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Why Are the Oscars So Bad at Nominating Gay Actors?

At the 74th Academy Awards in 2002, Ian McKellen gave a victory speech. Facing the black-tie audience in the Kodak Theatre, he dedicated a history-making triumph to the many young gay actors, out and not, who felt unwelcome in the industry.

But McKellen wasn’t holding an Oscar, or even standing on the stage. History had not been made—and he was being sarcastic. Nominated for his supporting turn in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the actor had lost that night, and from his seat in the front row was reading aloud the final words of the speech he’d written, in a more earnest mood, for his groundbreaking Gods and Monsters nomination in 1999. “I’ll never forget it,” says that movie’s director, Bill Condon, who was with McKellen that night and who knew the whole speech well. “It was about all the warnings he received when he was deciding to come out, all the things that would happen.”

Gods and Monsters made McKellen the first openly gay actor to be Oscar-nominated, and, after that 2002 Fellowship nomination, he remains the last. Only two queer-identifying actors have since been nominated for Academy Awards—megastars Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie, both of whom are bisexual. (Others, such as Elliot Page and Queen Latifah, came out years after their nominations.) Compare that to the number of outwardly LGBTQ+ characters who’ve earned their portrayers Oscar nominations since 2002, which stands at a staggering three dozen, at least. That’s an average of nearly two per year—and none of them were played by openly LGBTQ+ actors.

This dismal track record “speaks to Hollywood’s long history of intolerance and bigotry,” says Jeremy Blacklow, director of entertainment media at GLAAD. “LGBTQ+ actors have long faced blatant employment discrimination and have felt forced to hide their sexual orientation and/or gender identity if they hoped to work at all.” The Sunday Times recently asked Pose star Billy Porter if he expected his success. “No, because I’m gay,” Porter said. “I was told my queerness would be a liability.”

For actors of Porter’s generation, there weren’t many LGBTQ+ roles to play in movies. As that has changed, the conversation has evolved to one of opportunity and equality, often focusing on whether stars who do not belong to a marginalized identity group should play characters who do—straight actors playing gay, or cis actors playing trans. “The performances that queer actors deliver when they’re allowed to play queer characters have an authenticity that is undeniable,” says actor Wilson Cruz, who’s achieved a decades-long career as an openly gay actor on TV shows such as My So-Called Life and Star Trek: Discovery. “I think that studios and agencies and power players believe that the queer roles played by cisgendered, straight people is fertile ground for attention and awards.”

When a queer actor plays a queer character, it can be perceived as more “authentic,” and therefore less challenging. “The notion that a queer actor is giving a less demanding performance because he’s coming to it from a lived experience just doesn’t hold water for me,” Cruz continues. “I’m not giving more credit to anyone when they play these roles, whether they’re gay or they’re straight. I don’t understand why anybody else does. We’re all actors, we’re all playing roles.”

Indeed, based on the sheer discrepancy between LGBTQ+ roles nominated and actors nominated, the problem extends well beyond any character’s identity. (For one thing, consider how rare it remains for A-listers to be openly LGBTQ+.) “Once they come out, lesbian, gay, and bisexual actors have rarely been considered for straight leading roles,” Blacklow says, “and they haven’t been cast for leading lesbian, gay, or bisexual roles either.” The issue of cisgender actors playing trans has become more clear-cut, at least: Says Blacklow, “Today, if a cisgender actor is cast in a transgender role, the significant outcry from transgender people and their allies makes the project untenable.”

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