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When Will Hollywood Start Casting Gay Actors in Gay Roles?

15/10/2015 11:19 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 10:12 BST

Straight actors being cool with playing gay roles is a difficult one. On the one hand it shows a progressiveness the queer community has waited decades for - an acceptance of gay characters into the mainstream, and an associated flurry of Oscars for a diversification of 'difficult' roles. On the other hand, seeing gay roles monopolised by Heath Ledgers and James Francos seems akin to the sort of gay-baiting we might expect from only our naffest 90's boy-bands, the equivalent of 'unqueering the norm' - taking gay roles and attempting to elucidate their integrity by placing them in a straight context.

The "gay problem" has existed in Hollywood for about as long as its eponymous hill-top sign. The entertainment industry's equivalent of footballers or politicians, Hollywood's gay actors have been forced to adopt multiple personas, one for the screen and one for their lives lived out in the public eye. The few attempts to subvert this trend have led to career dives like that of Rupert Everett or - in a rare case of minimal damage - actors like Ian McKellen waiting until almost 50 to come out. When a gay publication asked Tom Hardy about his sexuality in a press conference recently, it was perhaps unsurprising that he reacted with such contempt - afterall it's a question that has been known to ruin careers.

In a recent interview with the Observer, Matt Damon caused his second shit-storm in three weeks by declaring it non-conducive for a gay actor to declare their sexuality. "I was just trying to say actors are more effective when they're a mystery", Damon expounded on the Ellen DeGeneres show - neglecting to notice that as an attractive, Harvard-educated, heterosexual, white man, his "success" as an actor is about as much a mystery as his persistent snubs by the academy.

This comes less than a month after 'Damon-gate', when the Bourne Identity star snubbed Effie Brown, a black director, saying "diversity should be reflected in the casting of the movie, not the casting of the show".

In both these instances Damon, much to his regret, portrays a sort of self-righteousness particular to only a specific breed of white man, normally an Ivy-league or Oxbridge graduate who believes their personal success owes everything to their brilliance and nothing to the genetic lottery that placed them in the arms of a world more than happy to entertain them.

Damon's comment that an actor should be mysterious says a lot about what Grayson Perry once called 'default man'. As default man, Damon has the privilege of having an identity that allows him to blend into the background; that allows an audience to forget for a moment that Jason Bourne is actually a millionaire Hollywood actor with three kids. As default man, there is nothing challenging about Damon's identity and hence his performance can take centre stage.

But this privilege of invisibility isn't afforded to a vast majority of people, and for failing that invisibility test these people face daily persecution. At the moment, with a majority of queer characters being played by straight actors and 90% of Hollywood films directed by white men, it doesn't matter what these stories are ostensibly about, they remain narratives about default man.

Damon's success as an actor comes down to his interchangeablility, the fact that as a straight white man he is deemed suitable for almost any role in Hollywood. The scandal caused earlier this year when it was announced Emma Stone would be playing a part-Asian character in the film Aloha is only a small step from the persistent casting of straight actors in gay roles. Part of this is about creating a artifice of inclusivity, but it is also about unqueering gay stories - making them straight stories with gay characters.

The suggestion then that actors should retain mystery around their sexuality is laughable in the face of Damon's clean-cut action-hero persona. The only reason Damon and his cohort are acceptable in playing gay characters is because of their confirmed heterosexuality. The reason openly gay actors don't get cast in straight roles is the same reason they don't get cast in gay ones: because they're not straight. To suggest mystery has anything to do with it is blind-sighted.

Contrary to Damon's opinion, this doesn't mean actors should get better at hiding those traits that define them against the norm. Rather we should rally against the film industry to introduce a greater diversity of narratives, stories that celebrate diversity, not in a tokenistic way but as genuine alternatives; stories that show queer lives as related by queer actors and queer directors, not Jared Letto after another Oscar.