The Oscars, media diversity, and can LGBTQ+ people get paid?

As the debate about the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations intensifies,  Marcus Stow asks, can LGBTQ+ people get paid for telling our own stories?

The debate around this year’s Oscar Nominations and their complete lack of diversity has intensified,  driven by the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag created by @ReignOfApril on Twitter and culminating in numerous media columns and ill-advised celebrity comment. Yet again, despite Hollywood’s reputation as “liberal”,  the nominations failed to reflect the diversity of the people buying cinema tickets, and in recent days the conversation has shifted to representation of LGBTQ+ people, with Ian McKellen asking “Why has no openly gay man ever won the best actor Oscar?”

Despite a rather narrow view of diversity being limited to gay men, he has a point. The notoriously aged, white and male Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have a habit of overlooking people of colour, out LGBTQ+ actors, let alone queer and trans people of colour.  And the problem goes right back to film production. Even when it comes to telling LGBTQ+ stories, Hollywood seems insistent on straight- and ciswashing casting and production, and erasing LGBTQ+ people of colour, no doubt in a bid to make such movies more “palatable” to white, cisgender heterosexual audiences.

As expected, Eddie Redmayne has been nominated for playing Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. He’s the latest in a long line of cisgender actors to have played a trans woman, a decision which has been criticised time and time again to the willful ignorance of Hollywood. It’s only two short years since Jared Leto (another cisgender man) won an Oscar for portraying a trans woman In Dallas Buyer’s Club. When the director was asked if he had considered a trans woman for the role, he said “Never. Are there any transgender actors?

Hollywood seems insistent on straight- and ciswashing casting and production, and erasing LGBTQ+ people of colour

In the same film, real life HIV activist Ron Woodruff  was portrayed as a straight man, by a straight actor famous for bland heterosexual rom-coms, Matthew McConaughey. However real life friends of Woodruff say that he was bisexual, which is not explored in the film. Yes that’s right – Hollywood managed to straightwash a film centred around the HIV and AIDS crisis and an Oscar for McConaughey duly followed. Have things really progressed since 1993’s  Philadelphia, with its stolid courtroom drama narrative and chaste pecks between Tom Hanks’ character and his lover? 2008’s Milk not only cast renowned flaming heterosexual Sean Penn as Harvey Milk but also portrayed him as some kind of serial monogamist when by all accounts much of his political planning and debates were conducted in the bath houses of San Francisco which were given one oblique reference. Really? In 1970s San Francisco? Another Oscar duly followed.

It’s not just the lack of passion and equivalent sex you’d get in a film with heterosexuals, there’s also the casting of straight actors to make the whole project appear “less queer”.  Who can forget the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, where the lead cast members were widely lauded as being so brave for simulating some awkward looking sex in a tent? Similarly Behind the Candelabra, a film about Liberace, one of the queerest subjects in the universe, featured notoriously straight Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, yet still struggled to get funded on the grounds it was “too gay”.  The recent Carol was beautifully shot and featured some enthusiastic sex, but Cate Blanchett  is  famously not bisexual or a lesbian. It’s no wonder so many LGBTQ+ actors are still in the closet if they can’t get cast representing their own identities on screen.

Meanwhile a film actually about the real-life pivotal moment in LGBTQ+  history, Stonewall, decided to erase the trans women of colour such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson – who were key figures in the movement – and replace them with a blond cisgender, “straight acting” gay man with big triceps as the lead character. The director admitted that the fictional character was pandering to the  “wider audience”. In the face of widespread criticism, the film flopped.

Have things really progressed since 1993’s  Philadelphia, with its stolid courtroom drama narrative and chaste pecks between Tom Hanks’ character and his lover?

Producers may say that they are actors playing roles, but it does seem that there is shockingly low number of out queer and trans actors in mainstream Hollywood movies.  For proof, if you watch the Oscars, play “spot the same-sex couple” on the red carpet. And even in terms of roles, the numbers are still incredibly small. In 2014, out of a total of 4,610 characters in the top 100 films of 2014, ten were gay men; four were lesbian; and five were bisexual. There wasn’t a single trans character. Only 14 of the 100 films had any LGBT characters and almost no LGB characters in films were shown in healthy relationships, which is worrying given the limited number of depictions of LGBTQ+ people in relationships in the media as a whole, with even articles on same-sex marriage showing headless couples and plastic cake toppers.

American TV seems to be doing a better job at placing queer and/or trans actors in lead roles. The celebrated Orange Is The New Black cast a black trans woman, Laverne Cox, as a trans character. Also on Netflix, Sense8 is written by trans director and screenwriter Lana Wachowski and stars a trans actor, Jamie Clayton in a leading role, and also featured leading roles for gay men and a supporting role for Freema Agyeman, portraying a lesbian. Amazon’s Transparent, though, was criticised for casting another cisgender man as a trans woman, and for not even hiring a trans staff writer until series two. In the UK, trans actor Bethany Black who played a trans character in Channel 4’s Cucumber and and leading role in Banana, says:

“I was recently asked to audition for a show with a trans lead character that went to a cis guy. They wanted me to play a nurse, I refused. The industry now has this idea that trans is cool in the same way that being gay was from a media perspective after Queer as Folk, but because there’s only five of us with any profile they think that none of us have enough profile to play ourselves. When we do get the offers more often than not they’re terrible, and do you take it so you can build your profile so the next time they do A Danish Girl, you might be in the running, or refuse as it’s just going to add to further negative stereotypes? It’s so tricky.”

And the script-writing is an issue: It’s important that not only are LGBTQ+ characters appear on our screens but there is a broad spectrum of writers from our communities telling our stories. In the UK, 2014’s Pride was a stand-out moment in LGBTQ+ film, with a variety of characters (though lacking in people of colour). On TV, the BBC’s recent London Spy, written by a gay man, did feel authentic in some of its depictions of gay life even though the main narrative was a spy drama. And this is a crucial point: It’s not enough that we are the gay best friend, lesbian who gets bumped off (see last Tango In Halifax) or tortured homosexual in a costume drama. We need to be in lead roles, our whole spectrum needs to be represented, including LGBTQ+ people of colour.  At least 10% of the funding comes from us via cinema tickets, licence fee or advertising budgets of corporations, so we should be lead characters in up to 10% of TV and film thank you very much.

There is a real issue with commissioned white, cis, straight middle-class TV and filmmakers looking to tell “edgy” stories beyond their staid experience, and looking to our communities to do so. Not only do our stories often end up as token gestures, sanitised and  inauthentic, but also there’s a lot of out LGBTQ+ actors, writers, producers and directors that are simply not getting the opportunities to get paid. Find them, nurture them, PAY THEM.

Follow Marcus on Twitter (@marcusjdl)

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