A straight actor examines a persistent stigma—and realizes he's part of the problem.
The effect of multiple strangers asking you to take off your clothes is uncomfortably intimate—like walking around a doctor's office with a glass of your own urine.
That's what I'm thinking when, for the third time in a day, a woman asks me: "So, you are comfortable taking your shirt off?"
I nod and hand her a headshot.
The script she gives me in exchange is for an AIDS awareness advertisement for Logo, Viacom's gay-targeted network. It has two lines: 1. "Did you hear that? We have chemistry!" and 2. "When were you last tested?"
The woman says "And you know that, if you book this, you'll have to kiss another man?"
"Yes," I say.
"And you're comfortable with that?"
"Yes," I say.
I have worked as a model and an actor for eight years now. Part of the job is making yourself comfortable in situations that are not familiar.
The casting director, another woman, emerges from inside the studio where they are filming the audition, and she asks me to take my shirt off and stand in front of a blazing white light. I am reminded that I really ought to work out more. It's as if my metaphorical glass of urine spilled a bit and we can all see the carpet stain.
I am not gay. I have no shortage of gay friends. My uncle is gay. I've marched in a gay pride parade. More than half of the roommates I have lived with are gay. I support marriage equality.
So it comes as a shock to me when I realize that, actually, if I am honest with myself, I'm not comfortable with kissing another man on camera. I really don't want to book this part.
I don't want people to think I'm gay. And I'm even more uncomfortable because that isn't a thought that I want to have.
Acting is a curious profession. The Oscars tend to award actors who transfigure themselves. Think of Charlize Theron in Monster or Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. And most actors actively want to stretch outside of themselves. That is, after all, why we tried to make a career out of pretending. But people tend to assume things about you after they have seen you onstage. The character and the person are conflated.
Still, I wouldn't turn down a commercial that required me to pretend to slap a child, or one where I played a Nazi. And—assuming the ad wasn't advocating child abuse or Nazism—I don't think I would feel odd about the audition.
I ask my theatrical agent if there is any industry stigma about doing a gay role. "No," he says, "not since Will and Grace in the '90s."
I call my commercial agent to ask him the same question. "No," he says. "Ikea was doing ads with gay couples in the '90s. Will and Grace really changed things." "But you had to ask me two times if I was comfortable," I protest. "We would do that on any spot where you have to kiss," he tells me.
Gigi Nicolas, the director of on-air promotions at Logo, tells me that at least I was not alone in my discomfort. "We had to do a second round of casting," she says. "Far fewer people auditioned than I expected. Most of my top choices just didn't show up."
There is a long history of discomfort within the industry on gay actors playing straight roles and vice versa. Perhaps more significantly, there is a long history of discomfort within the industry—and across the globe—that gay people exist at all.
Rock Hudson, the mid-20th century heart throb and star of Giant, Pillow Talk, and nine films with Douglas Sirk, died of AIDS in 1985. His obituary in the New York Times recounted his marriage and his divorce. It did not mention he was gay.
Tab Hunter and Van Johnson were both widely known to be gay, but this aspect of them went largely unmentioned in the press and talk of their love lives was discouraged by the studios. Marlon Brando, too, had homosexual affairs.