Yes, it’s called acting—but why are so few of us telling our own stories?
Another Oscar season has come and gone, and while it will take many of us a few more months to fully recover from Glenn Close’s seventh Oscar loss, for the most part, the Academy Awards have faded from memory.
However, there’s one remnant from the Oscar season I find myself thinking about a lot—and it’s an article recently published by the Advocate with a surprising statistic: of the 20 actors nominated in the Oscars’ four acting categories, seven of them were playing LGBTQ characters.
That’s a whopping 35%, which seems great. Three of those performances (Olivia Colman in The Favourite, Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, and Mahershala Ali in Green Book) would go on to win. That’s 75%, of the four acting categories, for the math-challenged.
The disappointing part is that of the 20 nominated actors, only one of them identifies as LGBTQ (Lady Gaga came out as bisexual in 2009).
And while many, if not most, Advocate readers (including myself) objected to their description of the phenomenon as “gayface,” I was struck by the fact that America seems increasingly willing to hear and celebrate our stories, so long as straight people are the ones who get to tell them.
And it’s not just the actors who are cast to play us. To the best of my knowledge, the screenwriters and directors who put these performances on paper and then on film were straight, with two exceptions: Jeff Whitty, who shares writing credits for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Bryan Singer, who was fired from directing Bohemian Rhapsody for “absence and clashing with the cast and crew,” although a lawsuit alleging the rape of a 17-year old boy in 2003 might have also had something to do with that (and we will discuss Mr. Singer no further; he can please go away now).
This is not a new conversation for our community. In the 80s and 90s, playing an LGBT character became almost synonymous with Oscar bait. The only performance that resulted in a more predictable nomination was playing someone with a disability—but that’s probably because a lot of people back then believed being gay was a disability. At the very least, those who played gay were consistently praised for their “bravery”—playing gay wasn’t hazardous to actors’ health, but there remained a persistent belief that taking a queer role could be very hazardous to their careers.
Using the Oscars as an imperfect measuring stick, it’s entirely depressing that only two openly queer actors were nominated for playing queer roles: Ian McKellen gave a heartbreaking performance as James Whale in 1988’s Gods & Monsters (he was robbed, by the way), and the Academy spoiled the big reveal in The Crying Game (1992) for anyone who hadn’t yet seen it when they nominated Jaye Davidson in the Best Supporting Actor category.
So, a lot of straight people are playing queer—so what? That’s why they call it acting, I can hear you say, and you make an excellent point. In truth, I’m more concerned with the folks who are writing and directing these movies, plays, and television shows. I’m concerned with who gets to tell our stories. Despite the incredible gains that our community has made in the mere five decades since the Stonewall riots, the world is hardly safe for LGBTQ people. We are still widely misunderstood. And who gets to tell our stories is important.
And actors, like writers and directors, are storytellers. We don’t expect them to play themselves all the time, and we wouldn’t respect them if they did. And sometimes, it’s complicated. Recently, a UK revival of The Color Purple announced that the lead role of Celie would be played by Oluwaseyi Omooba, the daughter of an infamous British pastor who advocates for conversion therapy and other horrors.
Almost immediately, Hamilton actor Aaron Lee Lambert unearthed a Facebook post by Omooba in which she stated clearly that no one is born gay and that homosexuality is “wrong.” The post quickly went viral, and Omooba did not respond.
One might very well wonder how those views would impact her ability to play an explicitly lesbian character, but we won’t need to wonder any longer: one week after her casting was announced, the producers announced that Omooba would be replaced.
And yet, straight actors will continue to play gay roles; that won’t change anytime soon. I only hope that when they do, they understand that our stories are in their hands, and they appreciate what a responsibility that is. And if more out actors got work, that would be okay, too. ▼
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator living in Washington D.C. and co-host of a weekly podcast about pop culture.