Even though queer people are an integral part of the performing arts all around the world, their careers are in danger when it comes to coming out and they are advised to stay in the closet to keep their roles. We now embrace a new revolutionary move from 185 actors and actresses in Germany, who collectively came out as gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer, or nonbinary with their #actout Manifesto.
185 cultural workers came out in the SZ-Magazin to create a revolution. They want to fight against stereotyping, discrimination, and hiding. Even in today’s Germany, where being queer is widely tolerated, granted protection, and civil rights, certain groups still feel hesitant to come out for various reasons. As Markus Ulrich, the spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Association in Germany (LSVD) reports, homosexual actors are often not trusted to play heterosexual roles authentically. The idea is that a heterosexual actor can pull up a queer character if he is feminine enough or she is butch enough, obeying anticipated stereotypical portrayals of LGBTQ+ people. But a queer person can only act in queer roles. Ulrike Folkers, known for her role in Tatort Ludwigshafen reports, “I was cast for a mother role, but when the director found out that I was a lesbian, she turned me down. That’s discrimination. Of course, I can play a mother.” She asks “How does it feel when you can’t show yourself off on the red carpet with the woman you love? What roles does a non-binary person dream of? And how does the television, film, and theater industry have to change?”.
From the #ActOut Manifesto, the actors and the actresses say:
“We play wives and fathers, lovers and politicians, heroes and creeps. And often enough, characters whose ideas we’d never agree with. That’s why we can play murderers without having murdered anyone. We can save lives without having studied medicine. We can play people with sexual identities different from the ones we live out. And, by the way, this is something we’ve been doing for a very long time, the entire time, in fact, because it is the nature of our profession.”
Karin Hanczewski, an actress who plays a TV detective, told SZ-Magazin that she was told not to wear too many checked shirts at the crime scene. This was a deliberate indication to tone down her lesbianism. Mehmet Atesci, a Turkish-German actor, who is a member of the Vienna Burgtheater and a guest at the Gorki Theater in Berlin, reports: “I even had a long affair with an actor who is now very well-known, whenever a third person would come along, he would start flirting with a woman or talk desirably about women so that people wouldn’t just see it or suspect it.”. Jenny Luca Renner, the LGBT representative on the ZDF television council, reports that agents recommend queer actors not to come out publicly for fear of no longer being offered straight roles. This is the reason why some actors refused to take part in #actout, or at least for the time being.
Diversity has always been an integral part of German society. Immigrants, sexual minorities, ethnic and racial minorities have always existed in society, yet this was not reflected enough in cultural narratives that target the heterosexual white middle class. In their manifesto, they declare:
“We take responsibility for living and working together freely and openly. We stand in solidarity with everyone who faces stereotyping and marginalization through ableism, ageism, antisemitism, classism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. We also feel connected to those colleagues who are not ready to take this step right now. This is also an act of solidarity that goes far beyond the limits of our own industry and an appeal to everyone to support us.”
However, in Hollywood, the wind blows in the opposite direction. While it goes hand in hand on certain issues like acceptance and representation, it also contradicts some topics that #ActOut promotes. More and more queer actors in Hollywood are advocating to stop straight actors from taking up queer roles and demand queer roles to be played by only LGBTQ+ actors.
Last year December, a musical comedy The Prom by Ryan Murphy went on Netflix. The movie received a fierce backlash on its portrayal of a flamboyant and caricaturesque gay man played by James Corden, who is heterosexual in real life. Critics claimed the role was homophobic and offensive for the stereotypical portrayal of gay men and that queer roles should be played by queer actors. This may seem contradictory to what #ActOut wants to accomplish. If straight actors should not be given queer characters to play, should queer actors be given straight roles to play?
The entertainment business heavily focuses on a straight and cisgender lifestyle. James Keitel, a nonbinary actor who plays a trans-feminine nonbinary character on ABC’s Big Sky says, they look forward to the day they can play a role that has nothing to do with their gender or sexuality, or their character’s gender and sexuality. English actor Rupert Everett told U.K.’s Radio 4 that at the beginning of his career, he felt very lucky. However, things changed after he came out and his career got affected negatively. He says the movie business is a very heterosexual business that is run by heterosexual men and says straight actors taking gay roles has a stifling effect on gay actors who, like him, are no longer considered for heterosexual parts. Just like the world we live in, the film industry is also strictly heteronormative. Queer actors do not find their place easily and queer characters are often played by straight actors as long as they throw in stereotypical behavior.
Coming out is a recurrent event. It is not limited to a one-time-activity that you get out of your chest and move on with your life. It is anxious, stressful, and ambiguous. It follows you everywhere and it is a big part of your identity. Every new acquaintance, workplace, school, university, Tinder date, family member are new coming-outs. Its uncertainty triggers underlying fears as it shows with these brave artists who have decided to come out and face their challenges together.
There have been multiple examples of queer people in the entertainment business who suffered greatly from homophobia. Rüzgar Erkoçlar, a former Turkish actor and photo model used to be a popular face on TV with his roles in high-rating shows before his transition. He was blackmailed by a popular music producer in 2013 and he was outed publicly. Intizar, a Turkish queer singer who had multiple hits in the country was outed with a sex video recorded by a hidden camera in her lover’s apartment. These two events cost both artists their careers with unprecedented public shaming. It is interesting to witness since Turkey is not unfamiliar with queer artists. Bülent Ersoy, one of the country’s biggest singers, also nicknamed the Diva, is adored and respected by the nation. Zeki Müren, a crossdresser, was the highest-profile singer and actor in his time, nicknamed the Sun of Art even long after his death. However, there was something missing with these two figures. They never publicly owned their identities and encouraged other artists and regular people to come out. They were never activists and they were already established names. Even after decades, their public acceptance did not help Intizar and Rüzgar, who were both rising names but still could not afford the luxury of coming out. This proves how important it is to step forward, to come out, and to #ActOut, to make it better for future generations.
This is an unprecedented event that has ever taken place in history and its echoes will be a breakthrough all around the world. We hope #ActOut will make diversity more visible everywhere and help queer actors overcome their fear of a career breakdown. We would also like to thank them iHeartedly.
To learn more about the manifest check out act-out.org.