For every straight actor whose career flopped after playing gay characters, there are countless more who received awards and acclaim for their “bravery.” Ever since Philadelphia star Tom Hanks won an Oscar for portraying a gay man suffering from HIV, heterosexual stars have heard their name called out by the Academy for their work in queer movies such as Milk and Call Me By Your Name.
While it’s commendable that more LGBTQ stories are finally reaching our screens, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that heterosexual and cisgender actors are receiving all of the plaudits. Sure, acting is all about tackling roles outside of one’s everyday experience, but this excuse doesn’t hold out when you consider that queer actors are being shut out from the kind of roles that they’re literally born to play.
However, there are a growing number of gay actors pushing back against Hollywood’s insistence on “straightwashing,” tackling a number of queer roles that align more closely with their own sexual identities. Join us as we take a closer look at the careers of gay men who have played gay more than once in TV and film, helping to tear through stereotypes and break down barriers every time they appear on our screens.
Long before Guillermo Diaz appeared on our screens each week as a gay character in Scandal, the American actor played a drag queen in the 1995 movie Stonewall, which was received far better than the 2015 film of the same name. Diaz has been out for his entire career and is open to playing both gay and straight roles on screen. During an interview with Gay Star News, he declared that sexuality shouldn’t be an issue when playing different parts, reminding the outlet of times he played straight in Law & Order: SVU and even the Britney Spears video for “I Wanna Go.”
Rupert Everett notably played a young gay man very early on in his career for the movie Another Country, which was a groundbreaking move for any gay actor back in 1984. However, it wasn’t until Everett took the role of Julia Roberts’ gay colleague in My Best Friend’s Wedding that he became more prominent in Hollywood, which in turn led to a role as Madonna’s gay best friend in The Next Best Thing. These parts were fairly unsubstantial in comparison to his role in Another Country and Everett has claimed since that Hollywood turned its back on him after he publicly came out as gay. In the years since, Everett has played school headmistress, Camilla Fritton in the St. Trinians franchise and starred as the gay playwright Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince, a film he wrote and directed himself.
While gay actors have shied away from queer roles in the past to avoid being typecast, Russell Tovey recently told The Guardian that “Being gay has made my career,” and it’s hard to argue with this claim. Before his super gay kiss with Wentworth Miller in last year’s Arrowverse crossover, Tovey won audiences over in the role of Kevin for HBO’s groundbreaking series, Looking. Since then, he’s continued to tell gay stories through his work in the TV show Quantico, a lead part in a gay football movie called The Pass and also on stage for the play Angels In America, too. Don’t expect Tovey to stop representing queer men on screen any time soon either, as he also told The Guardian that “there are a billion fascinating wonderful stories to tell with gay characters. A billion adventures to have.”
After winning a Tony nomination for his breakout role in The Book of Mormon, Andrew Rannells took on a range of gay characters on TV, from his narcissistic turn as Elijah on HBO’s Girls to the lead in Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal. During an interview with Vulture, the out and proud star revealed that he personally fought for his role in the latter show, telling Murphy that if you’re going to tell this story of gay parents on network TV, “hire a gay guy.” In the same interview, Rannells also reminded readers that there are “all sorts of different gay people,” so playing more than one queer character is anything but limiting for his career.
Zachary Booth played gay early in his career as a teenager on the show What Goes On, but one of his most memorable roles to date is still the role of Paul in the Ira Sachs film Keep The Lights On, which remains one of the most underrated queer movies of the decade. In the years that followed, Booth turned in an electrifying performance as a homeless gay drifter in The Revival and most recently starred alongside Alan Cumming in After Louie. To promote the film, Booth spoke to Logo about his coming out process and reminded readers that “there’s still a lot of work to do with homophobia that exists in Hollywood”, despite the recent wave of queer movies that are currently winning accolades at the Oscars.
Whether you know him best as the voice of Paddington Bear or as Q from the James Bond franchise, the openly gay British actor Ben Whishaw has won acclaim for a number of queer roles, too. Starring as the lead in both BBC’s London Spy series and the film Lilting, Whishaw’s grounded performances lend his work an authenticity that’s won over critics and audiences alike. Surprisingly enough though, Whishaw has previously declared that he’s “baffled” by the debate over straight actors playing gay roles, explaining that at the end of the day, acting is just acting.
Best known for playing Magneto in the X-Men franchise and Gandalf in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, Ian McKellen has worked tirelessly for LGBTQ rights in recent years while drawing attention to the plight of queer people who still aren’t accepted for who they are. Aside from breaking the mould and playing a gay older man in the sitcom Vicious, McKellen was also nominated by the Academy for playing gay author James Whale in Gods and Monsters. During an interview with The Guardian, the veteran stage actor reminded readers that he’s been nominated twice by the Oscars now, and yet still no openly gay man has ever won. “My speech has been in two jackets,” he told the paper back in 2016. “I’m proud to be the first openly gay man to win the Oscar. I’ve had to put it back in my pocket twice.”
Zachary Quinto played gay in the short-lived sitcom So Notorious and then again in Season 1 of American Horror Story: Murder House, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he openly revealed his sexuality to the world. During an interview with the New Yorker, Quinto explained that his role in the Broadway play Angels In America is what inspired him to come out and discuss the struggles that his character and other Americans, both straight and gay, face today. A few years later, Quinto also co-starred in the movie I Am Michael alongside James Franco, and together, their work grabbed headlines thanks to their involvement in a threesome scene that also included another openly gay star, Charlie Carver.
Wilson Cruz is most well known for his game-changing role as the openly gay teenager Ricky Vasquez on My So-Called Life back in the ‘90s, becoming one of the first openly gay men to reflect their sexuality on screen. Speaking to Time, Cruz revealed that the part “literally saved my life. It saved my relationship with my family, and it changed the trajectory of my career.” Since then, Cruz broke new ground during the mid-season finale of Netflix’s Star Trek: Discovery, playing medical officer Dr. Hugh Culber who shares a kiss with Anthony Rapp’s character on screen. Never before had there been a male-on-male kiss in Star Trek, which meant that Cruz and Rapp boldly went where no one has gone before in the most literal sense possible.