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As part of our LGBTQIA History Month coverage, London reviews editor Jay Grainger writes on the various ways in which queer performers still struggle to be supported and uplifted by their industry and their peers.
As if being an actor isn’t hard enough, being a gay one can make it virtually impossible to make it in the theatre industry without discrimination, out-dated type casting, mountains of insecurities and high expectations brought on from having to prove your worth as a human being – let alone as an actor. Who do we go to when our ‘elders’, who should be supportive, are more eager to put us in our place and often seem angry and bitter at not having certain opportunities that the younger generations have had? More than half of the people we should be looking to for advice and inspiration are also no longer with us, having lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic and suicide (a recent study by Stonewall found that over the previous year: one in eight LGBTQIA+ people aged 18-24 had attempted to end their life and almost half of trans people had thought about taking their life). I personally have felt lost in who to look up to within my community and some of those I have had the ‘pleasure’ of knowing have left me feeling cold and intimidated.
Theatre was and sometimes still is a supportive place for LGBTQIA+ people. It seems more inclusive than any other industry, but just because it’s better doesn’t necessarily make it good. Growing up, I used theatre to escape the expectations of being a man, and my insecurities of being a queer one. Theatre was the only place I felt confident being myself, especially when It was acceptable to both wear heels and look incredible in them and as long as you could also dance in them. But forget wearing six inches to ASDA. I discovered early on that heels were not my only symbol of queerness, I was bullied for the way that I walked, talked, laughed, stood, danced, expressed, dressed, acted, looked… I didn’t seem to fit society’s criteria for being a man but I knew myself to be one. I always felt connected to my feminine side but embarrassed by it too. I was ashamed to be queer and was considered a freak by those I encountered.
At drama school, we were trained on how to stand and sound more masculine. I never had a problem with learning these things as I pretended to be straight to fit in with the lads throughout my teenage years, but other students who struggled more to hide their bent stance, curved wrists or high pitches, were not only made aware of it but considered unemployable if they were not fixed immediately. The moment theatre became my career, it lost its significance as a safe space, presenting its own boundaries and exclusion of queer people like myself.
I will never forget the moment an experienced straight actor told me that to succeed in this industry, I had best hide my sexuality. There is no wonder then that the statistics of ‘out’ queer people are not accurate, not just in theatre, but in general. Stonewall, (as referenced above) who campaign for the equality of LGBTQIA+ people across Britain, have said that not enough research has been to cover a significant amount of people – especially within the trans community. For the first time, people are being asked about their gender in the UK census. This shows that such details are clearly needed to make some positive changes and it is a welcome start, unfortunately though, this change can’t come from estimates, which is all they will be if people are too ashamed to tick the box that correctly identifies who they feel to be.
Ticking boxes is also a huge problem when it comes to queer casting. I’m not going to write extensively about how the whole entertainment industry is plagued with straight men playing gay – I have mixed opinions on this, but ultimately, we, as queer people need to be seen for ourselves, before others should be given the chance to represent us. I have learnt that as an actor, it is not always about getting the job, it’s about telling a story, and sometimes that story isn’t yours to tell. We can support those who should be telling them and lift them into the spotlight ahead of ourselves, helping, in turn, those who are largely ignored and often erased. They become part of our history, not just in life but authentically through theatre and film.
Many people grow up with massive insecurities about their gender and sexuality and the theatre industry more often than not encourages these stereotypes rather than trying to eliminate them. Theatre is full of ‘freaks’ and it took me years to realise that I could be proud being one of them. After trying to hide my sexuality, I ended up being too reserved for the luvvies and the darlings and in the end, I realised I wasn’t straight or camp enough and the battle of being in between was exhausting. I once went to a casting and after a successful audition, was told in the room, that I was exactly what they wanted, however they were concerned that my agent had said I was too camp for the role. I did get cast, but I struggled to remove the insecurities this had planted in me.
A high percentage of the prejudice that I have experienced in theatre has been directed at me from older gay men, where they play the roles of agents, casting directors, producers, directors, choreographers, MDs tutors, fellow actors, the list goes on… I have been so open to them for inspiration and education, yet in my experience, and without generalising too much, this has been minimal. In fact, after one experience left me – and my career — feeling threatened, the most I have learnt from my queer elders is how not to treat people.
I’m now 34 and I have friends in their twenties starting out in the theatre industry, who are auditioning and who have expressed that they still are facing the same challenges that I was going through over ten years ago. This saddens me greatly, but I like to think that because of my own journey, I can show them support, give advice in acting or just simply life, and that I can be someone who I hope can encourage them to be the best that they can be, because if we can’t do that, then we continue passing down the anger, resentment and shame and ultimately, we will carry more hate and sadness than hope. We will continue to lose such talent and potential, not just from theatre but from the world.
We all need hope to go further in life, and certainly to push through the rejections we experience in theatre, but if we can’t see ourselves represented, this hope starts to seem like a delusion. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that the world can change, it’s that the rainbow can be taken and that we can’t take anything or anyone for granted, but mostly that we can be stronger if we act together.