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Gay Or Trans: A Casting Controversy

Laverne Cox
Trans performers like Laverne Cox want more opportunities to play trans characters.

Is just being an actor enough to play the role of a gay or trans character?

This past summer, actor Scarlett Johansson was cast to play a trans man in the film "Rub and Tug." Immediately, critics pounced on the casting decision, complaining that a trans performer should have been given the role. As a result of the backlash, Johansson withdrew from the project. The future of the film is now in limbo. 

Over at Disney, it was just announced that they have cast their first openly gay character for the film, "Jungle Cruise." Actor Jack Whitehall won the role—and the anger of Twitter users who were outraged that Whitehall himself is not gay. The controversy has many talking about representation and casting calls that ring false.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing. They're both stirring up the same heated debate in Hollywood and on social media, forcing the question: Does it really matter that a gay or trans character be played by a performer who is gay or trans? According to Shari Zeck, interim dean of Milner Library and GLT Culture Maven, the answer is not so simple.

"Actors act. That's what they do. At one level, one likes to believe that one simply casts the most skilled actor for any particular role. However, acting does not exist in a vacuum. Everytime someone is cast, someone else is not cast.

"So in the interest of seeing more trans people, more gay and lesbian people having more jobs, becoming more prominent in the industry and in culture in general, not casting gay or trans people is bad. But, the way I would argue it is, it's not so much that gay people because of their particular experience of being gay ought to play gay characters, so much as gay people just need to get cast more so that they can be out and a force within the industry itself," Zeck said.

Having a gay or trans actor play a role written as gay or trans is still no guarantee of a good performance of that role.

"I'm sure that it will make some people unhappy to have to say that," Zeck admitted with a chagrinned expression. "The personal experience of the actor may be something that an actor would draw upon. But actors have tools that they can draw upon to create a great performance. The issue is that we don't just read a performance outside the context of anything else we know about an actor, a film, a situation."

If gay and trans performers are allowed to play such characters, the threat of typecasting could create new problems for those who like to stretch their limits.

"Actors like to play outside their comfort zone. Good actors want to play something that is unfamilar. They want to use their craft and the opportunities given to their craft to explore imaginatively. Instituting another type of typecasting where you must be what you play does not expand the actor's playground and does not expand our understanding of the human psyche."

It's about opportunity for gay/trans actors.

"Laverne Cox, from 'Orange is the New Black,' is keen to play more roles. Period. And to the extent that trans people are discriminated against in this industry for roles, one ought to have a better than average shot at getting those trans roles. It's a means to being cast more, and therefore in the public eye, therefore becoming a bankable star and so on. So, typecasting—bad. People only being able to play within their own personal identity—bad. But as a means to an end that goes beyond that, possibly a step that we need to encourage casting directors and producers to work on."

The gay/trans casting question is an ongoing debate, said Zeck, not just a temporary blip on our cultural radar.

"I see it as being connected to all the other discussions we're having about identity and the place of any kind of alterity, and having a voice in culture. In that regard, this is an ongoing conversation that is not going to go away."

Full segment from GLT.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.