Can heterosexual actors play LGBT roles now? Everything is complicated

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Editor’s Note: This article is intended as a sister piece to our article Why It’s Still A Problem For Cis Actors To Play Trans Roles and is not intended to exclude trans and non-binary people from the conversation, but rather to acknowledge the different difficulties that they face.

In the past few years, there’s been a lot of contentious debate regarding the issue of straight actors taking on lesbian, gay, or bisexual roles, but, is it actually okay or even appropriate for a straight actor to play these characters? Truthfully, it’s a somewhat complicated issue, with no one clear answer. In the past few years, a variety of straight and LGBTQ+ actors have portrayed queer characters, both historical and fictionalized ones, receiving a contradictory swath of criticisms or praise, depending on each performance.

Of course, when it comes to transgender characters specifically, actors like Eddie Redmayne who starred in director Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl have come under rightful fire for electing to portray transgender characters despite being cisgender themselves. The practice of having cis actors portraying trans characters seems to be in decline at this point, and it’s a positive shift for all as it makes for more authentic portrayals, avoids risks of stereotyping, and gives more opportunities for trans actors. However, when it comes to lesbian, gay, and bi/pan+ characters, there is a wider gray area.

Related: Why LGBTQ+ Representation Is So Important In Media

While there has been a rightful push towards seeing more LGBTQ+ actors portraying queer characters, the question of whether or not it’s okay for straight actors to ever play LGBTQ+ roles is still relatively contested, particularly as there seems to be more demand for movies and larger franchises like the MCU to include more LGBTQ+ identities in their stories. As there are a wide variety of examples to parse out and reexamine in exploring this topic, conflicting answers to this question tend to arise with each example. Let’s take a look at some examples of LGBTQ+ representation in films and television, and how each speaks to this question.

LGBTQ+ Roles Have Often Been Played By Straight Actors

In the past, many LGB roles have been played by straight actors, receiving mixed acclaim and criticism depending on the role and characterization. As an example, Nick Robinson’s portrayal of a closeted gay teen in Love, Simon was mostly received positively, with the film largely being appreciated for its sensitive portrayal of the experience of coming out. Similarly, Trevante Rhodes was also praised for his grounded, emotional portrayal of Adult Chiron in Moonlight, despite identifying as straight himself.

While Love, Simon does share some mistakes found in high school LGBTQ+ dramas, what perhaps makes this portrayal feel grounded, despite having been played by a straight actor, is director Greg Berlanti’s lived-in approach to the material. As a gay man himself, Berlanti’s impact on the realism of the film was undoubtedly invaluable. However, conversely, Moonlight was directed by Barry Jenkins, who himself is straight, and yet the film has been praised almost universally for its excellent portrayal of the queer experience. So, when it comes to straight actors taking on queer roles, there are examples of positively received performances that are directed by and performed by straight and LGBTQ+ directors and actors in tandem.

Projects Benefit From Casting Openly-Queer Actors

Conversely, while A-list straight actors and larger franchises like Star Wars have received both acclaim and criticism for their portrayals of queer characters, more recently, smaller projects have benefited from casting more openly-queer actors. More specifically, movies like Fire Island have received praise for enlisting a queer cast to play its LGB characters. As films like Fire Island also, as a whole, speak to singularly queer experiences, having actors that can identify with those struggles can help artistically elevate the material.

Related: DC Vs. Marvel Who Is Better At LGBTQ+ Representation In Movies?

Additionally, films like Billy Eichner’s romantic comedy Bros have received positive feedback for including an entirely queer ensemble of actors playing both straight and queer characters. It seems that as more opportunities arise for LGBTQ+ actors to represent themselves, the films that present these opportunities also stand to benefit from a critical perspective. There are aspects to the queer experience that are best understood and expressed by people who have gone through them. While it is possible for straight actors to deliver great and authentic performances in LGB roles, there is an unquestionable benefit to casting someone who has their own lived experience to draw on in their performance.

A Change In Awareness Has Opened Possibilities For Representation

There are a growing number of shows and projects today that highlight or examine LGBTQ+ characters and issues, but some of these still feature straight actors in title roles. Many of these projects have been well-received because the actors, regardless of their sexuality, now have a greater awareness of the importance of accurately representing queer characters, and are less likely to be governed by old limitations such as the Hay’s Code which gave rise to the “Bury Your Gays” trope. As they are more aware and freer to explore diverse identities that are not as controversial as they once were, there has been a shift towards an individual actor’s sexuality being less relevant to the roles that they play, and that has not hindered the creation great LGBTQ+ movies and TV shows worth watching.

As an example, Suranne Jones, who plays the lesbian historical figure and protagonist Anne Lister in Gentlemen Jack, identifies as straight. However, she has gone on record in the past to cite how seriously she takes the impact of the show when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation, and how queer audiences have positively responded to the series as a whole. Both the creators behind the Gentlemen Jack TV series, which has been largely well-received, and the actor portraying its title character are keenly aware of the impact the show has on LGBTQ+ audiences, and their awareness of their position seems to have positively impacted how they portray queer characters.

Queer Roles Still Need To Avoid Old Stereotypes

However, regardless of who is playing a queer role, one element to be considered as films and TV shows continue to incorporate more LGB characters is purposeful and inadvertent stereotyping, or even throwaway nods to LGBTQ+ identities. In the case of some roles like Roger DeBris in film adaptations like 2005’s The Producers, a role played by the late Gary Beach, a gay man himself, campiness and satirical takes on stereotypes can be successful. However, when an LGB role that relies on stereotypes is portrayed by a straight actor, it can often feel harmful or detrimental.

Related: Has Star Trek’s Sulu Always Been Gay? It’s Complicated

The obvious example of something like this would be James Corden in The Prom. While the actor who originally portrayed Barry Glickman in the stage version (Brooks Ashmanskas) was openly gay, Corden is straight. In turn, the fact that the role of Glickman is characterized as overtly flamboyant and relies on stereotypical mannerisms (mannerisms sometimes pejoratively associated with queer people) decidedly makes Corden’s performance so universally disliked, and feel tactless and offensive.

Overall, the issue of straight actors playing LGB roles and characters is thoroughly complex. In many ways, writ large, it’s favorable to include or cast queer actors to play queer roles, particularly when the story of the film explores the singularity of the LGB experience. However, with the proper sensitivity, there is room for straight actors to play queer characters in TV shows and movies. When it comes to the question of whether straight actors can play lesbian, gay, or bi/pan+ roles, it is not a simple yes or no answer. Ultimately, what is important is that the role is approached authentically and with an aim to providing an honest and reasonable representation. When that is the case, it seems reasonable for straight actors to take these roles.