The Great Queer Acting Debate
Why queer characters should be played by queer actors
I was a few episodes into Love, Victor — Hulu’s new spinoff series of the film Love, Simon, which was an adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda — before I held my breath and mined Google for the answer to the question that’s always on the tip of my tongue when consuming a new piece of queer media:
Were the queer roles being portrayed by queer actors?
As is almost always the case, the answer to my question was a resounding no.
The actor playing Victor, the queer lead of the new spinoff series, identifies as heterosexual — just like the actor who played Simon in Love, Simon also identifies as heterosexual — just like the lead actors in Call Me By Your Name, Brokeback Mountain, and pretty much any of the (very few) mainstream pieces of queer media identify as heterosexual.
When viewed on an individual basis, one could dismiss it — this is acting, after all. One could argue that an actor doesn’t have to have experienced something personally in order to properly portray it — and this is true, to a point.
An actor doesn’t need to have experienced emotional or physical abuse to portray someone who was abused. An actor doesn’t have to have cheated on their partner to portray someone who was unfaithful. An actor doesn’t have to have grown up on a farm to portray a farmer.
These experiences can be studied, ingrained, and mimicked.
But the lived experience of a person who identifies as a member of a marginalized class can never, in my opinion, be properly portrayed by someone who is not also a member of that marginalized class.
Just as we have rightfully determined that White actors should never portray Black characters, so must we determine that non-queer actors should never portray queer characters.
It keeps queer actors out of the spotlight — and out of a job
Let’s be honest — movies and TV shows that center on the queer experience are only just now breaking into the mainstream, and very modestly at that.
Love, Simon — released in 2018 — was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance. Before then, indie projects like Call Me By Your Name and banner shows for streaming giants like Netflix’s Sense8 have also torn through the cishet noise to become sleeper hits — but it is still incredibly rare for LGBTQ stories to be told on screens bigger than those in queer folks’ living rooms.
That scarcity is why it’s crucial to use these limited opportunities for popular representation to thrust queer actors into the spotlight, rather than uplifting the heterosexual, cisgender voices we have been hearing from since the advent of the moving picture.
There is no shortage of LGBTQ actors struggling to get roles — let alone roles that represent their lived experiences — so why are we feeding what meager scraps this industry has for this community to those who are already feasting?
It perpetuates dangerous stereotypes through false portrayals
When Eddie Redmayne was nominated for the Academy Award of Best Actor for his role as a transgender woman in The Danish Girl in 2015, I remember feeling deeply unsettled.
Here was a straight, cisgender man being publicly praised and acknowledged for his bravery in portraying an identity that was not his to emulate, even as an actor on film.
When cishet audiences see a cisgender man playing a transgender woman, it reinforces the culturally-instilled belief that transgender women are just men playing dress-up. When Eddie Redmayne turns up at an award show as a man, wiped clean of the hair and makeup that allegedly “turned him into a woman” for the film, we are reminded that it was all for fun — and all is well.
For transgender women — particularly transgender women of color — who are beaten and killed at alarming rates for being authentic to who they are, all is not well.
Imagine if, instead of Eddie Redmayne, a real transgender woman was given the opportunity to play that role — and when she showed up to an award show, still a transgender woman, she reinforced the existence of successful trans women instead of invalidating their experiences as a fun little pet project in which a cisgender man can stretch his creative chops.
That representation could, quite literally, save lives.
It leads to inauthentic storytelling
Michael Cimino, the heterosexual actor who plays the gay teenage lead in Love, Victor, told PEOPLE magazine that he consulted his gay cousin to add an authentic touch to his role. He even went so far as to say this consultation was “very special” for him.
What is very special to me, as a member of the queer community, is seeing queer people portraying queer roles.
While I vaguely enjoyed the 10 episodes of Love, Victor, I couldn’t help but feel like it was the most watered-down coming out and coming-of-age story I’ve seen— which was not aided by Cimino’s flat performance.
Instead of celebrating Victor when he first kissed a boy or first came out to a friend, I was instead focused on Cimino’s emotionless portrayal of the deeply personal, unlearnable experiences of a queer teenager.
The best way to authentically tell queer stories is to cast actors who have actually lived through them — not to, once again, allow a queer role to be a creative exercise for someone who doesn’t understand the oppression behind it.
That’s a wrap
Acting is a touchy subject, and the idea of queer roles needing to be played by queer characters is a weighty debate with valid points on both sides — but progress is being made toward true representation.
Darren Criss — an actor known for playing gay characters on shows like Glee and American Crime Story despite identifying as straight — has publicly stated that he will no longer play queer roles, as he wants to give that space to real queer folks.
Shows like FX’s Pose are making a point to cast gay and transgender people for the numerous queer roles on the show, which is uplifting voices we never hear from and leading to a profoundly powerful story in the process.
Documentaries like Laverne Cox’s Disclosure on Netflix are illuminating the importance of true queer representation and the harmful side effects of getting it wrong.
That is the type of progress we need.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the myriad gay, bisexual, and transgender actors in the world be given a shot to portray themselves on screen as our stories are integrated more and more into mainstream media, rather than allowing cisgender, heterosexual people continue to take up the space we need for authentic queer representation.
Let us see our true selves on screen, rather than a mere shadow of who we are.