Queer Hollywood

Queer Actors Are Finally Playing Queer Roles — But Are They Getting Boxed In?

· Updated on March 23, 2023

It’s a debate as old as Hollywood — well, as old as gay movies, at least. Should queer roles be portrayed exclusively by queer actors? The industry is divided, but now that queer actors are getting work, another question is on the table: should they be considered for straight roles?

The simple answer is yes, of course they should. But the reality isn’t so straightforward. 

Many queers stars are grateful for the work they have, but don’t want to be pigeonholed into just one kind of role.

“Once they come out, lesbian, gay and bisexual actors have rarely been considered for straight leading roles,” GLAAD director of entertainment media Jeremy Blacklow told the LA Times. “We look forward to a time when LGBTQ actors can bring their full, authentic selves to their work without the fear of discrimination.”

That’s not to say queer actors aren’t getting their flowers. This year’s Emmy nominations, for example, are queerer than ever, with Mj Rodriguez becoming the first ever trans performer to be nominated in a major category for “Pose,” while Hannah Einbinder (“Hacks”), Billy Porter (“Pose”) and Samira Wiley (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) all nabbed noms for portraying queer characters as well.

It’s getting cast outside of queer roles to begin with that’s trickier. Take Wiley, who was closeted when cast as Poussey in “Orange is the New Black” but out when cast as Moira in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Both characters, like Wiley, are lesbians. She nearly didn’t audition for the role of Moira, worried about only being considered for queer roles.

“I went to Juilliard. I’m a trained, classical actor. I can do so many different things,” she said. “I didn’t want to be put into a category where I could only play LGBT characters. I wanted to just be seen as an actor. And I definitely want to be seen for straight roles too.”

Wiley added that queer people are just as qualified for straight roles as anyone else.

“That’s the lens we’ve all grown up looking through,” she said. “Every television show I’ve seen growing up, every picture in a magazine, every depiction of love.”

T.R. Knight, who plays a gay character in “The Flight Attendant,” shared a similar sentiment.

“Of course queer actors can play straight, straight actors can play queer,” he said. “The question is, ‘Is that opportunity being given equally, or even close to equally?’ And the answer to that is definitely ‘No.’”

Making things more equitable for queer actors falls to casting directors, Wiley and Knight agree. “When someone’s motive is inclusive casting, inclusive representation — straight or queer or anywhere on that spectrum,” said Knight, “they see things differently.”

So, what do casting directors have to say on the matter? As with all issues of representation, the solution is complex.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for every single situation,” said Kim Miscia, Emmy-nominated casting director for “The Flight Attendant.” “It’s a very complex issue that needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with sensitivity toward the creative process and an eye toward casting unrepresented people.”

“I would never not allow a gay person to play a straight role,” said Sharon Bialy, another casting director. “When I’m forced into that corner, my instinct is to say that’s not fair. I would like the world to be open to everybody.”

Where casting directors are less lenient is with trans roles, which those in the industry largely agree should be filled by trans performers — which has not always been the case, even recently.

“I fully believe trans people should play trans roles,” said Kelly Valentine Hendry, a queer activist and casting director for “Bridgerton.” Hendry did acknowledge that it’s not always black and white: “If the actor predominantly had to play their character’s gender at birth [through most of the story], and the character’s transition happened at the end, I think that could be up for discussion.”

Though cis actors are, rightfully, rarely if ever considered for trans roles, the same isn’t true in the other direction: trans people are generally up for consideration for cis characters.

“As I was recently discussing with a prominent showrunner, if a trans actor comes in, nails the role and is the best actor, then that’s who we should cast,” said Beth Bowling, another casting director for “The Flight Attendant.” “There is  a movement. I think Hollywood — the industry as a whole — is aware of that.”

The industry had better be aware of that, because queer actors are depending on those at the for a fair shot at success in entertainment.

“In any movement, people need strong allies,” explained Wiley. “It’s not gonna be just up to us.”

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