Every now and again, some mischievous commentator who wants to get a rise out of Daily Mail readers suggests that James Bond should be represented in his next film as gay. Cue much spluttering at the very idea, sometimes even from ex-Bonds. Now, whether historically straight fictional characters can legitimately be represented in new incarnations as gay, or indeed male ones as female, is the subject for another day. In the meantime, I want to focus on the issue of the visibility in fiction of gay characters, and whether gay actors should play them.
When I started having same-sex relationships, I started craving - literally craving - representations of gay women onscreen. I assume I'm not alone in this. Why else would otherwise reasonable people force themselves to sit through all six seasons of the total dross that is The L-Word? As a heterosexual, you might feel bored to death by mainstream dramatic representations of straight romantic love, but believe me, discover your gay side and you'll be googling "L-Word love scenes" before the tags are even off your new Superdry windcheater. Moreover, we don't want to see lesbian characters exclusively as breathy sex objects, or unstable narcissists, or psycho killers, or easily-dispensed-with foils to straight people's dramas. We want to see them in a diversity of situations, including being in happy stable relationships, stellar jobs, and many other situations where their sexuality is absolutely no hindrance to their success.
Unless you object to homosexuality generally, it seems easy enough to see that including diverse representations of gay people in populist fiction is a good thing (and other protected groups too of course, for similar reasons). It makes many gay viewers feel more validated and "normal", and gives them something to identify with, as they try to find their way in a mostly hetero world. 'You can't be what you can't see' goes the cliche, and of course, strictly speaking in this context, it's false: you can be gay without ever seeing people like yourself represented in fiction. It's just that without them, you can sometimes feel like you shouldn't be.
A more interesting question, because it is harder to answer, is whether gay fictional characters in film and television drama should be played by gay people. This obviously isn't the same issue as whether gay characters should be represented in dramas more often, because that could happen though the people playing them are straight; and indeed, as far as I can see, many existing gay roles are played by straight people (yes, I always google).
We should also conceptually distinguish the issue of whether gay actors should play gay roles from the separate issue of whether we should substantially increase the number of gay actors on screen. Again, these issues are distinct, as shown by the fact that such an increase could happen without gay actors being given any gay roles, but only straight ones.
Finally, we should distinguish two facets to the question I'm concerned with: one as it affects actors, and one as it affects viewers. It might very well be good for gay actors themselves to get to play gay roles, for reasons broadly similar to those offered above in defence of the representation of gay characters for gay viewers. Namely, playing gay characters might foster in gay actors positive feelings of "normality" and (self-)acceptance, whereas the absence of opportunities to play these characters might increase feelings of alienation. But as I'm not an actor, this is uninformed speculation, and not really my main point. Really, what I am interested in here is the question of whether it is good for viewers to watch gay actors in gay roles (or more precisely, actors who are publicly gay). And by 'good', I don't mean 'ethically good', but rather: is there any aesthetic reason for the makers of drama to make sure it happens, to do with the success or otherwise of the work on its own terms?
I suspect one knee-jerk response to this question is: how could there be? It's acting, isn't it? Laurence Olivier played Hamlet without being Danish or from the 15th Century.* Why should it matter whether the actor is gay or straight, so long as they play the role convincingly?
However, I'm not so sure. In an earlier post, I argued that immediate awareness of a fiction's artificial and constructed nature could inhibit a viewer's imaginative immersion in a narrative. Even when witnessing the most convincing of acted performances in the most naturalistic of settings, it's possible, albeit sometimes difficult, for the viewer to 'switch' mentally, through choice, to thinking of what she is watching as constructed and 'not real': acted by people pretending, made up by a screenwriter, and filmed in a studio. Most makers of populist drama try to avoid doing anything to prompt this mental switch, since it interrupts the imaginative flow. I wonder whether casting actors into roles who are known to share features or traits with the characters they play - like being gay - is a way of further insuring against any such switch. Just as when someone we think of as loveable and fun is (mis)cast as a serial killer (as when Vince Vaughan was cast as Norman Bates); or when someone known exclusively as a straight-talking American cowboy is cast as Genghis Khan (as when John Wayne got the role), it seems that when the viewer is highly conscious of the fact that someone gay on screen is straight in life, it can be a distraction. Or so I speculate. Casting within type, including known sexuality, can be a way of avoiding this effect.
Of course, casting against type can sometimes be a spectacular success. Arguably the 'nice guy' Henry Fonda's turn as the evil Frank in Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West was the greatest in his career. What makes a successful drama, or performance within it, is a matter of the alchemy of lots of factors, and I'm in no way proposing any kind of rule. And of course, realism or naturalism need not be the goal of a drama at all. Still, I think that, in principle, we have a possible explanation of why casting gay actors as gay characters can be aesthetically useful.
*Of course, Hamlet is not in any sense a naturalistic drama, and this seems relevant too.