Wentworth Miller needs to remember playing gay is a privilege

I was 13 years old when some kids at school brutally bashed me and left me hospitalised for being gay. 

As I lay mangled outside my maths block – with my glasses smashed into my bloodied face – one onlooker shrieked: ‘Don’t touch him, he’s probably got AIDS!’

These kids were cruel, but it was a symptom of a much larger concern – the crippling effects of Section 28 and a lack of representation for LGBTQ+ people in popular culture.

So when I read that Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller recently announced he doesn’t want to play straight characters anymore because ‘their stories have been told and told’, I admired him. 

It is so important that LGBTQ+ stories and history is represented, and his bold move is rightly deserving of the praise he has been awarded. 

However, it’s important not to damn other actors for not taking up the same fight though, because Miller is in a unique and privileged position to choose what he wants to do.

Approximately 98% of actors do not earn enough money to survive on performing work alone, so many are left in a position that they will take any role available to them. 

Sadly, I doubt Miller would have the financial stability, profile and opportunity to choose his roles without Prison Break. 

Michael Scofield, Miller’s character in Prison Break was unashamedly played as a heroic heterosexual. He was quick-witted, tough and beautiful. His performance was so convincingly heterosexual that straight women fancied him, men wanted to be like him and of course, producers wanted to continue to hire him and pay the Hollywood wages he received.

He fulfilled his casting brief professionally and to the letter, but his popularity came because he walked, talked and looked like the audience he was paid to entertain.

I question whether the public would have fantasied and idolised the character of Michael Scofield if he was gay? Sadly, I do not believe so.

Yet, thanks to this show he is now in the position to refuse returning to it, which is where his admission that he would no longer be playing straight roles came from. 

He said: ‘If you were a fan of the show, hoping for additional seasons… I understand this is disappointing. I’m sorry.’

With this decision, I think Miller wants to cast off the chains of this Faustian pact to pursue stories and characters that nourish his own artistry, rather than that which the majority of audiences would prefer to see – a better version of their own kind.

It’s a commendable choice, but it also raises a wider point about representation: is it more important to have LGBTQ+ actors in LGBTQ+ roles, or is it telling the stories in the first place that matters?

Eyes fixed on the screen, I didn’t care what sexuality the actors were in front of me – I was only grateful to see others like me

When I was growing up, there was very little representation on our screens. According to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, Brits watch an average of 30 hours of television a week, or over four hours a day.

So imagine what it would be like to turn on your television and not see anyone like you. Every advert was between a couple of a different sexuality to your own, every leading man or woman was your polar opposite, your lifestyle was deemed only suitable post watershed, or relegated to the early hours of the morning where no-one will see you.

But when on the rare occasion you did, you were portrayed as a clown, a fool or a victim – either mincing across the screen with limp wrists – or sllitting them.

I believe most people’s education about those different to themselves in society is drawn predominantly from what they learn from their television sets.

I was no different. I could not pass as straight. I grew up gay in Bournemouth feeling invisible and worthless and suffering relentless homophobic bullying.

I had no education whatsoever about gay sex – let alone LGBTQ+ history – so I found myself seeking out other members of my tribe through a new thing called the internet or whatever books, plays or TV shows I could lay my eyes on.

It’s why that, although I am pleased Miller is in a place where he can choose to play only non-straight roles, any accurate portrayal of LGBTQ+ lives on the screen is important to me – regardless of if the actor is straight or not. 

As a theatre director, I would always prefer to collaborate with LGBTQ+ artists to tell LGBTQ+ stories, but when faced with casting, I find myself drawn to the better artist over their sexuality.

I have cast straight people to play gay roles, and gay people to play straight roles. In my experience, it hasn’t made a difference to the piece itself. 

But, what has mattered is ensuring that our stories are told. And furthermore, ensuring that gay artists are visible.

There are some brilliant examples of actors who have done justice to our stories, like Jude Law opposite Stephen Fry in Wilde, the cast of Channel 4’s Queer As Folk, James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves in Maurice and many others.

Eyes fixed on the screen, I didn’t care what sexuality the actors were in front of me. I was only grateful to see others like me. 

I hope Miller enjoys a long and happy career playing only LGBTQ+ roles, but my fear is if that’s not the case, could we potentially have lost a very visible, talented artist who happens to be gay?

It’s why I would argue that him taking up any roles is important in its own right. 

It’s not only a privilege to play gay roles – but there is a responsibility to ensure we are never invisible again.

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