Jan 14th, 2023, 09:00 AM

We Need to Rethink Queer Representation in Media

By Kelly Russo
The cast of Heartstopper poses for a photo in front of a bright blue wall.
Heartstopper leads Kit Connor (bottom left) and Joe Locke (bottom right) pictured with crew on set. Image credit: Instagram/@joelocke03
We need to stop pushing actors that play queer characters to be queer (and out of the closet) in real life.

“Back for a minute. i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye.” 

The short Tweet shared by actor Kit Connor, the star of Netflix hit show Heartstopper, renewed heated debate online about whether people should continue advocating for queer on-screen roles to be reserved for queer actors. As queer roles expand, especially in the young adult television and film category, we need to do away with this well meaning, but increasingly misplaced notion. In practice, this expectation has forced young actors into precarious positions—required to either come out publicly or to face harassment from audiences. 

The approach toward casting queer roles has been hotly contested in recent decades among members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Given historic discrimination in Hollywood against actors in the community, many people believe that queer roles should only be filled by queer actors. Proponents of this argument note that queer people can better represent and negotiate accurate on-screen portrayals of the queer experience. Indeed actors like Billy Porter, a gay man living with HIV, have been instrumental in shaping the on-screen portrayals of characters with uniquely queer experiences. Porter’s character, Pray Tell, depicted in acclaimed FX series Pose, was notably the result of negotiation between Porter and showrunner Ryan Murphy—with Porter providing substantial input into Pray Tell’s HIV diagnosis amidst the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. 

More importantly for viewers, increased opportunity is important for openly queer actors. Indeed, many Hollywood insiders have confirmed the barriers faced by openly queer actors in being considered for straight roles. In an interview with Out Magazine, comedian Billy Eichner detailed the reality of casting queer actors behind closed doors. “I was privy to casting discussions, and I would see when the casting lists were circulating, about which actors to call in for which role. There were so many straight actors on every list to play gay characters. And then, at the beginning before I raised my voice, for the straight characters in the movie, there were never gay actors on the lists for those roles. I saw it with my own eyes. It’s not a two-way street.” 

This reality is undeniable, and it must be addressed at length in Hollywood—but the answer is not placing demands onto actors to be out and proud. The danger of this approach has been made clear by the present predicament of Kit Connor, whose situation is all the more shocking for his character’s story arc on Heartstopper. Connor plays a high school soccer player who grapples with his bisexuality—chronicling the slow, nerve wracking process of coming out to friends and family after falling in love with his classmate Charlie. Indeed, audiences entirely missed “the point of the show,” as he states in his short, biting, coming-out Tweet. 

In Connor’s circumstance, outrage flared up among fans when he was photographed holding hands with a female costar. After months of speculation about his sexuality, many fans then accused him of “queerbaiting”—a marketing tactic wherein content creators hint at queer romance or other LGBTQ+ representation to lure in queer audiences, but do not depict it. Although the term was once used explicitly to call out the content creators who have the power to write, produce, and greenlight shows and films—it is increasingly being used to describe actors who aren’t out and proud. In recent years, other young actors have faced similar situations—the stars of Netflix’s Young Royals and Love, Victor most notably.

As Riese Bernard, co-founder and CEO of queer publication Autostraddle, so eloquently puts it: “The market usually continues to value straight cis voices over gay and/or trans voices, continues to privilege and uplift their versions of our stories over our own. But those forces aren’t the fault of the individual teenager, and it’s not on them personally to compensate for decades of puritanical, profit-driven corporations shortchanging queer audiences.”

As the conversation continues, actors themselves are notably split. Queer actors like Jim Parsons, Kristen Stewart, and Clea Duvall have signaled their focus on making sure queer people and their stories are given equal weight to that of straight characters, rather than focusing on the sexuality of actors cast in those roles. Others like Billy Eichner, as well as straight actors such as Darren Criss and Mackenzie Davis (who have both played queer characters multiple times) maintain that queer roles should generally be reserved for queer actors. 

In a recent interview, Jacqueline Toboni, who stars in the new L Word reboot, remarked “I’m sometimes frustrated when I see straight actresses specifically playing lesbian roles that I don’t necessarily believe them.” And although there is truth to what she’s saying, I can’t help but recall the first time I saw Toboni cast in a queer role in Netflix series Easy. At the time the series aired in 2016, Toboni was not publicly out. The grace she was given to come out on her own terms—regardless of what roles she was playing—is owed to any undefined or presumed-straight actor playing a queer role. 

The nuance lost in demands that actors who take on queer roles be out and perfectly performing queer identity is staggering. It’s time for audiences and queer community leaders to redirect their efforts away from the people playing characters on screen toward the people behind the screens making decisions.