Play Gay, But Play Gay Well

There I was thinking that the gay news was really quiet these days, and up comes the Cadbury’s Egg ad and Russell T Davies making some controversial remarks to make me think again.

I am a Russell T Davies fan. I have said this before with my reviews of Years And Years. I have loved everything Russell T Davies has written, from Children’s Ward when I was 10 years old, to Dark Season and Century Falls on Children’s BBC in the 90s, to Doctor Who, Cucumber, Queer As Folk, Years And Years and RTD’s depiction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was shown two years ago on the BBC. I usually struggle to understand Shakespeare, but RTD’s colourful depiction had me engrossed. I really recommend it.

RTD is a writer of the gay persuasion who does not shy away from writing about real gay issues. Heterosexual writers often write gay characters coming out, facing homophobia and then… the character is written out of the drama. RTD writes real gay characters, dealing with real LGB issues such as the lasting emotional affects of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the fact that for many bisexual people (in accordance with bisexual research), sex with the opposite sex feels more natural than sex with the same sex, crazy and chaotic lifestyles and the expectations of crazy lives, inappropriate behaviour at funerals, hypersexualisation among gay men, drug misuse etcetera etcetera. RTD writes real gay stories with real gay characters.

RTD is an extremely clever writer – my favourite TV writer. He incorporates modern issues into exciting personal dramas, he puts outrageous laugh out loud comedy next to deadly serious matters, and is both witty and gentle, compassionate and sparky. This is why his TV shows are so addictive.

I do find it surprising that RTD has just said that he wants only gay actors to play gay roles. As many people have said, acting is acting. In the past, I have been quite heavy on gay roles being played by gay people, and I will explain this. In general, I think the best actor should get the role.

Some LGB actors do have something extra to bring to an LGB role because, like RTD, as LGB people we have seen things that heterosexual people have not. I have heard heterosexual people just pass off serious issues as normal gay behaviour, which is in fact a homophobic way of looking at issues such as higher levels of drug misuse, promiscuity, domestic violence, crazy and chaotic lifestyles among LGBT people. These are issues to be dealt with, not “who we are”. LGBT people have access to knowledge that many heterosexual people do not have simply because we tend to have more LGBT friends and so we have more aware of issues and patterns.

My main gripe is the way that heterosexual actors portray LGB characters. TV is made for heterosexual people. Heterosexual people make up 98% the population, so of course TV is made for them. As we see on soaps and on programmes such as X Factor, LGB people or characters are there to entertain and to be court jesters, never to be taken seriously as normal human beings.

In Coronation Street, there have been several gay female characters in the last three years. All had long hair, all played by heterosexuals except one, all wore make up, all were thin, all wore expensive clothes, all wore short dresses and short skirts and high heels. Does this sound like all the gay women you know? It was clear that the Kate-Rana storyline was there for titillation, especially when the couple were shown kissing in their lacy, fresh out of the box bras. Soft porn for the heterosexual male viewers, and a heterosexual version of lesbianism so that heterosexual female viewers did not feel intimidated. Kate in her skin tight leather trousers and high heels, with her long hair flowing behind her on a Tuesday afternoon. This is what passes for lesbian representation on UK TV.

Lesbian and bisexual women are individuals. We are unique individuals, we are not all the same. Yet, like heterosexual women, there are some patterns that occur among us. When I was married, for the first few weeks, my husband was a little stunned each day and took a while getting used to some things. Most mornings for the first two weeks, he said, “It’s like living with a man.” I asked what he meant, and he said that I didn’t spend an hour in the bathroom every morning like other women do.

I wear dresses and I wear more masculine outfits. I let my hair grow out, I cut my hair. But most people read me as a gay woman, even though I only date men (for religious reasons). I am read as a gay woman because of my body language, my hand gestures, the way I hold myself and the way I speak using to facts rather than emotion sets me apart from most women. Most of my friends are men. I think women shy away from me because they are intimidated, and women tend to talk about relationships and emotions, whereas I like to talk about things such as music or street art, which most women don’t like talking about. There are individuals and there are patterns.

Also, heterosexual women do tend to have a problem with gay women. To them, we are ugly, too vocal, a threat in the workplace, and a threat to their sexual safety. Many straight women will say they are not homophobic. Unfortunately, their behaviour shows otherwise when it comes to their liking or disliking of gay women. Yet the gay female characters in Coronation Street have encountered no such problem with the heterosexual female characters. Again, this shows that TV writers usually portray gay characters’ storylines through a heterosexual lens.

The only honest depiction of a gay women played by a straight woman that I have seen was Rose Rollins playing Captain Tasha Williams in The L Word. The wardrobe department did a great job, giving Tasha clothes that accurately reflected Tasha’s background and personality – clothes that were masculine and looked amazing. However, it was Rose Rollin’s attention to body language that really struck me. In one of the first scenes she is in, we see Tasha – who had just come back from a tour of Iraq – in an emergency room waiting room, sitting in a strong pose with her legs apart without doing the full man spread, her elbows on the arms of her chair and her hands clasped. Her head was down as she was thinking about the extent of the injuries of the people around her and which patients would be prioritised accordingly. Here is a woman who is a professional to a T, strong in her knowledge and strong in her own sense of self.

Likewise, the character Tina in The L Word – a bisexual character played by a bisexual woman – sits in similar poses to Tasha, and Tina’s hand gestures and punching the air when celebrating, fist bumping etc are similar to my gestures. The same with several of The L Word’s actors who were LB. We sometimes have certain body language and gestures that heterosexual women tend to not have. Rose Rollins wasn’t a straight woman playing a straight woman in a gay relationship. She played a gay woman. She altered her appearance, she wore sports bras and briefs, she held herself with a strong posture, she used strong hand gestures; Rose Rollins had clearly studied real gay women in order to act authentically as a gay woman.

Put Tasha into any group of heterosexual women you know. The heterosexual women would be intimidated by Tasha. They would be intimidated by her rank as Captain in an army, they would be intimidated by her knowledge and by her frank way of speaking and they would be intimidated by her body language. This is why any depiction of gay women on mainstream TV is not a true depiction of gay women. The depiction is actually that of a heterosexual woman who is in a relationship with another heterosexual woman.

Going back to Coronation Street – the most popular soap drama in the UK; when it was announced that the character Sophie, played by Brook Vincent, was lesbian, Brook Vincent was interviewed in newspapers about this revelation. I read some of the interviews, and was taken aback at Brook Vincent’s lesbophobic – anti lesbian – comments, even using the word “dykey” as an insult. When the “representation” is making bigoted comments in national newspapers, you know they are not coming from a genuine place of wanting to genuinely depict an LGB character.

I want straight actors to play gay, but play gay well. Gay actors adapt their body language, speech, appearance and clothing to play straight characters. Let’s get straight actors who play gay characters to return the favour and actually play gay characters, not just play straight people in a same sex relationship with another straight person.

About catherinehume

Catherine Hume: Writer, social care worker and a liver of a life less ordinary.
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