At present, cinema shows no sign of ending its love affair with traditionally masculine gay men, writes Louis Staples
Growing up gay, a lack of visible role models made life confusing. When looking to film and television to help me to understand myself, I immediately saw that gay characters were often the butt of the joke. Either that, or they were on the periphery, magically appearing when a central character needed a shoulder to cry on, a sassy pep talk or a fashion makeover. Outside the shallow, one-dimensional trope of the “gay best friend”, other queer characters – such as Andrew Van De Kamp from Desperate Housewives or Teddy from the 2008 television remake of 90210 – didn’t feel relatable to me at all. The only thing that impossibly masculine Teddy and I (an effeminate, skinny teen who lacked his chiselled jawline) had in common was our shared attraction to men.
A decade on, LGBTQ+ representation has increased significantly. In the last year, films such as Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon have centred gay love stories. Yet while the existence of these films is undoubtedly a step forward, cinema shows no sign of ending its love affair with traditionally masculine gay men.
“Straight acting” and “masc” are terms that come with significant baggage in gay culture. Widely circulated on hookup apps, they consign those who don’t “act straight” to a lower status. But is it any wonder that some gay men feel this way when even the gay characters in films aimed at LGBTQ+ audiences have to be traditionally masculine in order to have depth? Even Moonlight and God’s Own Country, which moved me immensely, centred gay men so masculine their sexuality was indiscernible until they locked lips with another man.
Of course gay men can be masculine, nor is anything wrong with telling the stories of those who are. But effeminate gay men aren’t always afforded the same courtesy. In 2015, gay actor Russell Tovey faced backlash for suggesting that he had benefited from not going to drama school, saying it would have made him “prance around” being “effeminate”. Director Roland Emmerich was also criticised for saying that he cast the lead character in Stonewall – a 2015 film based on the Stonewall riots which was eviscerated by critics – to give audiences a “straight-acting” character to identify with. Tovey now thinks being gay – and playing gay roles – has “made his career”, saying he’s realised that “there are a billion fascinating wonderful stories to tell with gay characters”.
Though, as the LGBTQ+ films in the last year suggest, these “wonderful stories” tend to centre masculine gay men. Tovey and Emmerich’s comments signal an awareness that gay characters and gay actors are more “acceptable” to audiences when they align closely with heterosexual norms.
While the debate over the ethics of gay roles being handed to heterosexual actors continues, perhaps we should first focus on diversifying the characters these actors are playing? After all, a rise in effeminate gay film roles, which transcend the “gay best friend” mould, will likely bring more effeminate gay actors into the public eye. It would also prove to heterosexual film industry leaders and gay actors like Tovey – who sense the homophobia of the wider industry and project it onto themselves – that audiences want to see stories that depict feminine gay men as strong, complex, attractive and deserving of love.
In television, which has made significant progress in this area, we have already seen this. Chris Colfer’s portrayal of Kurt Hummel in Glee, Michael Urie and Mark Indelicato’s roles in Ugly Betty, Andrew Rannells in Girls and Tommy Dorfman in 13 Reasons Why are just some examples of characters sensitively played by feminine gay actors. Though with more roles that break the grip of traditional masculinity and tired stereotypes, people will soon become less fussed about the sexual orientation of actors.
This has happened in theatre. Angels in America’s sell-out run in London and New York, in which Andrew Garfield gave a spellbinding performance, suggests that mainstream audiences don’t mind paying premium prices to see stories that centre feminine gay characters. As does new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – which will reportedly be adapted into a film in 2020 – and mammoth two-parter The Inheritance.
Wider popular culture also reflects a growing comfortability with feminine gay male narratives. Jonathan Van Ness was the breakout star of Netflix’s Queer Eye and figure skater Adam Rippon became an online sensation following the Winter Olympics. In music, Olly Alexander and Troye Sivan are proving that sequin-clad gay men can perform songs about bottoming and achieve both mainstream appeal and critical success.
Despite other mediums rejecting the notion that gay femininity is frivolous, the film industry remains behind. ‘Firsts’, like the first gay teen movie Love, Simon, are promising. But just as Emmerich insisted that a masculine man should throw the first brick in Stonewall, too often these ‘firsts’ are fronted by gay characters who represent a masculinity that feels exclusive to me. Love, Simon was a heart-warming film that felt satisfyingly ordinary. But now, let’s have a high school movie that’s out of the ordinary, or helps to redefine our ideas of ‘normal’. We often hear actors and directors talking about masculine gay characters not being ‘defined’ by their sexuality, but what role models are there for those of us who can’t hide our visible gayness? Let’s have a film about a boy who grew up playing with dolls, avoiding gym class, watching America’s Next Top Model with his mum and learning to situate his awkward femininity in a world that’s often hostile to people like him.
For feminine gay men like me, our existence is very rarely reflected in a meaningful or nuanced way in film. While this vacuum continues, queer people are looking to cinema to help make sense of their complex lives. For the limp wristed gay men among us, hopefully 2019 will be the year that cinema stops erasing and trivialising our femininity. Because when you see yourself, you feel like you can be yourself. Isn’t that an emotion we are all deserving of?