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Rahul Kohli Sparks Conversation on When Straight Actors Should Play Queer Characters

Rahul Kohli in iZombie

We’re on record here that Rahul Kohli is one of our favorite people on social media, along with being one of our favorite actors just in general. Kohli’s Twitter feed is self-deprecating and funny, but also vocally progressive and unafraid to call out trolls and bigots. But maybe the best thing is that he’s willing to listen, which he did when he took part in a conversation about if and when straight actors should play LGBTQ+ parts and vice versa. The discussion brought up a lot of complex issues without easy answers.

It began with a simple question of whether Kohli would play a gay character.

The distinction Kohli makes here is interesting: that there’s a difference between playing a character whose queerness is simply one element of their character, and a character whose story is driven by their queerness. I think maybe a good example here is Sulu from the Star Trek films, who just happens to have a husband, and Jack and Ennis in Brokeback Mountain.

I would also make the caveat here that this is a place where using the entire LGBTQIA+ acronym is further complicated. While Hollywood needs to be better in all forms of LGBTQIA+ representation, the conversations around a straight actor playing a queer character and a cis actor, including queer cis actors, playing a trans character are distinct. As USA Today writes, “A straight person acting queer and a cisgender person acting transgender are two different things, like sexual orientation and gender identity are.”

There has been significant, and important, pushback in recent years against cis actors playing trans roles, especially given the dearth of trans representation in film and the lack of roles for trans actors. As Meredith Talusan writes for them.:

It’s only by casting transgender actors in transgender roles that the entertainment industry can even begin to address these structural problems; if trans people are not even deemed “qualified” or “talented” enough to portray their own experiences, it becomes impossible to envision a world where trans actors can be on equal footing with cis actors.

And the TRANSform Hollywood guide for better educating Hollywood on creating a trans-inclusive culture and how to best address, tell, and cast trans stories states unequivocally:

The world is evolving, and today it is a mistake, especially if you are cross-sex casting (a cis man to play a trans woman, or a cis woman to play a trans man.)

On its face, Kohli’s distinction between types of gay roles is understandable, but the line proposed here might be hard to find for some characters. When does queerness go from incidental to central to a story? If a character shares a scene or kisses with their partner, is that fine to play, but would it be different if there was some element of conflict around that? And what do we really mean by queer stories? What happens when, as one commenter discussed, a character played by a straight actor discovers their sexuality over the course of a show in a way that wasn’t even considered during casting?

There were many thoughtful responses to Kohli’s tweet from queer fans. Not everyone agreed, and that’s to be expected.

One topic which many responses brought up is the tightrope queer actors have to walk when coming out. Some actors don’t want to be forced out of the closet and some actors are told to stay in it to win certain kinds of “mainstream” roles. There could definitely be a fear of getting typecast if you are a queer actor or a worry that this kind of thinking might be flipped to keep queer actors from playing straight parts.

As NBC News quotes But I’m a Cheerleader director Jamie Babbit, “[Babbit] also noted that some actors, who viewers may assume are straight, are just not out publicly, making the issue even more complicated.

“To have quote-unquote ‘straight’ actors saying now, ‘Hey, I won’t take that part, because it’s gay, and you should give it to a gay person,’ it feels like another way to stigmatize our stories,” Babbit said. “It’s very complicated, because it’s the same rejection that I’m getting now that I was getting in the ‘90s.”

Some of the responses to Kohli expressed similar sentiments.

But on the other hand, I agree that there have been too many instances where important queer stories have been told onscreen by straight actors, much like the way a serious physical transformation is often an attempt to win awards. There have been some hugely important and successful movies in recent years that focused on queer stories, and yet most of the actors in them were straight, or at least identified as such in the press.

I’ve personally lamented a lot at how alienating it feels for me as a queer woman to see what seems like endless stories of queer tragedy told by straight Hollywood. And these stories also tend to be about white, cis, able-bodied queer people, too. Although, from a queer point of view, I can see why many queer actors wouldn’t want to jump on these roles when the only LGBTQIA+ stories being told are those of tragedy.

I appreciate that Kohli, as a visible actor, is talking about this and prompting these conversations, and that he’s willing to do the most important thing in any such discussion: listen and learn and evolve.

While there are no simple answers for these questions of representation, what matters now is talking about them.

(image: Bettina Strauss/The CW)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.