Why Do I Still Feel Uncomfortable Playing a Gay Man on TV?

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A straight actor examines a persistent stigma—and realizes he's part of the problem.

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Focus Features; TriStar; Fox; CBS

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.

Just two years ago, Newsweek's Ramin Setoodeh stirred controversy when he suggested that a gay actor couldn't play a straight role very well. Organizations and people from Aaron Sorkin to GLAAD traded barbed comments afterwards. I would submit that there are a lot of straight actors who cannot play straight roles very well. Being good at acting is not necessarily a precondition to being an actor.

Since the making of Philadelphia, Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L-Word, gay roles have become less unusual in film and TV. The number of straight people playing wildly lauded roles where the character is gay or vice versa seems to corroborate my agents' contention that any stigma these roles may once have had has disappeared. Tom Hanks, Neil Patrick Harris, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Portia De Rossi, Heath Ledger, Ian McKellen, Michael K. Williams, Cynthia Nixon, Eric McCormack, Ving Rhames, Sean Penn, Michael C. Hall, Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and so on.

While there is no ready tool or survey to measure homophobia or its absence within Hollywood, it seems that I can't blame my own discomfort with the Logo commercial on the prejudices of others.

***

If you ever want to feel really wretched about what a big jerk you are, there are worse ways to do it than logging onto Harvard's Project Implicit. Psychologists at Harvard created a series of tests that measure your reaction time when you associate positive and negative concepts with different social groups. The results give you an indication of how racist or sexist or agist or generally prejudiced you are on a subconscious level.

My implicit association scores tell me that I have a moderate subconscious preference for lighter skinned people (like 27 percent of all test takers, 70 percent of whom show a slight, moderate, or strong automatic preference for lighter skin). I also moderately prefer young people to old people (like 29 percent of all test takers; 80 percent prefer young people to old). And I moderately prefer straight people to gay people (like 27 percent of test takers; 68 percent show some preference for straight people.)

I take some solace in the fact that my preferences are only moderate. But even if it's temperate about it, my subconscious is essentially racist, agist, and homophobic. It is the backwater redneck of my brain. And, apparently, I'm prejudiced against backwater rednecks.

***

My uncle spent 20 years of Christmases leaving his partner at home while he visited my grandparents. He pretended to be single. At my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary, my grandfather tried to introduce my uncle to single women. My uncle came out of the closet only a few years before my grandfather died. There were tense days, but then he was accepted.

***

Christianity imagines the period leading up to Christmas as one of great joy. It encourages us to offer good will towards men, which is a start, but it seems to me that the Jews have it right to place the emphasis of Yom Kippur, their big holiday, on just apologizing.

The essential, uncomfortable, flaw with all the progress on gay rights is that even after legislation is passed and everyone's rights are equal on paper—which still sometimes seems a long way off—there is the longer, trickier work of trying to divest each person of the ugly human prejudices we all inherited when we were born.

I, at least, am sorry. You don't have to believe in a Judeo-Christian god to find something redeeming in confession. I am sorry that I balked at the idea of pretending to be gay. I am sorry that my uncle went home alone all those years. I am sorry for the whole ugly human history of slights and hate crimes and exclusion.

It seems important to acknowledge the depth and power of our biases, particularly at a time of year when many of us try to devote ourselves to being better people. There is something vicious in each of us. Depressing though that may seem, focusing on our flaws is a first necessary part of wanting to be better. The hope that we can be better, it seems to me, deserves great celebration.

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Nicholas Brown is a New York-based writer and actor who contributes regularly to The Huffington Post. His website is thisisnickswebsite.com.

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