Straight Actors Playing Queer: Are We There Yet?

Straight Actors Playing Queer: Are We There Yet?
Image: Image: Cate Blanchett in Carol, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl.

In a debate that has raged longer than Cher’s career, the LGBTQI+ community have long debated the legitimacy and appropriateness of ‘playing queer’, or straight actors being cast in LGBTQI+ roles. 

Will & Grace star Eric McCormack recently ignited conversations with his comments, stating: “If gay actors weren’t allowed to play straight actors, Broadway would be over.”

As did Rebel Wilson, who said in a recent UK radio interview, “It’s going into this territory of like saying, ‘Well, only straight actors can play straight roles, and gay actors can play gay roles,’ which I think is total nonsense… I think you should be able to play any role that you want.”

Guilt over playing queer

Meanwhile Red, White & Royal Blue actor Nicholas Galitzine – who has essentially built his career on playing queer characters – expressed his feelings about playing these roles.

“I felt a sense of uncertainty sometimes about whether I’m taking up someone’s space, and perhaps guilt,” he said in a recent interview.

With the endless debate once again rearing its head, it begs the question: have we reached a point in our community’s history where heterosexual and cisgender people can take on queer roles, and we feel okay about it? Are we there yet?

Progress, but we now fight new wave of anti-LGBTQI+ sentiments

In 2024, we as a community are fighting a tidal wave of anti-LGBTQI+ sentiments around the world, yet in the last fifteen years alone, we have seen enormous progress with on-screen representation.

Queer-centred film and television has become almost commonplace, and so too have queer actors playing roles central to these productions.

Chris Colfer broke new ground as he shot to fame on Glee playing out gay teenager Kurt Hummel. Mark Indelicato shone as gay teenager Justin Suarez on Ugly Betty while Mitch and Cam shed new light on family representations for same-sex couples on Modern Family.

Shows like Euphoria, Heartstopper, Glamourous, Queer As Folk, Looking, Love Victory, Drag Race, Heartbreak High, The L Word and Please Like Me have been hugely successful television programs with strong LGBTQI+ storylines.

To name just a few proud LGBTQI+ actors who’ve become household names: Billy Eichner, Luke McFarlane, Billy Porter, Alan Cumming, Cynthia Nixon, Murray Bartlett, Ben Platt, Bowen Yang, Kristen Stewart, Jodie Foster, Sarah Paulson, Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes, Lily Tomlin, Jane Lynch, Cherry Jones. 

And gay actors have made history in leading heterosexual roles. Jim Parsons has dominated prime time television in his role as Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, and Neil Patrick Harris is unforgettable for his portrayal of the womanising Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother.

There is not enough room on this page to cover them all, but in short: we are bearing witness to the tide turning.

So, are we there yet?

As a community we are starting to find a consistent voice on screen, with our stories being told with depth, care and diversity. It’s starting to feel as though being a member of our community is not the hindrance to actors it once was. And whilst there still may be a ways to go, the question still remains: are we there yet?

Quite simply, we can’t demand that only queer people play queer roles forever. We have to reach the summit at some point.

When will we draw the line in the sand? At some stage, we have to concede that the task of telling our stories can be given to the best person for the job, queer or otherwise. We must find a place where we can rest, and feel assured that the industry will do right by us when they tell our stories.

To me, it feels like we’re almost there.

Stars such as Darren Criss and Nicholas Galitzine have time and time again proven their ability to deliver powerful performances in gay and queer roles. Do we need to begrudge them these achievements?

Trans actors in trans roles: a battle unto itself

But make no mistake, I do think casting for trans actors in trans roles is a battle unto itself. In the current political climate, where the transgender community faces daily attacks – casting of trans roles needs far deeper consideration. How any cisgender actor could manage to understand the complex nuances of the lived experiences of a trans person remains to be seen. 

Whilst the trans community is still on the front lines of a culture war battleground, their stories should still be told by their community. 

Transgender voices should now hold the microphone, and be afforded the attention we have spent a long, long time solely focused on the LGB representation – that we have now effectively achieved.

So – are we there yet? I believe for some segments of our community, critically important battles have been conquered. But as a community united: the war is not wholly won.

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One response to “Straight Actors Playing Queer: Are We There Yet?”

  1. For storytelling authenticity it’s preferable to have an openly gay actor. Good storytellers will want this. The responsibility belongs to the employers. Good unions will fight for that without putting the guilt onto actors,

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