Gay men have played straight for centuries. We’re surprisingly good at it, fooling our partners, friends, institutions, employers and sometimes even ourselves. Yet when we take to the stage or screen as out, as opposed to closeted, suddenly our performances may be doubted, dissected, and far too often found to be wanting.
All gay actors, and even some straight ones, are asked to “play it straight” at some point in their career. This ability is considered paramount for an actor. The assumption remains that if you cannot play it straight, your career isn’t going very far, the argument being that there are simply not enough non-straight roles to sustain an acting career. Yet, when all non-straight roles in both the contemporary and classic theatre canon are considered, there are plenty of roles for an actor who can’t “play it straight.” Even for these roles, however, there is a clear preference for straight actors. Why don’t we, as an audience and culture accept seeing a gay actor on stage or screen, even in a gay role? More importantly, what do we even mean when we ask them to “play it straight”?
One could argue that there are no “straight” roles to play: “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were terms coined by activists in 19th century Germany and adopted by psychologists in the early 20th century. Historian and writer Hanne Blank has expanded on this discovery and written an entire book on the encroachment of heterosexuality into nearly every aspect of our lives. It traces the historical origins of the term while exploring the cultural conditions that entrenched it in our social psyche. From this vantagepoint it is impossible for a “gay” actor to play a “straight” character because neither are inherent states of being but cultural labels that society has crafted and, through a bizarre process of amnesia, taken as natural truths.
There is, however, evidence that straight and gay are inherently diverse, biological and easily identifiable states. Countless studies examining the brain, birth order, face shape and even sweat and odor show clear biological correlations with sexuality. There is also a study that shows people are fairly good at guessing somebody’s sexual orientation from facial expression and structure. This would lend credence to Ramin Setoodeh’s highly controversial, and now digitally unavailable, article in Newsweek that gay actors cannot believably play straight roles. Curiously, Setoodeh’s argument is that believability and plausibility are lost only after a gay actor comes out; that actor Sean Hayes, for example, was believable as a straight character before he came out in 2010, but not after. All of this begs the question of why coming out changes an audience’s perception of an actor, if gay and straight are states that are diverse, biological and easily identifiable.
Anthropology might have an answer to these contradictory lines of evidence. Predictably, in our post-post-modern world, both arguments may be correct. Anthropologists have shown that the institutionalized and culturally pervasive belief that race is an inherently diverse, biological and easily identifiable state may actually cause it to manifest biologically. Biologically, race is not effective as a way to classify humans; having black or white skin means just and only that. It has been shown that there is a greater degree of biological diversity within a “race” than between them. This means that there is more of a difference genetically and biologically between two white people than between the white and black populations as a whole.
In opposition to this evidence, studies on medicine and race in the U.S. show race can be a remarkably effective indicator of biological qualities, from diabetes risk to cancer survival rates. Anthropologists, such as Clarence C. Gravlee, have provided evidence that cultural and institutional beliefs that affect variables such as income, geographic distribution and medical care can also influence biology in a heritable way. This means that because institutions and society believes and behaves as though a trait is an inherently diverse, biological and easily identifiable state, it begins to become so biologically in certain respects. So while “straight” and “gay” people may have had tenuously separate biological qualities, the cultural adoption of these classifications as inherently diverse, biological, and easily identifiable states may have caused them to manifest biologically.
If this is true, it puts us in an even more morally ambiguous situation: How can we defend not asking actors to “play it straight” if we can establish that such qualities exist and are easy to read? Yet, if our very belief in such qualities is what causes them to be true, how can we ask gay actors to perpetuate the term, and thus the heteronormative system? We must turn to our audience and their cultural context.
Take Tom Daley, the Olympic diving bronze medalist. He has changed the zeitgeist. For the past decade, a parade of self-identifying homosexual and bisexual cultural figures have improved not only the level of social acceptability of such people but also the way in which they are approached in the media, discussed in everyday dialogue, and, most powerfully, in the way everyday people think of, visualize and imagine them. Daley, however, came out as being in a relationship with a man (Dustin Lance Black), but came out to the exclusion of a label, using his YouTube video to say “I still fancy girls, but at the moment I’ve never been happier.”
The commentary his action inspired has opened the door to fundamentally changing the way Western society approaches sexuality, particularly male sexuality. Our culture is being forced to consider a startling question: Do we still want our sexuality labels? Do they still function? For Daley and many others, the labels, in fact, do not function. Instead of trying to fit a label or make it fit him, he chose a daring act in which he presents himself as simply himself, with no established community, label or set of cultural narratives to protect him. When Daley’s biopic is released-and trust me there will be a biopic-which sexuality will the lead actor be asked to play?
The performance of sexuality on stage has become antiquated, arguably harmful and, most damagingly, inaccurate. It no longer reflects the experience of our audience, even if they do not realize it. We must break down and examine this topic if we are ever to resolve this issue. Unless a creative team can articulate exactly what they mean by “play it straight,” then it has no usefulness in performance. If what they mean is to play the character more masculinely, that’s something an actor can play (although it is worth pointing out that some studies show gay men are biologically more “masculine,” with typically larger penises and other physiological features). We therefore must articulate explicitly what the intent of the “play it straight” choice is. Is it supported by the text? The aesthetic style of the production? A creative team, after all, can choose to create the world’s finest Kabuki Hamlet, but if it doesn’t connect to the audience, if it doesn’t base its creative choices in the text, if it doesn’t understand its cultural context, the production is meaningless.
Over the coming months I will write a series of posts on this issue. Pieces will examine the questions of “playing it straight” from a particular discipline. Gender studies and a close reading of the historical record will allow us to frame what we even mean when we refer to sexuality and its portrayal. Science and Anthropology will explore if sexuality exists somatically in the body, if it’s something people can read from affectations or other physical traits or if perhaps sexuality it more ethereal. Explore the mechanisms of meaning the theatre employs should reveal how one could “play it straight” and why sexuality seems to have such a dampening effect on the suspension of disbelief. Interviews with industry professionals will explore current methods of “playing it straight,” how this affects careers and how well the issue is understood by theatre makers. Finally, a conclusion will establish future discussion and possible solutions.