As Hollywood continues to cast straight actors in LGBTQ roles, the LGBTQ community is paying the price

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Frank Olito
·8 min read
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james corden prom
James Corden in "Prom." Netflix
  • Straight actors have long been praised for playing LGBTQ characters in TV shows and movies.

  • This controversial Hollywood practice causes confusion and anxiety in LGBTQ youth and trans people.

  • If straight actors continue to take LGBTQ parts, they need to do their research.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

When I saw "The Prom" on Broadway a few years ago, I was instantly enamored with the musical's energy, comedy, and celebration of the LGBTQ community.

So when the movie version dropped on Netflix in December 2020, I watched it immediately. I was glad to see it followed the musical's original plot about four Broadway stars who venture to a small town to help a lesbian student bring her girlfriend to prom. But there was one aspect I could not get past: James Corden.

Corden, a straight man, played Barry Glickman, the most flamboyant character in the ensemble. From the moment he first stepped into frame, the caricature was apparent. The performance was so stereotypical that, to me, it was borderline homophobic. In one scene, his character reveals he had to leave his childhood before coming out as gay. It irked me to know Corden had no real-life experience to draw from at that moment.

Many media outlets and people on social media panned the performance and called it offensive and hurtful.

Imagine my surprise when Corden wasn't admonished in any real way and was, in fact, nominated for a Golden Globe.

This isn't an isolated case. Hollywood has long been casting straight or cisgender actors in LGBTQ roles - and rewarding them for it. Meanwhile, the LGBTQ community has been paying the price.

Hollywood has a long history of casting straight actors in LGBTQ roles

A few decades ago, Hollywood was at the forefront of telling LGBTQ stories. In 1993, Tom Hanks played a gay man dying of AIDS in "Philadelphia," and in 1999, Hilary Swank gave a moving performance as a transgender man in "Boys Don't Cry."

At the time, the queer community saw this as progress. Hollywood's biggest stars were taking lead roles that showcased the LGBTQ experience - something that had largely never been done before.

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Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry." Fox Searchlight Pictures

Since then, countless straight actors have taken on LGBTQ roles and have been rewarded for them. For example, some have won Academy Awards, such as Charlize Theron for "Monster" in 2004, Sean Penn for "Milk" in 2009, and Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club" in 2014. Oscar nominations also went to Cate Blanchett for "Carol" and Eddie Redmayne for "The Danish Girl" in 2016.

But times have changed. As the LGBTQ community becomes more embraced, people are calling Hollywood's casting into question, saying LGBTQ writers, filmmakers, and actors should be able to tell their own stories.

After watching "The Prom," I realized we should be at a place where we don't need Corden to play a gay man. There are plenty of gay actors who could have done the job - probably better.

As Hollywood continues to reward problematic films, it's hurting LGBTQ youth

Although there aren't any studies on the topic, some mental health experts told Insider that when a younger person who is struggling with their sexual identity or gender watches an LGBTQ portrayal from a straight actor, they may experience disillusionment and confusion.

"Seeing straight and cisgender actors portray LGBTQ characters may reinforce the false idea that LGBTQ identity is a choice," Dr. Matthew Kridel, a postdoctoral fellow at Augusta University who specializes in LGBTQ psychology, said. "While straight and cisgender actors can leave behind the struggles of an LGBTQ character at the end of a project, LGBTQ viewers cannot."

Kridel said this can lead to "feelings of isolation, shame, and stigmatization for LGBTQ viewers."

Dr. Christy Kane, a mental health specialist based in Utah, said the practice can also lead to high levels of anxiety among young people. Kane said she has worked with some patients who felt confused because they identified as gay but didn't act like the gay characters they saw on TV.

The problem here, she said, is that some of these actors lean into stereotypes, perpetuating them. Beyond Corden's acting in "Prom," Josh Gad in 2015's "Wedding Ringer" and Sacha Baron Cohen's character in 2009's "Bruno" are other examples of LGBTQ characters crafted out of stereotypes.

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Sacha Baron Cohen in "Bruno." Universal Pictures

As young people look to understand more about themselves, they turn to these Hollywood portrayals. According to Kane, if the young person doesn't meet that certain portrayal, it creates more "stress, more anxiety, more confusion" for them.

"All humans fear misunderstanding and stereotyping, and such is compounded when Hollywood enlists those not of a certain designation to pretend and play as if they are," Kane said. "Yes, there can be interviews and research, but in truth, if they are not your shoes, no matter how much you try to wear them, they just will not fit."

Trans people are also at risk of mental health disorders from watching cisgender people play out their experiences

Over the past decade, key roles in major TV shows and movies about trans people - including "Transparent," "The Danish Girl," and "3 Generations" - have been played by cisgender people.

Peppermint, the first transgender woman to originate a principal role on Broadway, said she understands firsthand how Hollywood struggles to get the trans experience right in these shows and movies.

"We need to recognize that art plays a role in how marginalized people are treated and viewed by society," Peppermint told Vice in 2018. "A lot of the time, Hollywood makes these stories about queer, trans, and minority folks, and they get it wrong: there's offensive material, tragic storylines, one-dimensional, stereotypical characters with little depth."

As a result of the inaccurate storylines and false representations in media, Kridel said trans people are vulnerable to stereotypes in TV shows and movies, especially when they are portrayed by cisgender actors.

In a highly controversial film, "Adam," in 2019, the main character pretends to be a transgender person to get a girl.

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Benedict Cumberbatch in "Zoolander 2." Paramount Pictures

"A common stereotype is trans identity as a trick - that trans people portray a different gender for nefarious purposes," Kridel said. "To have a cisgender actor portray a trans person may reinforce this stereotype. They were simply tricking us because at the end of the day they can put aside the character and resume their life as a cisgender person."

Kridel added that trans characters are also "fetishized or portrayed as villains," like Buffalo Bill in 1991's "Silence of the Lambs," which further hurts those who identify as trans.

This controversial issue is a lot more nuanced than calling for an overall ban of straight actors in LGBTQ roles

There is the argument that acting is all about playing someone you are not, so it makes sense for straight actors to pretend to be LGBTQ for a role as long as they do their research and make it as truthful and authentic as possible.

Ann Thomas, who founded the first talent management agency in Hollywood to work exclusively with transgender actors, said it's both "encouraging and disappointing" when cisgender people are cast in trans roles.

She remembers when Matt Bomer - a cisgender man who identifies as gay - was cast in the small budget film "Anything" as a transgender woman in 2017, replacing a trans actress who was originally cast in the role before the studio wanted a bigger name. Thomas said Bomer worked with a trans consultant for a month before shooting and even dressed like a woman in public to prepare for the part.

"That's the kind of thing I like to see," Thomas said. "He had a very strong idea of what it's like to be trans, and it added a lot to the story. It didn't make his performance perfect, from our perspective, but it helped a lot."

If the LGBTQ roles are handled authentically, some argue that banning straight, cisgender actors from all LGBTQ roles is a slippery slope.

"It's almost reductive to say straight actors can't play gay characters because that implies an 'othering' of gay people, or that gay people are so fundamentally different than straight people that one could never play the other. I don't believe that to be true at all," Zack Sharf and Jude Dry at IndieWire wrote last year.

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Matt Bomer in "Anything." Great Point Media

To some extent, Thomas agrees with this idea. She doesn't think we should be banning straight actors from LGBTQ roles but instead be focusing efforts on putting trans actors into straight or undefined roles to increase visibility. She said the actor can then tell their own story straight to their fans via social media.

"When you start sticking us into categories, people reject us and view us as subhuman," she said. "I want us to get more acceptance worldwide."

The debate whether or not straight actors should be banned from LGBTQ roles in Hollywood will likely continue for years. However, there needs to be a distinction between actors who put effort into taking the LGBTQ roles seriously, and the actors - like Corden in "The Prom" - who perhaps just relied heavily on stereotypes to portray a gay character.

This distinction is important because the mental health of LGBTQ youth and transgender people is at stake.

"Everybody wants authenticity," Kane said. "I think the more authentic a character can be portrayed, the less negative impact there will be."

Read the original article on Insider