Gay Newsweek magazine author Ramin Setoodeh created a firestorm of controversy as he suggested in his April online article that audiences (including him) could not accept gay actors playing straight. For some reason (according to Setoodeh), those actors come off “wooden or insincere” as if they are hiding something about themselves. When I heard these comments I was a bit surprised and shocked. As a gay movie watcher – I am constantly used to seeing straight play gay. Some straight guys do a great job of playing
gay characters. But I think it can easily work the other way. All you have to do is turned to such actors as Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Sir Ian McKellen, Anthony Perkins and Sir John Gielgud. These actors have proven time and time again that your personal lifestyle doesn’t have to affect your ability to “act” or “play a role.” It is not about your personal life, it is about your ability to act and play a role – to step outside of yourself and into the role of another character.
But I think this questions points to a much larger issue that has not been addressed. I don’t think it’s about gay playing straight. I think it’s about our perception on exactly what “gay” is. The straight community for decades has always looked at gay and lesbian people through a very narrow lens. If you are a male, then you are probably a cross dressing, flaming, flamboyant guy. If you are a woman, you are butch or overly manly. So if perceptions govern reality, then your perception of gay and lesbian people directly translate to your opinion of them on-screen.
If your perception of gay men is swishy – then that is what you will see when they are acting no matter what they do. How they walk, how they talk, how they laugh will directly tie into your “swishy” image of gay men. If you believe all gay men are hair dressers and flight attendants – then if you see a gay actor playing some macho FBI agent – your perceptions and stereotypes of what gay represents will get in the way of seeing the actor for the role he is in – “playing a FBI agent.” If your perception of a lesbian is a car mechanic or woman with more balls than you will ever have – then that is what you will assume all lesbians are (lipstick lesbians be damned).
This is the mistake, in my opinion, Setoodeh is making in his article. He is a gay man caught up in the same stereotypes and perceptions that constantly keep LGBT folks from getting their fair share of the American pie. As a country, we now accept that black actors can play Presidents of the US or heads of companies. We now accept that women can lead police agencies or play roles of power-hungry business leaders.
If we have gotten past those stereotypes, we can get pass the ones of gay playing straight.
It use to be a time when gay actors were scarred to come out as they felt it would destroy their career. Now gay actors have to worry about if they come out, they will be typecast into gay only roles. How’s that for a double standard…..