A new report by the Screen Actors Guild reveals that anti-LGBT prejudice is still a problem in the entertainment industry, so why is it that LGBTs still face hostility there?
The SAG-AFTRA union joined forces with the UCLA’s Williams Institute to create a new report entitled “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Diversity in Entertainment: Experiences and Perspectives of SAG-AFTRA Members,” to gauge how LGBT performers feel in the entertainment industry.
The survey that provided the data as a basis for the report was conducted in September through December 2012 and is based on responses from 5,692 SAG members. This figure includes 465 gay men, 61 lesbians, 301 bisexual men and women, and 7 transgender respondents.
The number of trans respondents is unfortunately too low to give much in the way of a meaningful analysis of the demographic, though this in itself speaks to the significant barriers trans people may face in terms of finding acting work.
Results were multifaceted and paint a landscape of a largely supportive talent base that fears hostility in the industry.
The Acting Game: For LGBTs It’s Complicated
Encouraging was that the vast majority of SAG-AFTRA Members were supportive of LGBT actors, while 72% of lesbian and gay actors who were open about their sexuality said there was no effect on their careers, though, as the Guardian notes, this is somewhat modified by the fact that more lesbian, gay and bisexual actors believed that playing a gay role affected their careers (25%), a figure that was significantly higher than heterosexual actors.
However, a number of issues showed up in the report.
For instance, a third of all survey respondents said they thought casting directors, directors and producers may carry a bias against LGBT performers. In addition, nearly half of lesbian and gay performers strongly believe that producers and studio execs think lesbian and gay actors are “less marketable.”
This in itself is an interesting one. We’ve heard previously, and even from gay people, that gay men will not believable in straight rolls. It seems this is a notion that is refusing to die despite the fact that studies say gay actors do not make TV viewers switch off.
In terms of the sexual orientation of performers affecting their job prospects, around 9% of gay and lesbian actors and 4% of bisexual actors said they believed they had been turned down for a role because of their sexual orientation. Moreover, LGBT performers were far less likely to have representation than heterosexual and gender conforming performers, meaning that they could be missing out on work.
Anti-LGBT Discrimination Still a Problem in Hollywood
Perhaps even more serious is that more than a third of LGBT-identifying performers reported having witnessed what the report calls “disrespectful treatment,” while 16% of LGBTs said they had experienced direct discrimination. Of that latter group, gay men were more likely to have been subject to discrimination (25%) — though, because the sample of trans identifying actors was so small, this may not be truly representative. Gender nonconforming gay and bisexual men, though, were even more likely to face discrimination, as were those who were open about their sexuality.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel, found reasons to be pleased with these survey results but also noted that the survey highlighted several key areas of concern:
“We were pleased to see that our membership is overwhelmingly supportive of LGBT actors, and that many LGBT actors found benefits in coming out. Nonetheless, coming out remains a significant and consequential decision for many performers and we are committed to supporting our members in living honest and authentic personal and professional lives.”
M. V. Lee Badgett, Williams Distinguished Scholar and co-author of the report, characterized the findings as evidence of work that is ongoing, saying: “The survey results show both progress and indications that more work will be necessary to make the workplace an equal and fully welcoming place for LGBT performers. The good news is that almost no one thought that opportunities for LGBT actors were getting worse.”
Why is Homophobia Still a Problem in Hollywood?
This has been the topic of much speculation over the past few years and it seems there is no easy answer.
Earlier this year, Guardian columnist Patrick Strudwick lamented the fact that Alec Baldwin could get away with an anti-gay tirade aimed at a reporter with nary a peep out of the Hollywood establishment. That those behind the camera, the executives, the producers, the casting agents, have a part to play in keeping alive or purging homophobia from on-set and and pre and post production is obvious.
That the movie and television game is big business must also play a part. It would be rash to brand all of Hollywood as homophobic, but the industry itself is so concerned with shifting a product — a film or TV production — on which the profile of its cast rests heavily, that even if just one casting agent or director feels sexual orientation could be a factor in how believable someone is in a role, and seeing this through the lens of a multimillion dollar production, it becomes easy to intuit that the smallest of doubts can be magnified and throw up barriers for LGBT performers. Continued education that the audience no longer cares about sexual orientation, and increasingly gender identity, will therefore be key.
Looking at this issue another way, we also have to consider actors who keep themselves closeted by fears that now may not match reality. Wentworth Miller, newly publicly out of the closest, readily admits to denying he was gay while in the high-profiled show Prison Break all because he feared that his success might be taken away from him. This stifling fear is a window into an industry that is scared of a phantom: of the homophobia that for the vast majority of people is now just a disgusting relic of a time fortunately now gone.
There is, however, a lone few in the industry that are undeniably anti-gay and LGBTs in the acting game will have to navigate that. Increasingly though there is evidence that being anti-gay is itself damaging to an actor’s own career.
Isaiah Washington, who infamously used an anti-gay slur against fellow Grey’s Anatomy actor T.R. Knight at the Golden Globes in 2007, hit headlines last month by claiming that some kind of an “agenda” forced him out of the industry and meant he could no longer pay for his multimillion dollar house or get an acting job. While of course we are sorry Washington was so inconvenienced, it appears he still doesn’t quite understand why his then-representatives could no longer work with him and why for a sustained period of time he has found it hard to come by acting work.
So, as the above report shows, the situation appears encouraging. Gradually, old biases are fading and attitudes are shifting to a framework where being anti-LGBT is no longer acceptable, at least at the front end of the industry. Undeniably, though, there are still some deeply entrenched problems — for instance, giving trans actors work and trans characters visibility, as well of course as tackling wider issues like sexism in Hollywood — that must be faced for a truly equal opportunity entertainment industry.
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