Over the years, AfterEllen has interviewed hundreds of actresses who have played gay on screen, and their responses to the question of how it feels to play gay have most commonly fallen along two lines: they either downplay the importance of the character’s sexuality to the character, or they recognize the importance of the character’s sexuality. For example:
Charlotte Sullivan, who played Gail Peck on “Rookie Blue,” told us: Gay characters really have to have this kind of coming out sort of scenario, and I just don’t feel – it’s so normal, it’s so regular, that why can’t it just be? Like I certainly as a heterosexual person did not have to come out and declare my heterosexuality to my friends and family. So why should you have to do that as a gay person?
Answer: Straight people don’t have to come out because it is the presumed default orientation. Gay people have to come out because otherwise it will be constantly be assumed they’re straight. Mkay?
Jessica Capshaw, who plays Arizona Robbins on “Grey’s Anatomy,” told us: people would ask…“What’s it like to play a gay character on television?” I used to always say — because I feel this way — that I wasn’t playing anything; it was just this relationship that seemed to make sense and that’s kind of the way I hope people would look at things in the world. It’s not a guy and a girl, or a girl and a girl or a guy and a guy — it’s a relationship. You’re just people playing characters.
Lindsey Shaw, who plays Paige McCullers on “Pretty Little Liars,” told us: being given the opportunity to play a lesbian character, I really took it seriously. I just wanted to be as emotionally truthful as I could, even if I’ve never experienced these things first hand. But, I mean, this wasn’t just another role for me. It was a big opportunity to speak to people and change their attitudes, and to speak kids who are maybe struggling with their sexuality and to say, “You’re wonderful. And you’re not alone.”
Sometimes I miss Paige’s bangs. Is that weird?
Dear Hollywood: gay characters are not straight characters. While yes, technically we are all the same deep down at the molecular level, sexual orientation is more than just “incidental” to a character. Whether a character would consciously view her sexual orientation as a major component of her identity or not (just as many queer women in real life view it as a greater or lesser aspect of their lives), having a queer sexuality is fundamental to how that character has and will live her life. There are many psychological inputs that have subconsciously affected that character and how she views herself and her romantic relationships that a heterosexual character would not have experienced, nor would a straight actress necessarily think to consider when playing the role. For example:
The character may well have been bullied in high school because of her sexual orientation: GLSEN reports that 86% of queer youth are bullied at school, and if that character came out to her family, she had a 50-50 chance that it would be negatively received, and a one in four chance of being kicked out of her home entirely. If these things didn’t happen to her personally, she almost certainly would have known at least one LGBT person to whom it happened. As an adult, she would have known that her career could be equally jeopardized by her orientation: just under half of LGBT Americans have faced some form of workplace discrimination because of their orientation, 35% are not out at work and feel they must lie about their orientation, and 62% have heard anti-LGBT language in the workplace by their coworkers. Since only 21 states offer employment nondiscrimination laws, the character would be aware of whether she could be fired at will from her job with no legal recourse, just as she would have to gauge whether she would have to apply for housing with a “female roommate” or with her same-sex partner. Would it be safe for her to walk down the street holding her partner’s hand, or would they be taunted or worse?
Not in much of the South.
Contrary to Sullivan’s perception, LGBT people have to come out over and over again in their lives even to sympathetic ears: to bosses, coworkers, and new acquaintances. Pictures of a same-sex significant other have to be explained as such, not as a picture of a sibling or a friend. Queer women have wives, not husbands to match their wedding rings, and single women are looking for Ms. Right, not Mr. Right. And of course, any lesbian who came of age before 2015 may not have grown up dreaming of a white wedding dress and engagement photos because gay marriage wasn’t legal and it was difficult to predict when, if ever, it might become legal. Even having children with a partner required some thought, since both parents wouldn’t have been listed on the birth certificate (not to mention that it was only in 2016 that gay adoption became legal in all 50 states).
Finally, a lesbian relationship, unlike Capshaw’s assertion, is not the same as a straight relationship. With queer women making up, very roughly, about 4% of the population, that means that a lesbian’s dating pool is 4% of the population while a heterosexual woman’s dating pool is about 45% of the population. There’s a reason all the straight doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy” keeps dating each other like pinball, but realistically, the odds of Arizona finding another single lesbian on the ward in the same age range who fits her type closely enough to be datable…is statistically unlikely. Arizona likely would have to meet women outside of work, and since lesbian bars across the US are folding, it probably wouldn’t have been at that traditional crucible of heterosexual meeting places. Once in a relationship, the character and her partner would then have had to navigate the potentially homophobic reactions of not one but two families, as well as extended family. They might face a double standard in which siblings could kiss their opposite-sex partner at family gatherings, but they couldn’t even hold hands, and might even be placed in separate beds or bedrooms.
A straight character would never be asked if her heterosexuality was a “phase.” She would never worry what people would think of her if they knew she was straight, or lie about the gender of the person she was going on a date with to coworkers. She would never be denied the right to see her partner in the hospital, or have her partner drop her hand in public lest anyone see. She would never have had the nerve wracking minutes she waited to come out to her parents, hopeful but not certain of their response. Not all these experiences are unique; for example, some are shared by interracial couples. Nor are they experiences that every LGBT person has. However, any actress who takes a queer role but then downplays the impact of sexual orientation on the development of that character’s mindset should be careful to have done her research and explain why, because otherwise it is the voice of naïve heterosexual privilege that cannot see how its privilege blinds it to the experiences of others, particularly minorities.