), we wouldn’t have to question it. It’s punching across, not down. Largely, however, Cam and Mitchell work, but even then, it’s hard to overlook that their relationship is written as utterly sexless, whereas the sexualities of the two other (straight) couples – Jay and Gloria, and Phil and Claire – is much more overt. For Mitch and Cam, their sex life is treated as a joke, or shot down by Mitch’s father Jay before details get too spicy. This is clever, in that it looks like we’re laughing at Jay for his vestigial old-school bigotry, but what we’re really doing is sparing the audience at home from confronting their own homophobia and admitting they don’t want to hear it either.

It’s often the elephant in the room, that much casting of gay roles is done with a view to keeping things palatable for straight people. Many straight people struggle to connect with gay characters as it is – to have gay actors playing them risks alienating the audience. They’ll tolerate a gay storyline, perhaps, so long as the actors in the role are like *them*. (There is a conversation be had about straight women fetishising gay male couples on TV, too, but I’m not sure we have room to have it right here.) We often talk about lack of representation for LGBTQ+ people but never factor in the active role of straight people in this. Think of those who immediately protest if representation dips below 99.9%: one gay couple in a banking advert – likely played by straight actors – can see straight people running for the hills claiming extinction. (This also plays out with depressing regularity among white people when a Black person or other POC appears in a prominent role or advert, or men watching the football losing their minds if a commentator is a woman.)

Popstars didn’t stay closeted in the old days because they were ashamed of being gay – it was because it could harm their commercial potential. Much like being an actor, a degree of your success as a popstar can rest on your sexual availability to your audience. No female fan of George Michael stood much of a chance of bedding him even if he’d been straight, but the removal of hope could’ve spelled commercial disaster (although it probably wouldn’t have, he couldn’t have known that). I remember when George Michael died, many commenters online claimed he’d ‘hoodwinked’ female fans and extorted them by not disclosing his sexuality in order to sell records.

This brings us to a genuine problem when desiring to cast gay actors in gay roles – how do you factor in actors who aren’t out, or eschew labels? Do you force them to disclose their sexuality at the audition? Do you conduct a test for anyone claiming they’re gay but ‘doesn’t look that gay’ to you? This conundrum is the biggest threat to casting true to sexuality and is, like everything else, the fault of the patriarchy and, in particular, straight people. The closet exists to protect LGBTQ+ people from bigots, but also to repress us, and our sexuality is not defined by whether we’re out of the closet or not, but how we define ourselves. We can realise we are gay, for example, years and years before we’re ready to tell the world. I don’t know what the answer is, because nobody should have to disclose their sexuality and leave themselves vulnerable to prejudice to satisfy a quota. I guess it’s something we’ll have to work through, and perhaps bigger societal shifts will have to come first, but it’s no coincidence this sticking point is often brought up in bad faith. The Venn diagram of people who think ‘it’s just acting’ and ‘why do people need to come out in the 21st century, anyway’ is probably a perfect circle, because they masquerade under the idea that by treating everyone the same, they are being progressive. This argument about disclosing sexuality feels like a trap, another way of keeping us in our place. And whether we like it or not, so-called straight roles do not tend to carry the same significance as gay roles, especially white, male characters – straight roles are very rarely tied to sexuality or dependent on being played by a straight actor for authenticity.

When I wrote that it was a shame Jack Whitehall had been cast as Disney’s first openly gay character – did that film even come out? – many people, including gay men lectured me that ‘equality’ wasn’t about ‘getting special treatment’. They said true gay casting would only limit roles for gay people because they wouldn’t be allowed access to straight roles anymore. But as I said earlier, this would only be true if the playing field were already level, if LGBTQ+ people had the same opportunities as straight counterparts. If we could walk down the street and not be abused because of our sexuality, fine. If we were not discriminated against at work, or school, or by our families, PURELY because of our sexuality, then yes, sure. But we still are, quite often, and LGBTQ+ people who are Black or POC or women (or any combination) are combatting further prejudices.

I was lucky enough to receive previews for It’s A Sin, as I was reviewing it for The i. I was intending to watch only the first couple of episodes before I started writing my piece, but I was rooted to the spot, my boyfriend and I staying up until the early hours to watch the lot. Watching this vital retelling of LGBTQ history played so wonderfully by a mainly gay cast, I couldn’t put my finger on the feeling at first, but then I realised – it felt a bit like home. It’s A Sin has an impressive cast and all the performances – regardless of sexuality of actor and character – are stellar, with each aware of the importance of what they’re doing. There are no weak links. It feels so real. The stories are joyful, and harrowing, and unflinching, and there’s just that extra… something that the gay actors bring to their roles that made me, as a gay viewer, feel safe, respected, like it mattered.

Casting LGBTQ+ actors in LGBTQ+ roles is not a case of equality, it’s about making things right, justice. It will be a little harder, there are still some details to iron out, but we’ll have to think smarter. To achieve justice, it’s possible some straight people may experience sexuality-based inequality for the first time, or have to hand over some of their power to someone else, and step aside. The collateral damage is likely to be minor – perhaps one outstanding straight actor may miss out, but there will be plenty of other opportunities for him to show that brilliance. Any gay actor feels the weight of responsibility on them, too: do we really think casting gay actors will lead to overwhelming mediocrity? There’s plenty out there already, believe me. Screaming headlines tell us that diversity and representation of more overlooked communities is frightening, that it takes away opportunities, that it’s detrimental to oppressed people in the long run because it means we will never be treated as equals. This is not true.

As LGBTQ+ people, we’re only just becoming accustomed to seeing our stories in cinema and on TV. It’s wonderful that we have the chance to tell them, but we should get the chance to play them too. We can’t wait for the rest of the world to catch up, to throw us morsels and expect us to be grateful – we must take our rightful place at the centre of our own stories.

Main illustration: Ian Nicholson

It’s A Sin started on Friday 22 January at 9pm on Channel 4 and is a fantastic watch. The whole series is now available on All 4. .

Thank you for reading and supporting a gay writer. , with a , and if you’ve enjoyed this newsletter or anything I’ve ever done, you can , but there’s no obligation – your eyes and ears are enough.

Oh, and totally coincidentally, ‘It’s A Sin’ is my favourite song to sing at karaoke. Luckily, when I look back upon my life, it’s never with a sense of shame – thanks to generations of LGBTQ+ people before me standing up and being counted.

A different version of this piece was originally sent out to subscribers of my irregular newsletter The truth about everything* – to get my writing first, sign up!

Note: An edit was made to this piece since publication to remove a reference to Will & Grace, which I said had two straight actors playing gay lead roles – one actor has since come out as gay.

1 Comment

  1. I think you’re over-thinking it. The debate used to happen the other way around – “Can/should gay actors play straight characters?”. Despite all the evidence we have in retrospect that they were – ALL the time. They just had to be closeted to be allowed to do so.

    The fact is that gay people simply aren’t taken seriously as people. We are still just seen as ‘gay’. We are othered, and considered first and foremost for what we do in the bedroom (or wherever we do whatever we do).

    Richie sums it up in ‘It’s a Sin’. He wants to be Hamlet or Romeo, but if people knew he was gay he would just be The Fool. Until people stop fetishising or pathologizing us this isn’t going to find a universal resolve.

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