Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The Real Issue Facing Gay Actors

Russel T. Davis, veteran British screenwriter behind TV classics like “Queer as Folk” and the renewed “Doctor Who”, has recently caused some heated debate with the remark that only gay actors should play gay roles.

“I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are NOT there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance… It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020… You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”

— Russel T. Davis speaking to Radio Times.

And as always is the case, the internet (namely Twitter) had a field day.

Defenders remarked how James Cordan’s recent campy performance in Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” was beyond stereotypical.

Detractors remarked that roles should go to whoever is the best fit for it.

I’m not interested in either argument. Meritocracy rarely holds up to scrutiny, and one bad example (especially one intended to be comically obnoxious in context) doesn’t prove anything.

I try to live by a simple mantra when it comes to issues; does this solve the problem?

Does reserving gay roles exclusively for gay performers solve the problem of under-representation and stereotype? No.

Now, it can ensure that these roles have a certain level of life experience behind them, but now we’ve limited a generation of talented performers to auditioning for already coveted and competitive roles. Stories of Hollywood being a Liberal Hell hole are greatly exaggerated, as many LGBT performers know all to well, so to pigeon-hole these talented individuals into a niche is not only destructive to fostering any sort of supportive community within the creative industries, but insultingly insinuates that the gay experience is exclusive to just their sexuality and societal reactions to it.

Gay people, shockingly, know what it’s like to live and experience things outside of their own sexuality (you know, like any fucking human would). Imagine how insulting it would be if I said your life was SO different from my own that I can’t possible understand with empathy, openness, a reasonable among of intelligence, and a willingness to shut up and listen.

And besides, any gay actor will tell you that more than a few of these roles are written and directed to be stereotypical. What are they to do? Reject a job they may sorely need?

So what, in my brilliant, majestic, and humble opinion, is the real issue facing gay actors?


There was an interesting study done largely on crime drama shows (the CSI’s, the Law & Order’s, the Criminal Minds, the NCIS’, etc). While each show, individually, made it a point to never show any one race as being inherently criminal (so each episode showed a different race for the criminal), collectively, however, they overwhelmingly showed Black characters as criminals more often than any other races.

On top of that, the Black characters were more likely to be shown committing violent crimes (murder, theft, trafficking) while White characters were more likely to be shown committing “lesser” crimes (manslaughter, smaller crimes gone wrong, white-collar crimes, blackmail). I’m not saying that these shows had racist intent, but they collectively were guilty of falling on tropes. And while no one show is guilty of not hiring more diverse writers, collectively they are.

Mulan fell into this same trap. While it was shot largely in China (and nearby a concentration camp), starring amazing Chinese talent, the four (count ’em, four) screenwriters hired didn’t even do any historical or cultural research, leading to the film being panned both inside and outside China, ridiculed for everything from Orientalism, fetishizing “honour”, and confusing Chinese mythology and practices for European interpretations.

Ironically, the key to better representation for people in front of the screen is better representation behind the screen. On average, out of 300 scripts read at the studio level, only 26 scripts are written by women. According to the WGA’s 2018 Inclusion report, 1% of staffed writers have disabilities, despite making up 19% of that population. That same report found that agents and studio exec repeatedly displayed a policy of not considering LGBT+ writers as “diverse”, forcing the guild to issue the following statement, describing LGBT+ writers as;

…without question members of a historically underrepresented group who are still fighting for equal rights and who still face hiring discrimination.

— Writers Guild of America West.

Outside of Ryan Murphy and Russel T. Davis, can you name, off the top of your head, another gay screenwriter/showrunner?

I’m not saying that hiring more diverse writers will magically solve the problem. Nor am I saying that future LGBT+ writers need to make it their mission to write solely gay character. But we do need more writers who can write characters “casually”, who have no problem just writing a character as gay, or straight, or Black, or Asian, or female, or disabled without it being a defining characteristic or played to for laughs or Oscar buzz.

Actors such as Lamorne Morris and Viola Davis have bee praised for their characterisation in shows like “New Girl” and “How To Get Away With Murder” (respectively) first and foremost. While the shows do touch on topics exclusive to the Black experience, these characters are written and performed with more nuance and motivation than if the role was exclusively intended for a specific race. The characters came first. The representation was a bonus. And shocker; both roles were written by women.

If you really do believe in meritocracy, the idea that the best person should get the job, than you should agree that all writers should be expected to step up their game, put in the work and effort, and really ask “Does this character have to be X? Can it be made better by making them Y?”

If you really believe there’s a generation of actors who can’t play a character outside of their sexuality or stereotype, wouldn’t you want to give those actors the chance to learn something, to really commit to portraying an honest and authentic character people can empathise with? In other words; do their job better.

Regardless, both scenario requires more involvement and effort on the part of those behind the screen to offer these opportunities to all actors, especially those who are gay; writers, producers, directors, execs, and casting.

Speaking on Netflix’s adaption of “The Boys In The Band”, director Joe Mantello mentioned that while the audition was open to both straight and gay actors, the roles ultimately went to an exclusively gay cast, describing the outcome as unintentional but fortunate. Best of both worlds; the best actors got the part and inclusion was met. And that’s coming from a gay director… who worked on Law & Order.



Writer. Opinions are my own.

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