Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons
Actor Ezra Miller has been cast as the Flash in Warner Brothers’ eponymous movie, which is slated to premiere in 2018. That's big news even for those who aren't diehard DC Comics fans, because Ezra Miller is also openly queer, making it the first time a non-heterosexual has played the lead in a superhero movie.
Let's get one distinction out of the way: The 22-year-old Miller identifies as queer, not gay. Though the word can mean different things to different people, it’s often used as an umbrella term to mean “somewhere on the spectrum of sexuality that's not 100 percent straight.” In a 2012 interview, Miller told The Advocate “I’m queer... I have a lot of really wonderful friends who are of very different sexes and genders. I am very much in love with no one in particular."
It may seem ridiculous that we’re talking about this in 2014, when it feels like there is no shortage of openly non-heterosexual actors in Hollywood. But the casting choice of a queer man as the lead in a big-budget superhero, the embodiment of traditional American masculinity, is inarguably a huge deal. Queer actors are still up against the surprisingly pervasive idea that a non-straight actor can’t play a straight character. This has historically been true not just of superhero roles, but of all types of straight roles in mainstream American films.
That’s probably because acceptance of open queerness in Hollywood is still a relatively recent development. In the early days of the film industry, people who would today be considered queer actors simply remained in the closet for the most part. A notable exception was William Haines, who is often cited as Hollywood’s first openly gay actor. Haines rose to fame in the 1926 silent film Tell It to the Marines, in which he played a Marine nicknamed “Skeet.” (Despite—or maybe because of—its modern association with semen, Skeet is the manliest old-timey nickname other than Butch.) So the character of Skeet was smitten with a beautiful Navy nurse, while off-screen, Haines was living with his longtime partner Jimmie Shields. Haines was not in the habit of denying his orientation, which rubbed his bosses at MGM the wrong way, and eventually, faced with the decision to enter into a sham marriage or quit acting, Haines chose to quit.
Over the next few decades, gay actors remained largely closeted—though under increasing scrutiny from the press and the public—and continued to play the manly men of the silver screen. You’re probably familiar with the cartoonishly macho Rock Hudson, whose square-jawed masculinity won the heart of every woman alive. Hudson was out to some of his close friends, but publicly maintained a carefully curated image of heterosexuality, even entering into a “lavender marriage” with Phyllis Gates, who was also secretly gay.
Today being an openly gay (or queer) actor is no longer the incomprehensible scandal it once was. It won’t ruin your reputation. However, there’s still a chance it could ruin your acting career, due to the ever-persistent perception that gay men can’t play straight characters.
You may remember when Bret Easton Ellis tweeted that openly gay actor Matt Bomer wasn’t fit for the role of Christian Grey in the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Ellis opined that “Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women." That's a stubbornly persistent attitude: We love and applaud straight male actors for portraying gay characters, but we apparently don’t trust queer actors to be able to do the reverse.
“In these days of Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer, among others, we are seeing that the fallacy of ‘audiences won’t believe an out actor playing straight’ is just that—a fallacy,” said Marc Andreyko, an openly gay comic writer and screenwriter who told me that geek culture—the milieu out of which superheroes come—has been accepting of queerness for a long time.
“Geek culture has always been way ahead of the curve on acceptance,” Andreyko said. “The fans and my publishers have been actively supportive of gay themes and characters for as long as I can remember.
“So much of nerd-ism (for lack of a better term) has been about finding a safe place to be yourself and celebrate the things you love,” Andreyko added. “And the rest of the world is gradually catching up.”
Follow Allegra Ringo on Twitter.
More like this: