‘I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are not there to “act gay” because “acting gay” is a bunch of codes for a performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020.’
Russell T. Davies’ statement caused quite the furore when he insisted gay roles should only be played by gay actors.
Personally, I’ve always been torn over the long-standing debate. And then came It’s A Sin.
Davies’ Channel 4 series chronicling the AIDS crisis of the 1980s – or the other ‘great pandemic‘ of our lifetime as he so rightly puts it – is a particularly remarkable moment in television.
Not just because of the extraordinary talent cast to tell such a vital and agonising part of history with equal measures of fun, respect and anguish, but because its gay characters – which make up almost the entire key cast – are being played by gay actors.
At times, the conversation surrounding casting gay roles has been ferocious from both sides.
Ultimately, when white, straight actors can casually walk into roles regardless of race, gender, sexuality, disability – or lack thereof – LGBTQ actors are so rarely afforded the same opportunity to play it straight. Dismissing our hunger for our stories to be told by the people who lived them is absurd.
In the not-too distant future, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci will star in Supernova, a film that follows a gay couple embarking on a road trip when one of them starts showing signs of early dementia. Of course, dementia and indeed love are experiences felt by all – gay, straight, bisexual, trans, queer or however one identifies.
By many accounts, both actors are exceptional – few critics have questioned if the heterosexual stars authentically portrayed gay partners. Firth and Tucci are no strangers to playing people falling in love and perhaps that’s all they need to be.
It’s A Sin, however, is a vital story to be told it has to be told by gay people.
At the heart of It’s A Sin, is young men falling recklessly in love, parading through pockets of London’s gay scene care-free through the 1980s. The capital was alive with dancing, sex and infatuation – but unbeknown to the millions of gay men enjoying unprotected sex, our community was rapidly being exterminated by a new deadly disease.
Among the few key straight characters is Jill (played by the excellent Lydia West), a real-life heroine, friend of Davies and the mother of It’s A Sin. Jill not only found herself at the core of the gay community, she nurtured, defended and risked her freedom for it while one by one her friends died around her, many before reaching 30.
While visiting one friend in hospital, she’d walk through the corridors specifically housing gay men perishing to AIDS and HIV, glancing through windows and spotting more people she knew and loved spending their final days alone, deteriorating in isolation during concerns the virus would kill anyone who came close to it.
Jill’s tale is not only true, it was common.
As a gay man, of course I knew details of the 1980s AIDS pandemic, but shamefully I wasn’t quite aware of the magnitude until I was introduced to Mathew Lopez’s play The Inheritance – set in New York City, again during the height of the AIDS pandemic.
I didn’t know that had I been born 20 years earlier the chances of me reaching beyond the age I am today (33) were horrifyingly bleak. I didn’t know that even should I have been fortunate enough to live out my adult years, I would have inevitably buried some – if not most – of my friendship circle. I didn’t know any of this because the history books that I was given at school didn’t touch on it.
Why? Perhaps the death of millions of gay men wasn’t worthy. Perhaps it was our fault that AIDS spread with greater ease through anal sex and being the deviants that we are, we just weren’t careful enough.
Perhaps it’s guilt from those who demonised us, and continue to demonise us, that so many of us were deserted, abused and treated like murderers in our dying days by the press, by medical professionals, our families, the police and our then-prime minister. She who shall not be named.
Like many of my gay peers, I am still learning and navigating through the past of the gay men and women before me. Thankfully, I can find it in the books, plays and television in my adulthood. These lessons can only be taught by other gay men.
The trauma of being gay in a straight world is still very real and oh so punishing. Keeping your identity a secret so closely guarded to your chest until letting it go at adulthood – if at all – is inevitably a ticket to PTSD.
The thought of coming out isn’t just intoxicating, it’s far too often fatal and results in suicide. While fewer of us are dying from AIDs and HIV-related deaths, suicide rates among gay and bisexual men are consistently on the rise.
The virus may be subsiding compared to the raging beast it became in the 1980s and 1990s, but the shame engrained in us for being gay and from the marks left by abuse, which is decades old, isn’t going anywhere.
Straight men may be able to play a man in love, but could I believe – or do I want to believe – that a straight man can feel what it means to be a gay, terrified and terrorised the 1980s? The thought that a straight man would have the audacity to audition for such a role is, to be frank, warped.
It’s A Sin does the stories of those who died from AIDS or lost their gay loved ones to the disease justice because it’s told by gay men.
Should all gay roles be exclusively reserved for gay actors? Choosing to ignore James Corden’s recent catastrophe in Ryan Murphy’s Prom, no. Straight men have often played gay men wonderfully: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain; Tom Hanks in Philadelphia; Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. In fact, the point hardly needs justifying with examples.
It’s about context. It’s A Sin is filled with pain, history and even humour that must be bestowed on the shoulders of gay actors whose life has been transformed by the ghosts of our past – the characters maybe fictional but the tragedies they lived and died by are very much real.
Davies is entirely right to reserve his gay roles for gay actors because in It’s A Sin he treads far beyond what it means to be a gay man in love.
He speaks to us in a language that hits home and hits home for good reason: because it comes from one gay man to another, while also creating a space where our unique experience can be enjoyed, understood and accepted by all.
It’s A Sin airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 4.