LGBTQ+ Talent: The Importance of Inclusion
Matthew Jacobs Morgan on the difficulties faced by aspiring performers from the LGBTQ+ community, and how role models will aid inclusion and representation
Note: I sometimes use the word queer as a shorthand for LGBTQ+
It’s extremely important to have role models who are like you. And the fact that there are so few LGBTQ+ role models for young people in this industry can be devastating and can feel like our experience is invalidated.
Throughout the years there have been many films with LGBTQ+ lead roles. Pride, Call Me By Your Name, God's Own Country, Brokeback Mountain, Love Simon, The Kids Are Alright, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Dallas Buyers Club and Carol to name a few. Likewise, in theatre, we’re seeing queer plays like The Inheritance and Angels In America being produced to much acclaim. But there’s something in common across all of these projects… Pretty much all of the LGBTQ+ roles are played by straight people.
In the afterglow of the film’s release or play’s opening, those actors are praised for how “brave” and “fearless” they are for playing roles of a different sexuality. I cannot articulate how infuriating this is for a lot of us actors who are actually LGBTQ+. While it is fantastic that these projects are being produced, and an increasing number of stories about queer people are told, it is extremely disappointing to see how often the very community that those stories are about end up being excluded from them. There are so many fantastic trans actors, so why on earth would you cast Jared Leto, a cisgender, straight man in that role? It’s not like there’s any shortage of lead roles for straight white men, so why does the industry insist on even giving them roles which would be much better suited with someone who is legitimately LGBTQ?
I recently heard a director tell his straight lead (who was playing a gay character) that if anyone asks about his sexuality in interviews or Q&As, he mustn’t answer. He should instead be vague and tell them that that isn’t important. But the fact of that matter is important. And the fact that people even ask that question in those situations is because it is important to young queers who want to see themselves represented. It’s extremely important to have role models who are like you. And the fact that there are so few LGBTQ+ role models for young people in this industry can be devastating and can feel like our experience is invalidated. I was also recently told by a gay actor that his agent told him to mention his “girlfriend” to the casting director so that they won’t catch a whiff of his “gayness”. That is a problem. And the more we allow those requests to be made, the longer our industry will stay stuck in the past.
There isn’t a shortage of straight roles, and straight people as a group have never been marginalised and aren’t in need of greater representation within the industry. Until things are balanced out, positive discrimination is absolutely fine.
I understand that this is a business, not a charity. Almost every decision made is based on financial implications. But those potential implications are borne out of fear, not hard evidence. The notion that straight actors are more “marketable” is dangerous, and is essentially an excuse in order for directors, producers and casting directors to make those LGBTQ+ films more palatable to a straight audience. LGBTQ+ people in the UK have a combined spending power of £70 billion, and by excluding the community, they are essentially cutting themselves off from potential earnings. Just look at the 2015 film Stonewall, which was boycotted for its lack of diversity (it was accused of white-washing and erasing the significant contribution from trans and queer women of colour, as well as drag queens) and almost entirely straight cast, and thus bombed. If Black Panther taught us anything, it’s that the marginalised are not “a risk” or “unmarketable”, and there is a huge audience who are crying out for representation, and there is a new, mostly liberal generation of audiences who are able to stomach watching a story starring people who are different to them without running out of the cinema/theatre and gouging their eyes out.
An argument I often come up against is, “If straight people shouldn’t play queer roles surely that means queer people shouldn’t be able to play straight roles?” No! It’s not a two-way street. There isn’t a shortage of straight roles, and straight people as a group have never been marginalised and aren’t in need of greater representation within the industry. Until things are balanced out, positive discrimination is absolutely fine.
There are very very few exceptions. If the role is something which is extremely niche, for example, you’re looking for a gay, native American deaf actor who is based in Birmingham, and the only option you have is someone who is straight, but they meet the other requirements, then most gays would forgive you if you can’t find anyone whose sexuality corresponds with the role. But the fact of the matter is that the availability of LGBTQ+ actors is not the problem - it’s the unconscious bias which exists within the decision-makers.
When I hear that my queer friends who are literally perfect for a role have not even been brought in for it, and it has instead been landed by a straight actor, my heart sinks. Directors often say, “We just went with the best person for the job,” when they have not made any effort to actually bring in any of the talented queer actors that our industry is filled with. And so often we end up with stories which aren’t as authentic as they would be if they actually had LGBTQ+ people leading them. Or we are met with a stereotypical imitation of what they think a queer person is like.
If we want our stories to be told, and if we want to see more representation of LGBTQ+ people, then we need to start telling those stories ourselves.
I think that a way of getting around this is for those casting calls to say in them, "We are particularly interested in LGBTQ+ actors for this project," or if it's a specifically trans role, saying, "We are only considering people who identify as trans for this project, so please submit accordingly,” and likewise for non-binary roles. Equity has advised that this wording is completely allowed. By being clear and concise in your casting breakdown there will be no need to put the actor on the spot in the room by asking them to clarify their sexuality whilst in front of people who could potentially give them a job. If casting calls like this existed, there would be no need for actors to stay in the closet, because their sexuality or gender identity would be seen as the positive thing that it is. Something which sets them apart from other people and affords them the brilliant opportunities they deserve.
In this festive month, also known as Pride, I hope that my fellow queers feel empowered to speak out against this. To not be excluded. To beat down those doors. And I hope that the people making the decisions about who to bring into the audition room or who to give those roles to take note of our frustration and do something about it. And our straight allies need to start standing up for us by not encroaching on those roles and explaining why. If casting directors and directors are being met with actors refusing to audition for or accept roles because of how unfairly their LGBTQ+ mates are being treated, then they will have no choice but to move forwards and be more inclusive. Understandably this is a scary notion - particularly because we are all so often scrambling for roles and trying to earn a living - but this is about more than ourselves. It’s much bigger than that.
Finally, we as actors and creatives have power. If we want our stories to be told, and if we want to see more representation of LGBTQ+ people, then we need to start telling those stories ourselves. I have been having meetings about my projects, which have LGBTQ+ characters at the centre, and every time I have told them of my intentions of giving those roles to queer actors, the producers have actually been very receptive and supportive of it. The success of recent LGBTQ+ projects are proof that we are a commodity, and (gag) “on-trend” so the industry would be silly to let the talented queers our industry is filled with fall by the wayside.
Matthew Jacobs Morgan is an actor and filmmaker from London. His credits as an actor include Our Town (Almeida Theatre), Tommy (New Wolsey) and the TV series Cuffs, Wasted, Love Nina, Midsomer Murders and upcoming C4 Drama Pure. He has numerous TV series and films in development including Dylan & Gracie which is under option at Tiger Aspect and Vamping which is being developed on 4Screenwriting.
Image credit: Michael Shelford