The Reality of LGBT Characters

I’ll admit, I haven’t seen “Dallas Buyers Club” yet. However, I have seen a great number of other high-profile films in which straight actors portray Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender characters and have noticed some interesting trends. For one it seems, from the results of the Academy Awards over the past several decades, that an actor is more likely to win an award if he or she chooses to portray an LGBT character, or character suffering from issues commonly associated with the LGBT community, such as HIV/AIDS. Actors such as Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1994), Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Sean Penn in Milk (2008) have each won Academy Awards for their performances as LGBT characters. Does the Academy feel that portraying a gay character or one suffering from AIDS on the big screen is particularly daring or exceedingly difficult to achieve?

Although the mere choice of role, in the cases of Swank and Penn, for example, may have increased these actors’ chances of winning the Academy Awards, each did give remarkable performances in their respective films. Swank as transgender man and hate-crime victim Brandon Teena, and Penn as openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. Appropriately, both actors in their acceptance speeches, also acknowledged the important causes each of their films referenced.

“We have come a long way,” Swank began. “To think that this movie wouldn’t have been made three and half years ago.” She also thanked her character’s real life inspiration in her speech, concluding with “last but certainly not least, I want to thank Brandon Teena for being such an inspiration to us all. His legacy lives on through our movie to remind us to always be ourselves, to follow our hearts, to not conform. I pray for the day when we not only accept our differences, but also celebrate our diversity.”

Penn said during his speech, “I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”

At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, however, Matthew McConaughey, who won the best leading actor Oscar for his performance as AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club, gave no mention at all of the millions of individuals in the world currently suffering from HIV/AIDS and what the thousands of individuals in the audience that evening, and millions watching from home, could do to support them or at least become aware of this issue. Instead, the 44-year-old seemingly intoxicated Texan actor pranced around the stage, gushing on and on about himself and lecturing the audience on his greatness. What an embarrassing waste of an opportunity to spread awareness about an important cause.

Finally, there also appears to be a double standard in place concerning actors who choose to play characters with different sexual orientations from their own. While straight actors receive praise from critics and win awards for portraying gay characters, openly gay actors are often criticized for not seeming straight enough in straight roles.

“Frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight,” wrote Ramin Setoodeh about Sean Hayes’ leading role in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, in a controversial 2010 Newsweek article. “He comes off as wooden and insincere, as if he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.”

About Jonathan Groff, in his role as Jesse St. James on acclaimed television series Glee, Setoodeh wrote, “As the shifty glee captain from another school who steals Rachel’s heart, there’s something about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes he scowls — is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than for Rachel.”

Overall, it seems that the sexual orientation, of both actors and actresses, and the characters they play certainly plays a part in how convincing, or unconvincing, viewers feel their portrayals are. Is it really easier for straight actors to play gay characters than the other way around? If so, straight actors who win awards for playing gay characters should at least acknowledge the discrimination the LGBT community faces on a daily basis when given the chance to speak in front of millions.


Eli Heller is a fourth-year literary journalism and art history double major. He can be reached at