I saw myself yet again baffled and bewildered by my community recently. Here we have a massive star, Andrew Garfield, in a show that took massive strides for our community back in the day, Angels in America, being revamped and reproduced by the National Theatre alongside a staggering season of plays dedicated to and highlighting the LGBT+ community.
When asked about how he prepared himself for his role (as a straight actor playing a gay character) he joked that he was living as a gay man without the bedroom business. Not a million miles away from us gays that love a good curry so much that it’s taken a toll on their love life… Ahem, anyway. He also said that he’d been watching a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race in preparation. And by God did he get a backlash. Accusations of stereotyping and cultural appropriation began being fired right at Garfield with more ferocity than a confetti cannon at Cher’s 100th farewell tour. Amongst all of this, we fail to see one obviously staggering oversight…
It was a joke, goddamnit!
Sure, it fell into the area of mild stereotyping. But sometimes stereotypes are true for some people. Myself included. No jaw was more on the floor than mine when Valentina wouldn’t take off that mask!
We need to stop attacking people who embrace our community, whose approach, though well meaning, sometimes isn’t worded quite right. The straight, cis community isn’t fully exposed to and clued up on the LGBTQIAABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ community as much as those in it are. They’re learning, they’re becoming accustomed, they will have questions, they will get it wrong and they will want to know what exactly they’re embracing before embracing it.
In the style of Troy McClure a-la The Simpsons: You may remember me from the TV show The A Word, on BBC in the UK, and SundanceTV in the US. You may just be being introduced to me now as some kind of gobshite gay Messiah, sent from heaven to sieve out the bullshit from the T – like a male Mary Berry but probably with a larger collection of Spice Girls memorabilia.
As I was saying, even I felt the wrath of what seemed to be a collective gay version of Mary Whitehouse. Clutching at their pearls, eyes peeled for an offence, ears cupped awaiting the wrong pronoun.
I play what some people would deem a stereotypical gay character in The A Word; Young, twinky, funny, quick-witted, camp, arty, sassy – the ultimate “gay best friend”. When you looked through Twitter at the response when my character first hit the screens back in March 2016, the critics and the general population said ‘I love that camp best friend’. The only negative comments came from the gays themselves, questioning the decision to feature a stereotypically camp gay character rather than a regular, run of the mill, undetectable gay.
I’ve got a tidbit of insight for you. When it comes to creating characters and asking massive televisual companies to invest the money from their very tight purse strings in them; personality sells. Either you go one end of the gay spectrum or the other; death dropping, pick you out an outfit, while reciting Lady Gaga’s back catalogue in track number order kinda gay, or “straight acting”, Nike Air Max-wearing (God forbid), beat up your bullies and shag your dad kinda gay. And as if we need anymore unrealistic body goaled, repressed, self-loathing beefcakes with the very obvious lack of evolution having directed them away from the possibility they might become “one of the lads”.
It’s not the first time I’ve received backlash from an ungrateful lot, unhappy with who is “representing” them; ready to pull me up on the misuse of wording.
Back in the day, I played Martin Dunbar in Waterloo Road. The show’s first (and best) trans character – sorry guys but after you missed the boat by not making the most of my character and bringing them back as per popular demand – that poor attempt at introducing another trans character and then backing out of it as though it was “all a phase” was shoddy and we could see the straws being grasped at like a frantic fangurl grabbing Harry Styles’ arse at a meet and greet.
You weren’t happy that a cis-gender male was hired to play a-yet-to-transition, male to female trans character. You assumed I was cis-gendered. To those not clued up on your spectrum, that means you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. To clear the air, yes I am cis-gender. But by your standards, I should take offence. “How dare you assume my gender!” While the people just coming to terms with their gender identity flocked to thank me, regardless of which letter I choose to put on my passport. The hardened LGBT+ community disregarded my efforts in favour of pulling me up on which pronouns I used to refer to Martin. The BBC showed an hour long trans storyline on a family show at prime time in front of a record breaking audience viewing figure and you were more concerned with tapping my wrist for accidentally saying “He” instead of “She”. Priorities, right? I know the difference. I was in Martin’s head throughout filming, remember?
We can’t have it both ways when it comes to casting. We kick off when a cis-straighty is hired to play a LGBT+ character, but tell a gay actor he can’t play straight and the rainbow of hypocrisy really shows its colours. How about we try and play fair when it comes to equal opportunities, but let’s not forgo the best actor for the job in order to make sure those boxes are ticked. Of course there is a serious lack of opportunity for some actors – whether that’s ethnic, sexuality or gender. But what we need are for writers to write more BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic), female, and LGBT characters and producers to actually commission it, so we don’t have to constantly fight about what colour Juliet the Royal Shakespeare Company are gonna have this season.
Without writers like Peter Bowker of The A Word, who aren’t afraid to go there with creating characters like mine, there’s no hope for gay actors, and in particular, more feminine gay actors. Because writers and producers are too scared to even feature a feminine gay character out of fear of the wrath of the MumsNet-esque brigade in the gay community and the press. Which in turn makes it too difficult to feature a gay character at all – it’s too much work to get the balance that they want right. People who cry “stereotype!” when a gay character is featured are ruining opportunities for gay actors! And I won’t stand for it anymore.
No one ever said all gay men are camp, can spot a pair of fake Laboutins, or wear 3 layers of base makeup. But some of us are and can and do, and we exist. We fucking exist! And you won’t hide us away from view in a cupboard like the Dursleys did to Harry Potter! We deserve acknowledgement and representation too. And it would be nice if we could not just exist, but co-exist. Whether we’re showing the general public that we’re “just like them” or we’re pushing a stereotype, we’re still exposing them to the gay community and showing them that we are here, we are queer, and that they’d better get used to it.
On a slight diversion, while we’ve said it. Don’t dare, however, refer to me as “queer” and expect me not to give you a nose job Michael Jackson would be jealous of. A word used so viciously to torment, belittle, and humiliate me all my life will never represent anything positive for me. No matter how many times you get BBC Three to say it nor how much you dress it up as the new “gender”. Want a nondescript word to sum up all that doesn’t quite fit into LGBT? Be my guest! But pick a new word or you’ll forever be defined by a “+” as long as that acronym leaves my lips.
Back to the main topic. The plight for gay actors has gotten better in some ways, but in some, it’s gotten worse. Gone are the days of Kenneth Williams and John Inman. Why? Because the “sex sells” rule is well and truly ruling. A typically good looking straight guy is usually cast to play a gay character because no one fancies the feminine, skinny gay – the actual gay- whether they’re a straight woman or a gay man. And the straight men don’t want to be the skinny and feminine guy. On top of that we have, as mentioned before, the struggle producers encounter trying to feature a gay character properly. It sometimes seems as though there’s no hope for actors like me. We are shunned by drama schools, talent agents, casting directors, and producers alike because we are perceived to be un-versatile and uncommercial. And I’m not just being dramatic, because I am a product and a continuing fighter of that. One day I hope to be a survivor of that.
How can we ever expect anyone to ever take us seriously and want to invest time, thought and opportunities in us when we persist with the in-fighting, nitpicking, femme-shaming, and general poor effort at being exactly what we’re supposed to be – a community?