Andrew Garfield, queer-baiting and the perils of 'playing gay'

The actor was criticised over comments he made about preparing to play a gay man, joining actors such as James Franco who’ve toyed with ideas of sexuality

In an interview about his role as Prior Walter in the National Theatre’s current production of Angels in America, Andrew Garfield became the latest male celebrity to suggest that he might be gay. Asked about playing a gay man living with Aids, the actor joked that the experience had practically made him a gay man himself, “just without the physical act”.

“Every Sunday I would have eight friends over and we would just watch Ru [RuPaul’s Drag Race],” Garfield said in a discussion at the National Theatre. “This is my life outside of this play.” He went on to clarify that, as far as he knows, he’s not a gay man, but added, “maybe I’ll have an awakening later in my life, which I’m sure will be wonderful, and I’ll get to explore that part of the garden”.

When Garfield’s comments made their way on to Twitter, they were widely derided as silly and vacuous. Put in context, though, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds.

Garfield added that when he was offered the role, he felt he had no right to play gay in one of the 20th century’s single most important works of LGBT art. Angels in America, of course, is a two-part epic that chronicles the lives of several gay men as they navigate Reagan’s America and the Aids epidemic. Garfield is clearly not ignorant of the magnitude of the undertaking – and what the play has meant to queer folks for the last quarter-century – which ought not to be discredited by an unfortunate soundbite.

But Garfield’s just the latest in a long line of entertainers who have playfully floated the possibility that they fall somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey scale, as if queerness is a dress one tries on for size. This even has its own internet neologism: queer-baiting, practiced by the likes of James Franco and Nick Jonas, who in their half-hearted outreach to the gay community have generally been received with indifference.

Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Angels In America.
Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) in Angels In America. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

For Jonas, this consisted mainly of playing a gay wrestler on TV, showing up at Manhattan gay clubs to bare his abdominals (and promote a new, edgier album), and admitting to watching Mariah Carey on the Home Shopping Network. In Franco’s case, it came mainly in the form of disingenuous non-answers to questions about his sexuality, which to even a minimally discerning eye appeared as attempts to add a little subversion to his offbeat schtick. “I like to think that I’m gay in my art and straight in my life,” he told FourTwoNine magazine. “Although, I’m also gay in my life up to the point of intercourse, and then you could say I’m straight. So I guess it depends on how you define gay.”

Sometimes queer-baiting is done in earnest as a display of honesty or allyship – Garfield’s comments, given his history of deference to the community, seem to land on this side of the fence. Other times, it’s a cynical attempt to accrue whatever cultural capital or fanbase may come with being gay – although, if any of these straight actors had actually grown up identifying as LGBT, they’d know that it’s not all fun and drag.

“I didn’t feel that that was a case of queer-baiting,” Christopher Racster, the executive director of Outfest, an LGBT film festival in Los Angeles that kicked off Thursday, told me. “I think that we, the community, in our hopeful daydreams that maybe someday Andrew Garfield may come out and want to be in a relationship with a man, took it and ran with it.”

Racster, a film-maker, longtime fundraiser and LGBT rights advocate, went on: “But I do agree that there are actors and producers and studios and publicists who are looking to gain an audience, to shape a perception, that do engage in a bit of queer-baiting and are trying to appropriate or to capitalize on a community. But I am glad that they’re called on it and it keeps us in this perpetual dialogue so we can continue to move forward.”

Straight actors have long played gay, with often spellbinding results (Sean Penn, Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, et al). The problem is the notion that being gay is a kind of method acting, a lifestyle into which actors dip their toes and then promptly dry off. Of course, in playing queer characters these actors seek out ways to empathize with an experience of which they’re not familiar, but embodying a queer person for a role no more makes them gay than playing Temple Grandin made Claire Danes autistic.

TV shows such as Sherlock and Riverdale have been criticized for queer-baiting too, although in these fictitious contexts, it manifests mainly as the vague, often unrealized suggestion that a character might be gay or “heteroflexible”, and it serves to court a subset of LGBT fans and then ultimately disappoint them. This is only exacerbated by the fact that, for as long as there’s been film, television, and theatre, queer folks have yearned for representation and visibility. And despite significant strides, a gay sex scene on American Gods, the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel, was considered groundbreaking, demonstrating how scarcely we’re shown depictions of gay intimacy. That name-brand actors of Franco or Garfield’s stature so wantonly flirt with this prospect – while always refraining from actually coming out as gay or even bisexual – suggests they do it mainly to get a rise out of their admirers.

Garfield should have known that a theatrical turn as Prior Walter and a Drag Race binge-watch with friends does not a gay man make. Far more egregious indiscretions have been made, but it’s still important to educate straight actors about these grievances, which are ultimately petty yet still worthy of consideration. As the angel that pummels through Prior’s hospital room ceiling says: “The great work begins.”

Contributor

Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

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