Hollywood's casting dilemma: Should straight, cisgender actors play LGBTQ characters?

David OliverUSA TODAY

Hollywood celebrities just can't quit playing LGBTQ characters – even when they mean well.

Selena Gomez, who famously dated Justin Bieber and Nick Jonas, recently signed on to play lesbian mountaineer Silvia Vasquez-Lavado. Cisgender actress Halle Berry considered taking on an undisclosed male transgender role over the summer.

In years prior, straight actors Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer sizzled onscreen as lovers in "Call Me By Your Name." Cisgender actor Jeffrey Tamborplayed a transgender woman in "Transparent." Straight actor Nick Robinsonchanneled a young gay man struggling with his identity in "Love, Simon."

What's wrong with this picture? Well, it's complicated – though it mainly has to do with the scarcity of roles available for out LGBTQ actors to play LGBTQ characters.

All actors should be able to play all roles, in theory, but actors and industry experts are speaking out about the need for queer and transgender actors to play roles that represent these communities.

"It would be nice if there were enough LGBT roles that anyone could play them because there wasn't any scarcity of representation," says Jane Ward, a gender and sexuality studies professor at University of California, Riverside. "However, that's not the case."

According to GLAAD's annual Studio Responsibility Index, 22 of 118 films released by major movie studios in 2019 included characters who were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer (18.6%), slightly up from the previous year (20 out of 110 films, or 18.2%). Transgender characters were shut out for the third consecutive year.

On television, LGBTQ characters are projected to represent a record high of 10.2% of series regulars on prime-time scripted broadcast series (up from 8.8% the previous season), per GLAAD's 2019-2020 "Where We Are on TV" report.

Is one problem more glaring than the other?

A straight person acting queer and a cisgender person acting transgender are two different things, like sexual orientation and gender identity are.

Straight actors playing queer roles is "something that we give certain people a pass for," says journalist Tre'vell Anderson, former director of culture and entertainment at Out magazine. Anderson notes that a movie like "Love, Simon" avoided criticism for casting a straight lead actor because it was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance.

Anderson, who is queer and transgender, thinks both the issue of straight people playing queer roles and cisgender people playing trans roles is urgent.

"All of those issues are important to me at once, and I think that we can advocate for all of them at once, because ultimately we want our media to be an accurate reflection of the world in which we live," they say.

Actor Billy Eichner, who is gay, told Deadline earlier this year that Hollywood was "so hypocritical" in how it treats LGBTQ actors, in that many attend fundraisers for the community but fail to tell LGBTQ stories with LGBTQ actors.

"We have the lived-in experience, to bring the intellectual nuance of it to the screen," he told the outlet. "I don’t have to go sit with 30 gay people and try to find out what it’s like to be gay. I know, and no one knows better than me and my friends. I think we need to stop undervaluing that, the feeling that if a gay person plays a gay person it’s not acting but if a straight person plays a gay person, we give them an Oscar."

Ryan Cassata, a transgender actor ("Two Eyes"), rarely gets the chance to audition for cisgender characters. "That has nothing to do with my agents," he tells USA TODAY. "That's just the way the industry is." Since transgender people don't get the opportunity to audition for cisgender roles, he thinks cisgender people shouldn't take transgender roles away.

Transgender people bring an authenticity to trans storytelling that cisgender people can't. "I don't think that a cis person could ever truly understand the trans experience, or what it means to be trans and the amount of oppression that we go through on a daily basis," Cassata says.

This question of authenticity applies to lesbian, gay and bisexual people, too, though these letters of LGBTQ are more accepted identities, Cassata says.

Actress Lea DeLaria ("Orange is the New Black") knows this representation problem all too well.

"I've been talking about it for years," says DeLaria, who played lesbian character Big Boo on the Netflix series. She says the only people talking about it back in 1993, when she became the first openly gay comic on television in the U.S., were her and Harvey Fierstein.

DeLaria believes the problem is worse for lesbians, as even within their own community, it's perceived as OK for straight women to play them. "Essentially, I'm being erased from my own (expletive) narrative," she says.

Casting director Mike Page, who is queer, says that it's unfortunate the industry has to think about which projects are going to get investors excited and what's going to get media coverage. That's why people are tempted to go with a bigger name, which usually means a straight, cisgender actor.

"We have to really weigh that against the options of casting authentically, and that's been the general push and pull of the industry," Page says.

The problem with 'trans face'

Susan Stryker, Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership at Mills College in Oakland, California, considers cisgender people playing transgender roles akin to racial impersonation. "Trans face," if you will, says Stryker, who is transgender. When a well-known cisgender actor lands a high-profile gig playing a transgender character, that only exacerbates the issue.

"Casting particularly well-known cis actors in trans roles helps perpetuate the idea that transness is a kind of deception and that really underneath it all, we're really just cis people in drag," Stryker says.

Actually casting transgender people in transgender roles reinforces the point that this is what transgender people are like in everyday life, Stryker says.Examples of this include Jen Richards on "Mrs. Fletcher" and Jamie Clayton on "Sense8."

"When there are so few representations that LGBT viewers can identify with, and then we find out as viewers that in fact, those actors are cis or straight, it is very disappointing, because audiences are desperately looking for role models, and looking for people they can identify with," Ward says.

Consider Laverne Cox, a Black transgender woman, playing Black transgender woman Sophia Burset on "Orange Is the New Black," vs. Jeffrey Tambor, a cisgender man, playing transgender woman Maura Pfefferman on "Transparent."

"When you have a cis actor playing a trans role, that connection, that line from Sophia Burset to Laverne Cox to the Black trans women in your community, it just isn't there," Anderson says. "And I think that's present as well when it comes to heterosexual straight actors playing queer roles."

Part of the issue is many stars are reluctant to say straight and/or cisgender people shouldn't play LGBTQ characters.

"I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job," Scarlett Johansson told As If in 2019, about a year after dropping out of the film "Rub and Tug" amid backlash about her intention to play a transgender man. "There are a lot of social lines being drawn now, and a lot of political correctness is being reflected in art."

Before bowing out of the project, Johansson responded to criticism by referencing other actors who took on transgender roles. "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment," Johansson said.

Cate Blanchett, who played a lesbian lead character in 2015's "Carol," defended the practice of straight people playing queer while showing the film at Rome Film Festival. "I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience."

In case you missed it: