Moonlight May Win at Oscars, But Out Actors Still Lose

Moonlight

Another year, another Academy Awards with no nominated LGBT actors.

Sure, Moonlight — the acclaimed coming-of-age story about a black gay boy — received eight nominations, including Best Picture. But in the acting categories, the nominees were Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali. These are straight actors who play straight supporting characters in a film that is brilliant because of its brilliant queer lead, Chiron.

You might say this is just the politics of awards season. The lead is divided between three actors, who portray different periods of a young life. This makes it harder to single out one Chiron as singular, and easier to push supporting characters to the forefront. None of these actors identify as LGBT either — although, to be fair, some of them are still quite young.

Casting an out lead would have been nice, but Moonlight is not responsible for bringing LGBT representation to the Oscars. It’s the entertainment industry’s job to do that. And year after year, the ranks of acting nominees are monopolized by straight people.

Last year, Ian McKellen bemoaned this sad lack of diversity. “Why has no openly gay man ever won the best actor Oscar?” he asked. This excellent question, asked in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, fell on deaf ears this year. While the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences did vastly improve the number of nominees of color, it took one step back in LGBT representation: not a single role.

#OscarsSoStraight? You betcha. The glass closet — when queer actors play straight in real life, due to a perception they will be discriminated against if they come out — has become so normalized in Hollywood that there has been little outrage, scrutiny, or introspection over the erasure.

There are only two living out men who have been nominated for acting Oscars — McKellen (The Lord of the Rings, Gods and Monsters) and Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game). Women haven’t fared much better. Jodie Foster, Anna Paquin, Tatum O’Neal, and Ellen Page came out after their Academy-Award nominations. An exception is Angelina Jolie, who has spoken about her relationships with women in the past.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the Academy doesn’t honor LGBT stories and characters. It does. In fact, a surefire way for a straight actor to be nominated for an Oscar is to play LGBT. Here’s a list of 50 straight actors who have been nominated for Academy Awards. Here's a review of the 11 who won.

In the transgender community, this practice is branded as “transface,” a practice akin to “blackface” in which a famous cisgender actor (Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Huffman) is cast. Many, including Transparent actor Jeffrey Tambor, have argued that this practice is rooted in bias.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have been less up-in-arms about “gayface.” We’ll root for Brokeback Mountain and Carol. It’s an honor just to be nominated, after all. These nods are wins for visibility. But these films inevitably lose in the Best Picture category, signaling that our stories are not quite worthy of Hollywood’s highest honor. But an out actor in the role of Jack and Ennis, or Carol and Therese? That's the stuff of dreams.

This year, Moonlight has a chance to break through the ceiling in a significant way. Its win of Best Picture would send an invaluable message to the industry, nation, and president that the lives of LGBT folks and people of color matter. But this would only be a small step toward fixing a much larger problem.

If Hollywood truly wants to stand for equality and justice — as it has expressed throughout its awards season — it must shatter the gay glass closet and reexamine why it advances some actors over others. There is no dearth of queer actors in the world. So why, during acting’s biggest night, is there not a gay face to be found?

DANIEL REYNOLDS is an editor at The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @dnlreynolds.

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