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Only gay actors in gay roles – is it time for that now?

It almost felt like betrayal when actor Sean Penn said in an interview at the beginning of this year that men have become “effeminate” in 2022. Penn actually won an Oscar for his role as Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians in the US, and now casually stated that “cowardly genes” lead some men to wear skirts.

I did not know what I heard and many with me. How could he have such an archaic view of what it means to be a man, I wondered. He had himself in making Milk somewhat engrossed in his character?

For the first time I understood why some people no longer want gay characters to be played by straight actors – a call that has been heard louder in recent years, but which I, as a gay man, had a different take on. Frequently heard arguments are that actors who are gay do not have equal employment opportunities, that heterosexual actors cannot put themselves in the position of homosexual characters and that the stories are still told from the outside – after all, the film makers do not base themselves on their own experience. I personally had no problems with it as long as the characters are portrayed respectfully and realistically and not only serve as interchangeable sidekicks or gimmicks, something that was the norm until the end of the last century. Besides, the whole idea behind acting is that you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, right?

Also read: Gay cinema is out of the niche

But now I suddenly realized that people like Penn make films about subjects that are not at all close to their heart, that they may not even understand, but that guarantee fame and film prizes.

While straight actors always saw it as the death knell for their career to play a homosexual character, the tide seemed to come after the success of Brokeback Mountain definitively turned in 2005. Lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were both nominated for an Oscar.

“I think after Brokeback, more actors consciously chose queer roles to make their film canon and legacy seem bigger,” said film connoisseur Erik Anderson last year in the British newspaper The Guardian† Largely because such a role could earn them many awards.”

Brokeback Mountain

For my own coming-out trajectory, Brokeback Mountain meaningful for other reasons. I was sixteen when the movie came out and I was so deep in the closet that I had a girlfriend. When we chose a movie from her DVD collection one evening, I wanted to Brokeback Mountain to see. Of course I didn’t say that. I ended up renting it from the video store when I was home alone. It was the first time I saw two men having sex on screen and the first time I could imagine myself in a movie romance. I didn’t care that the main characters were straight in real life. What did bother me was that a girl next door told me that she thought the sex scene between the two main protagonists was ‘dirty’ – much to the amusement of her parents. Finally a story that was about me and then my environment reacted like that.

I would never have dreamed of the lhbtq+ representation that there is in films and series in 2022. And now many viewers think it’s time for the next step: let those roles be played by people who are actually LGBTQ+.

With transgender characters, that call has been heard for longer than with gay roles. When Eddie Redmayne played a trans woman seven years ago in The Danish Girl he received a lot of criticism. He countered by stating that his previous movie character was “a man in his fifties with ALS” (Redmayne played physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything† By which he meant: I am not in real life either. Last year he returned to the comment: he would now reject The Danish Girl, although he made it “with the best intentions”, because in casting processes “there is no place at the table for many people”.

The one sex scene in Brokeback Mountain is not the most realistic

Actress and writer Jen Richards explains in the Netflix documentary Disclosure from 2020, on the representation of transgender people in Hollywood movies, explains why roles like Redmayne’s are problematic. „The public thinks [door deze films] about trans women as men with wigs and make-up in costume.” In other words, cisgender men (men who identify with their gender at birth) in such a role thus feed the mistaken idea that trans women are ‘men in disguise’. According to Richards, this could lead to more violence against this group.

80 percent of Americans have never met a transgender person, according to research by LGBTQ+ rights organization GLAAD. In the Netherlands there are no official figures available, but also in our own country there are certainly countless people who do not know trans people. If the trans woman from the film is also a trans woman on the red carpet and in interviews, this can contribute to a better image.

The increasing violence against transgender people underlines the urgency of Richards’ words. That is why I did join the call for trans roles to be played by trans people. With gay roles, the situation seemed less dire to me and others. In 2020 the films were Ammonite in Supernovain which heterosexual actors play same-sex couples, has received much acclaim.

almost caricatured

But change seems to be underway. In the same year, musical The Prom criticized because the heterosexual James Corden played a gay man in an almost caricatural way. On Paul Verhoeven’s ‘lesbian nun film’ Benedetta In 2021, we heard criticism that we previously heard in films about love between two women: that we clearly see that love, especially the sex scenes, through the objectifying, lustful eyes of a heterosexual man.

Directors are increasingly opting for a cast where every character who is LGBTQ+ is played by someone who is. Take the Dutch production ANNE+the American Pose or the British It’s A Sin† The romantic comedy will be released later this year Bros, the first gay romantic comedy released by a major film studio, in which all roles, including the heterosexual ones, are played by LGBTQ+ actors. It is also worth mentioning The Umbrella Academy: after the transition of protagonist Elliot Page, his character comes out as trans in the new season.

role models

Jojanneke van der Toorn, professor of social and organizational psychology and expert in the field of diversity and inclusion, conducted research into role models. When they’re missing, it can feel like you’re “not being seen or heard,” she says. “Not or hardly seeing yourself in films and series can send the signal that you do not belong,” she says on the phone. “After all, role models are people you look up to and who can inspire and motivate you, especially if they are similar to you in important ways. I can imagine it’s disappointing if someone you think represents your marginalized group turns out not to belong to that group. As a result, they may think that there is no place for them to tell their own story.”

Scarcity, according to Van der Toorn, that’s what it’s all about. “White, heterosexual, cisgender individuals without physical or mental disabilities have role models everywhere. A cisgender person playing a transgender role might not be such an issue if there were also countless trans actors who got such a role. But that is not the reality.”

GZ psychologist Martijn Kemna, who includes identity problems among LGBT+ people as his expertise, sees the consequences of the lack of role models in his practice. “The development of the identity of LGBTQ+ people comes to a standstill, which leads to shame or fear. If you don’t have examples, it can be very lonely.” But, says Kemna: “There are plenty of examples of LGBTQ+ people who grew up with other LGBTQ+ people in their environment and still struggled enormously with their sexuality or gender identity.”

Also read: Gay Tchaikovsky between Putin and Abramovich

In the documentary Disclosure, an excerpt from The Joan Rivers Show shown in which Rivers has several trans people as guests. One of them says in it: “All our lives we saw ourselves reflected through other people’s prisms. We heard people analyzing us, describing what our feelings were.”

The LGBTQ+ representation in films and series may have increased, but they are still often made with the view of non-LGBTQ people. That is also the case for Brokeback Mountain† That one sex scene is, that’s how I understand since I’ve had sex myself, for example, not the most realistic. And so it is only one, while the film contains several sex scenes between men and women.

I still think that banning straight actors from playing gays is a bit of a rigorous measure, but it would help if those actors were at least surrounded by filmmakers who do belong to the lhtbq+ community. Only then will our stories be told correctly and completely. And let’s allocate the roles more evenly. Perhaps in addition to heterosexual actors who play gay, actors who are actually gay will also get the chance to win an Oscar.

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