LOTS of people, including me, have been looking forward to It’s A Sin, the new TV drama by Russell T Davies, the man who wrote Doctor Who and Queer as Folk among other things, but why did he have to go and spoil it all by saying something stupid? Why did he have to suggest that gay characters should only be played by gay actors? How proscriptive. How anti-progressive. How silly.

What Mr Davies said was this: “I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs, or a criminal or a saint. They are not there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020. You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”

But what does Mr Davies mean exactly? And why has he changed his mind? Just two years ago, his drama about the gay politician Jeremy Thorpe, A Very English Scandal, featured in the lead role an actor called Hugh Grant who I think we can be pretty sure is not gay. Perhaps Mr Davies has simply modified his opinion according to new facts and trends. Fair enough. Perhaps 2020 “tastes” so very different from 2018 that he must lay down what looks suspiciously like a new rule. Another one.

However, if we accept Mr Davies’s premise (and I’m afraid TV companies will accept it and enforce it, forthwith) then I have some questions for him about the ramifications and consequences of his apparently benign ruling. Mr Davies says that ensuring an actor who plays a gay character is gay in real life brings “authenticity” to a role, but has he really thought through where it might lead us?

Question one: if only gay actors can play gay characters, then surely the same should apply to straight characters? Mr Davies says casting gay actors is about authenticity and suggests only a gay person can understand and portray what it’s like to be gay, so why would it be different the other way round? Surely, only a heterosexual actor can understand what it’s like to be heterosexual? Why was the gay David Hyde Pierce allowed to play the heterosexual Niles Crane? How could he possibly know what it was like to fancy Daphne? Cancel Frasier immediately!

Question two: shouldn’t the rule on gay casting apply to other traits too? A gay character is not just gay, obviously: they will have other qualities that may also be central to their identity. Nationality for example. If only gay actors can play gay characters, then why can actors of one nationality play characters of another? Can an Englishman truly understand what it’s like to be Scottish? Why was the English Jonny Lee Miller allowed to play the Scottish Sick Boy in Trainspotting? And why was the Scottish Sean Connery allowed to play the English King Richard in Robin Hood? Cancel Trainspotting and Robin Hood immediately!

Question three: what are the consequences of a “gays-only” rule for actors? Not everyone is “gay” or “straight”. Not everyone wants to talk about their sexuality. But what happens to an actor who’s up for the role of a gay character? Do they have to answer questions about their sexuality? And if they don’t, will they be less likely to get the part? The danger is that actors will be forced to be defined by, and talk about, their sexuality when they may not want to.

Which leads us to the final question, which applies more generally: what about empathy? When an actor plays a part, they seek to understand the person they’re playing; it’s a process, in a way, of empathising with difference and isn’t that a pretty progressive idea? In fact, isn’t it a better rule for television, and life? In other words, do not think only about your own qualities. Do not think only about your own identity. Imagine yourself as someone else. Imagine yourself as someone different.

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