Last weekend, The Independent on Sunday published its Pink List – 101 gay, bisexual and transgender people who are credited with making “a difference”. Among the list of names (including usual suspects Peter Tatchell and Clare Balding) was actor Ben Whishaw – who came in at number 31.
I have to say this surprised me. Not because I thought he should have been higher up the list, but because I actually had no idea he is gay. And why would I? It’s his career I have followed with interest, not his personal life.
He is proof that viewers can see beyond an actor and their sexuality to the character on screen
But it did make me think about gay actors, and how easy it is for them to make the decision to come out. We all know that coming out can be a difficult process for any gay person (and here I speak from experience) but, you might say, it is even more difficult for an actor. Because, particularly for leading men, there is the fear that coming out may limit their casting opportunities.
Rupert Everett, in 2009, famously said that coming out 20 years before had damaged his career. He even advised against actors coming out.
Then, last year, a survey conducted by Equity found that around half of all gay performers have not come out to their agents – precisely for the reason I have mentioned above. However, three quarters did say that coming out had not had an effect on their careers.
So are things changing for the better?
I know, for example, that Russell Tovey is gay, and is regularly (if not always) cast in the role of a straight, laddish male. He was the lead in Him and Her, a sitcom about a heterosexual couple living together. And even though, if I stop to think about it, I remember he is gay, the thought never crosses my mind when I watch him on screen.
There was a fascinating programme on BBC2 this week, fronted by Stephen Fry, called Stephen Fry Out There. As part of this, he went to Hollywood to discover whether it is easier now for gay actors to come out, and still get parts as leading men.
He interviewed Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Barney in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, a character which, as Fry pointed out, is the most “prolific womaniser on television”.
If you’ve seen this sitcom, you’ll know that’s true. But, as with Tovey, when I watch the series it never crosses my mind to think that I am watching a gay man pretending to be straight. I am just watching an actor play a role – and it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter to me what their sexuality is off screen.
In Fry’s BBC2 show, Harris admitted it had occurred to him that coming out could be detrimental to his career.
But it wasn’t. As he says:
I was expecting outrage and in turn I got indifference.
He also said that he likes to think audiences would not watch him and “just think sodomy”. Which was my favourite line of the show.
Harris lives and works in Hollywood – the industry, you might say, that has the most to lose should it cast actors it thinks will not work appeal to its audiences. He is, hopefully, proof that viewers can see beyond an actor and their sexuality to the character on screen.
I discussed this very topic on my BBC London slot with presenter Nikki Bedi at the weekend.
Talking about Everett, she said his coming out 20 years ago may have happened at the “worst time to know about his private life”.
Now there are so many actors who we see and know are out, playing married men, and we don’t bat an eye lid
I like to think she’s right. But I also recognise that it’s still a tough industry and one in which, as I’ve written about before, bullying and harassment still exists. I’d hope any actor would feel the industry is a safe and supportive one in which to come out. And that casting directors, producers and, above all, audiences would respect a great actor’s ability to play any character, regardless of their sexuality.