Some of the greatest queer films that came out of the 90s and 00s cast clearly non-queer actors. Birdcage. Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Two Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything. Transamerica. Milk. Brokeback Mountain. And yet, regardless of the straight and cis-gendered actors who were cast, their portrayal of the struggles of gay and trans life is extraordinary for the times.
The unconditional love between Armant and Albert when they sat at the retro bus stop and held hands after signing that “palimony” agreement.
The deep intricacies of transgenderism in Transamerica – from retraining your vocals to family pain – performed by cis-gendered actress Felicity Huffman.
And even the powerhouse performance in Brokeback Mountain by two straight actors and the harrowing story that ensued.
There’s a strength in all these movies, and that is the realistic portrayals of everyday queer people. Rarely have we seen a mainstream media representation that degrades the image of the gay or trans community in the past two decades. And yet, there are queer activists out there who are aiming to block non-queer actors from playing queer roles. As if there’s something bad about it.
Personally, I don’t think it’s warranted.
Of course, that’s not to say I’d rather non-queer actors play queer roles. In fact, I’m the total opposite.
I would love to see queer people play their own roles. Their personal experiences would bring heightened realism to the set. But it’s not the end of the world when a straight actor plays a gay man. Or if a cis woman plays a trans woman. In fact, if their performance is exceptional, it could bring more people into the light, where they can finally see how amazing queer people are.
Of course, the downside to this style of media representation is how trans actors are not getting offered transgender roles, nor are they being offered non-trans roles. Which shows that the problem is not the chosen actors, it’s the people who are doing the choosing.
Actors, like anyone in the entertainment industry, are just looking for their next desperate paycheck right now.
And yet, as we’ve seen last week with the case of Hugh Sheridan taking on the lead trans role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, those fueling its cancellation are attacking the actors rather than the people who do the choosing. And that doesn’t do much except for ending the show, possibly fueling resentment in the casting teams, directors and producers. Which means that if we want to see real change in how actual trans and gay actors are cast for queer roles, we need to deal with those who make the decisions.
But blocking non-queer actors from playing queer roles is not the way to bring about change. In fact, it’s brewing misinformation in the growing zeitgeist of cancel culture. And this isn’t fairing well for queer acceptance.
I’ll let psychotherapist Matthew Dempsey explain:
We can’t lambast straight actors for being chosen for queer roles because the pain falls back on us. It also fuels resentment in those outside the queer community – the same people we need to bridge gaps in equality.
So don’t fret when a non-queer person takes on a queer role. It’s okay if they do, provided they do it justice. And if they don’t, you have full authority to critique them on it!
In the meantime, perhaps we should give strength to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other queer actors and entertainers. Follow them on social media, like their posts, tag them in your own. Give them enough praise so casting teams simply cannot refuse their abilities.