(DISCOVER WHO YOU REALLY ARE--GO TO: https://implicit.harvard.edu)
Why Do I Still Feel Uncomfortable Playing a Gay Man on TV?
A straight actor examines a persistent stigma—and realizes he's part of the problem.
Focus Features; TriStar; Fox; CBS
The effect of multiple strangers asking you to take off your clothes
is uncomfortably intimate—like walking around a doctor's office with a
glass of your own urine.
That's what I'm thinking when, for the third time in a day, a woman asks me: "So, you are comfortable taking your shirt off?"
I nod and hand her a headshot.
The script she gives me in exchange is for an AIDS awareness
advertisement for Logo, Viacom's gay-targeted network. It has two lines:
1. "Did you hear that? We have chemistry!" and 2. "When were you last
The woman says "And you know that, if you book this, you'll have to kiss another man?"
"Yes," I say.
"And you're comfortable with that?"
"Yes," I say.
I have worked as a model and an actor for eight years now. Part of
the job is making yourself comfortable in situations that are not
The casting director, another woman, emerges from inside the studio
where they are filming the audition, and she asks me to take my shirt
off and stand in front of a blazing white light. I am reminded that I
really ought to work out more. It's as if my metaphorical glass of urine
spilled a bit and we can all see the carpet stain.
I am not gay. I have no shortage of gay friends. My uncle is gay.
I've marched in a gay pride parade. More than half of the roommates I
have lived with are gay. I support marriage equality.
So it comes as a shock to me when I realize that, actually, if I am
honest with myself, I'm not comfortable with kissing another man on
camera. I really don't want to book this part.
I don't want people to think I'm gay. And I'm even more uncomfortable because that isn't a thought that I want to have.
Acting is a curious profession. The Oscars tend to award actors who transfigure themselves. Think of Charlize Theron in Monster or Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote.
And most actors actively want to stretch outside of themselves. That
is, after all, why we tried to make a career out of pretending. But
people tend to assume things about you after they have seen you onstage.
The character and the person are conflated.
Still, I wouldn't turn down a commercial that required me to pretend
to slap a child, or one where I played a Nazi. And—assuming the ad
wasn't advocating child abuse or Nazism—I don't think I would feel odd
about the audition.
I ask my theatrical agent if there is any industry stigma about doing a gay role. "No," he says, "not since Will and Grace in the '90s."
I call my commercial agent to ask him the same question. "No," he says. "Ikea was doing ads with gay couples in the '90s. Will and Grace really changed things." "But you had to ask me two times if I was
comfortable," I protest. "We would do that on any spot where you have to
kiss," he tells me.
Gigi Nicolas, the director of on-air promotions at Logo, tells me
that at least I was not alone in my discomfort. "We had to do a second
round of casting," she says. "Far fewer people auditioned than I
expected. Most of my top choices just didn't show up."
There is a long history of discomfort within the industry on gay
actors playing straight roles and vice versa. Perhaps more
significantly, there is a long history of discomfort within the
industry—and across the globe—that gay people exist at all.
Rock Hudson, the mid-20th century heart throb and star of Giant, Pillow Talk, and nine films with Douglas Sirk, died of AIDS in 1985. His obituary in the New York Times recounted his marriage and his divorce. It did not mention he was gay.
Tab Hunter and Van Johnson were both widely known to be gay, but this
aspect of them went largely unmentioned in the press and talk of their
love lives was discouraged by the studios. Marlon Brando, too, had
Just two years ago, Newsweek's Ramin Setoodeh stirred controversy when he suggested that a gay actor couldn't play a straight role very
well. Organizations and people from Aaron Sorkin to GLAAD traded barbed
comments afterwards. I would submit that there are a lot of straight
actors who cannot play straight roles very well. Being good at acting is
not necessarily a precondition to being an actor.
Since the making of Philadelphia, Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L-Word,
gay roles have become less unusual in film and TV. The number of
straight people playing wildly lauded roles where the character is gay
or vice versa seems to corroborate my agents' contention that any stigma
these roles may once have had has disappeared. Tom Hanks, Neil Patrick
Harris, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Portia De Rossi, Heath Ledger, Ian
McKellen, Michael K. Williams, Cynthia Nixon, Eric McCormack, Ving
Rhames, Sean Penn, Michael C. Hall, Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and
While there is no ready tool or survey to measure homophobia or its
absence within Hollywood, it seems that I can't blame my own discomfort
with the Logo commercial on the prejudices of others.
If you ever want to feel really wretched about what a big jerk you
are, there are worse ways to do it than logging onto Harvard's Project Implicit.
Psychologists at Harvard created a series of tests that measure your
reaction time when you associate positive and negative concepts with
different social groups. The results give you an indication of how
racist or sexist or agist or generally prejudiced you are on a
My implicit association scores tell me that I have a moderate
subconscious preference for lighter skinned people (like 27 percent of
all test takers, 70 percent of whom show a slight, moderate, or strong
automatic preference for lighter skin). I also moderately prefer young
people to old people (like 29 percent of all test takers; 80 percent
prefer young people to old). And I moderately prefer straight people to
gay people (like 27 percent of test takers; 68 percent show some
preference for straight people.)
I take some solace in the fact that my preferences are only moderate.
But even if it's temperate about it, my subconscious is essentially
racist, agist, and homophobic. It is the backwater redneck of my brain.
And, apparently, I'm prejudiced against backwater rednecks.
My uncle spent 20 years of Christmases leaving his partner at home
while he visited my grandparents. He pretended to be single. At my
grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary, my grandfather tried to
introduce my uncle to single women. My uncle came out of the closet only
a few years before my grandfather died. There were tense days, but then
he was accepted.
Christianity imagines the period leading up to Christmas as one of
great joy. It encourages us to offer good will towards men, which is a
start, but it seems to me that the Jews have it right to place the
emphasis of Yom Kippur, their big holiday, on just apologizing.
The essential, uncomfortable, flaw with all the progress on gay
rights is that even after legislation is passed and everyone's rights
are equal on paper—which still sometimes seems a long way off—there is
the longer, trickier work of trying to divest each person of the ugly
human prejudices we all inherited when we were born.
I, at least, am sorry. You don't have to believe in a Judeo-Christian
god to find something redeeming in confession. I am sorry that I balked
at the idea of pretending to be gay. I am sorry that my uncle went home
alone all those years. I am sorry for the whole ugly human history of
slights and hate crimes and exclusion.
It seems important to acknowledge the depth and power of our biases,
particularly at a time of year when many of us try to devote ourselves
to being better people. There is something vicious in each of us.
Depressing though that may seem, focusing on our flaws is a first
necessary part of wanting to be better. The hope that we can be better,
it seems to me, deserves great celebration.