Gay Actors…or Gay for Pay?

The gay culture is defined and put into a box where actors portray a character that may or may not reflect accurate information about our lifestyles. Straight actors are often cast as gay characters and openly gay actors are usually only cast as gay actors. Ellen Degeneres is a famous openly gay comedienne wasn’t always out of the closet. She had a sitcom (Ellen) on ABC – a primetime sitcom on network television, no less. Ellen Degeneres came out as gay openly, then her show aired the (now infamous) episode titled, “Puppy Episode” where her character on the show comes out as gay. It was only a year after that that her show was suddenly cancelled by the network. She leans over a microphone at the airport and announces she is gay over the loudspeaker, accidentally. That moment is almost engrained in my head. The two most difficult words to say out loud for just about anybody is “I’m gay.” And the humor of saying it even louder and amplified is not lost on how those words sound so loud already. It almost feels like it should be whispered for fear of rejection.

Unfortunately, this is what we have to deal with. The shame of being different from the “norms of society” or the assumed lifestyle that is pushed and engrained in the heads of all children since birth. “One day you will find a wonderful girl, marry and have children.” “Which girl are you asking to the prom?” It’s constant. It’s not malicious (most of the time) but it’s been beaten into our heads subliminally since birth. It’s just the way it should happen naturally. It’s expected and please don’t differ from the expected. Please don’t make me worry.

My parents are the most supportive parents a gay boy could ask for. Even my mom admitted to me that she didn’t want me to be gay. Not because she didn’t agree with my lifestyle or support me, but because she was sad that I would have to fight harder to be accepted. She was worried that I would have to protect myself emotionally, physically, intellectually, mentally, etc. She would always worry (until society completely altered it’s thinking) that I would be judged and ostracized. It’s not her fault she felt that way. She loves me so much that she wanted nothing but happiness and less bumps in the road.

Hollywood. Acting. Performing. Creativity capitol of the world. Singing. Dancing. Make-up. Glamour. Fashion. It’s practically a mecca for the stereotype of gay men and they run the town. More than 40% of West Hollywood’s population identifies as LGBT. Even still, most of America does not buy into the lifestyle as acceptable. The Hollywood entertainment industry is not just about the culture of itself. It’s about selling movie tickets, ratings for television shows, etc. Why would a 29 year old Ohio small town male buy a ticket to see a movie where the lead has values that he, himself does not condone or approve of? To put it in another perspective: How many grandparents do you know sit down on Sunday evening and watch Real Housewives of Atlanta religiously? They don’t understand it and don’t find it relatable. Therefore, Hollywood must adjust and accommodate to the wishes of the many.

Will & Grace debuted in 1998 and went off the air in 2006. This network television show (NBC this time) was always on top of the ratings game. It was fresh, pushed the boundaries and was different. It was eccentric, and it was real. Or so it appeared to many people. Sure, the gay community loved the show. We were torn. Finally, a show where we weren’t the gay best friend (Reality Bites, Clueless, My Best Friend’s Wedding) with the one-liners or the ‘hey girlfriend’ flamboyance. Or were we? Many in the gay community felt betrayed. Jack (Sean Hayes) was a flamboyant sidekick that may have stolen scenes and (arguably) the funniest character on the show – but was it fair to be portrayed with a stereotype? Sure, at least we were getting some attention and the country seemed to really embrace us. Okay, go with it. Eric McCormack plays Will Truman on the show. He is straight and married to a woman in real life. Eric was interviewed once and said, “nothing that anyone in Hollywood ever says makes a difference to people living in the middle of the country.” Truth. If you do not agree with a lifestyle for various reasons it’s going to be damn near impossible to convince you otherwise. And how in the hell are you going to have a sitcom convince a Southern Baptist that being gay is okay and should be accepted and treated equally in society? Impossible.

Showtime debuted with Queer as Folk (2000-2005). This was the first time sex was featured in such a real, raw way on television. At least for some of the gay population. The show was a drama that had it all. Comedy, drama, sex, nudity, and good writing. The setting was in Philadelphia and showed gay men actually dealing with homophobia and how hurtful it could be. The show was groundbreaking in that it portrayed not only the sex and lifestyles of gay men. It talked about HIV, open relationships, straight and gay relationships co-mingling together. But it still lacked as much substance as the typical gay male in a suburban city. Larger cities are diverse and (generally) more democratic.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ was a film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal (both heterosexual actors). This is a story of two high school drop-outs in their early 20’s who meet as temporary hires to spend a summer herding sheep in the high meadows of Brokeback Mountain. One night Jack insists Ennis share his tent and lay together for warmth from the cold. Bodies touch and arousal leads to quick sex. The next morning Ennis declares, “I’m not no queer.” Jack agrees, “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” They spend the summer growing feelings for each other. Then, spend four years apart before reconnecting and picking up where they left off. Ennis is married and has children and Jack is in a relationship with a son as well. Over the course of 20 years, they make it a yearly event and eventually drift apart, unhappy and struggling with accepting their label of being gay. They fight it tooth and nail. The sex scenes in the movie are brutal, rough and yet, tender. This is a powerful movie because it dives into the conflicts of accepting who you are and the struggles how people will perceive you. It also is rare because it’s about middle America – and not Hollywood, Philadelphia or New York, which would have much more diversity, understanding and acceptance.  Both Ledger and Gillenhaal won the Academy Award for their roles in this movie.

Straight actors have won Academy Awards and nominations for playing gay characters. Sean Penn in Milk, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Charlize Theron in Monster, etc. “It’s very difficult for an actor to come out if all the signals from agents, directors and studios say ‘we will not put a gay man in a leading straight romantic role,’” David Hauslaib (founder of the blog Queerty) says. “They look at audiences and based on no hard evidence, they conclude that moviegoers will not pay to see a gay man play straight.” There’s too much money at stake. “Big tent-pole pictures are really, really large investments, so the studios want to be sure nothing detracts from the box office.” My take on the double standard is that the majority of the population is heterosexual, and therefore, it’s easier to imagine a straight actor playing a role and being believable in a gay relationship than a gay actor pretending to be straight. The reason for this is the stereotypes. Hollywood is about glitzy fashion and flamboyant men. How could the gay actor be believable falling in love with a woman when he probably just wants to wear her heels and go shopping with her best friends, instead? But a straight actor is more believable because even if he does fall for a guy in this situation in the movie, it’s believable that he could always go back to women if it doesn’t work out.


Dahl, M. (2010). Under the Rainbow: Post-closet gay male representation in American theater and television. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Lee, A. (Director). (2005). Brokeback Mountain [Motion Picture].

Puente, M. (2010, August 24). Playing it straight, or gay, doesn’t always go both ways. USA Today, p. 02D.

Roughton, R. (2013). The Significance of Brokeback Mountain. Taylor & Francis Group.

8 thoughts on “Gay Actors…or Gay for Pay?

  1. Nick,
    Thanks for your insight on gay actors in Hollywood. You bring up some great points about the double standard that has not allowed a gay actor to play a straight role. As a straight white male who doesn’t watch many movies, I haven’t looked at casting in this way. I appreciate your prospective. It’s sadly ironic that West Hollywood is so LGBT progressive and also so close to the center of the entertainment industry.
    Thank again,

  2. Hi Nick,

    I don’t think I was ever actively aware of how few straight roles are played by gay characters. I can only think of one actor that meets this criteria, Neil Patrick Harris. Although he is prolific in playing straight characters, he is also the only one I can name. Thank you for your insight.

  3. Hey Nick!
    You are really right about the double standard with gay actors and roles. A straight actor could easily play the role of a gay man but the opposite is less common by far. Something I’ve noticed is the desexulization of gay men in media, we know they are gay but they never have any sexual relationships and they are often more of an accessory to a hetero woman. Thanks for the great read!

  4. Hey Nick, I understand where you are coming from with your blog post. I think that in Hollywood overall there is a serious issue with minority and marginalized group representation. I feel like almost every few months Hollywood is getting called out for doing something ridiculous regarding how they choose to represent of use minority and or marginalized groups. Something that is seen in Hollywood like you pointed to is definitely a number of straight men playing gay men but very few if any gay men playing straight men. Great read!

  5. Nick,

    Thank you for sharing your research and your personal experiences.

    You are absolutely right that one of the reasons LGBTQ identities are not portrayed in popular media is because “middle America” doesn’t empathize with the “lifestyle” and thus won’t pay to see it in a theater. The extension of this idea that big movies are investments is also a poignant topic. I think that catering to the straight man from Ohio, like you described, is one of the fundamental problems in America right now. I must believe it is healthy to see media representations of different people and cultures. This becomes even more complicated when considering how white Americans don’t seem to have an issue consuming media from African American culture (see: appropriation of Jazz, Hip Hop, and Love & Basketball).

    In some ways, straight America has appropriated LGBT lifestyles into media. I felt Will & Grace, although celebrated by many, is an example of this; in that it is a straight show that features some stereotyped gay characters. Will & Grace and Brokeback Mountain seem to be comfortable territories for heteronormative media to approach because they are still surrounded by straightness.

    All of this being said, dethroning the predominant representation in popular culture is a process, and baby steps are important! Hooray Will & Grace reboot!

    This kind of blog format is may be the modern equivalent of an airport loudspeaker, so thank you for providing your insight.


  6. After reading your post, I found your post is interesting. Gay is a term that primarily refers to a homosexual person or the trait of being homosexual. The term was originally used to mean “carefree”, “happy”, or “bright” and showy. The term’s use as a reference to homosexuality may date as early as the late 19th century, but its use gradually increased in the 20th century.

  7. Hi Nick,

    I think it’s important that you pointed out that hollywood rarely casts gay actors in gay roles. Diversity matters not only in the characters of a show or movie, but in the people who create it as well. I have noticed that the few gay actors I know of usually aren’t cast in roles as gay men. I have also noticed that when straight men play the role of a gay man, the interviewers always ask how hard it is to pretend they like kissing men, or how weird the sex scenes were, etc. Yet when gay men play a straight role, they’re never asked these kinds of questions.

    Loved your post!

  8. Hey Nick, I thought your paper was really good. I consider myself to be pro-diversity, but this is a realm where I never really thought about it. I find myself thinking about my favorite cinema portrayal of a gay man, A Single Man, by writer/director Tom Ford. It is about a gay man played by Academy Award Winning actor Colin Firth, and the struggles he endures being gay in the 1960s. I feel like Firth’s acting was so good and powerful I wouldn’t want to see anyone else in the role regardless of sexual orientation. I also think it’s interesting that Tom Ford is gay, but still cast a straight actor in a gay role.

    Great post! Keep it up!

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