In the week that Equity publishes the findings of its survey asking performers whether it safe to be ‘out’ as an actor, two performers share their experience of being openly gay in the industry.
In 1994, I was in a TV series called A Village Affair, based on a Joanna Trollope book about a married woman with children who falls in love with a woman. When I did the filming for it, I was going through the same thing in my own life. But at that time it didn’t seem right to say that I was struggling with the same problem myself.
It was a raw time, and I was trying to work out who I was, how I was going to handle it, and how I was going to look after and protect my family. I felt that saying anything would have given my situation more publicity, and I wanted it to be less public when I did finally come out.
Two years later, in 1996, my partner and I decided we were going to do a quiet piece in a paper about our relationship, but the paper pipped us to the post and it became a much bigger story than I wanted it to be. Events overtook us, as they say. I don’t think it would be shocking today, but people are always interested and that will never go away. People have a prurient interest in other people’s sex lives.
Once I had come out, I didn’t notice a change in how people behaved towards me on a one-to-one level. It was quiet with work, but then it had been a big story. To be honest, I could not say whether or not it affects how people employ me. Maybe one day the employers will say, ‘Well, actually in the 1990s, we did make our decisions based on that’ but as an actor you are in such a precarious position anyway - careers come and go, work comes in and sometimes it doesn’t - that you never can tell what the decision-making process is. I have never found myself offered certain roles because of my sexuality, though.
I don’t think coming out in our industry is an issue anymore. Yes, there is homophobia, as there is in any industry. People who worry the most would be those up for leading male or female parts, where the audience is wanting to identify with and follow the story of those people.
For younger people, however, I would say they are growing up in an industry that has really changed, I believe. I am positive about it, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think there are individual cases where people have experienced prejudice in casting. But if I was starting out today, I think I would be comfortable about being out right from the start.
I know some people have felt strongly that coming out affected their careers negatively and would not advise people to do it, but your life has to come first. Whether or not you are comfortable with being out to friends and family is what you have to deal with, and everything else follows on from that.
People should follow their own instincts. It’s important that they don’t feel pressured and that they are true to themselves and do what is right for them.
I have never had to ‘come out’ in the industry. By the time I had gone to university, done a year of acting and then finished a year at drama school, all those sort of issues were in the past.
I don’t remember ever coming out, actually. I did seven years in rep, and people just seemed to gather it. I never had to tell my agent either. I have always felt extremely comfortable, but then I guess it depends on the type of acting you are doing. I was never the hot young lead who might have had a huge film or television career. Had I been whisked off to Hollywood then there might have been a problem and I don’t know what I would have decided then.
However, I have never felt that being gay has worked against me in the industry. Sometimes there have been roles which have gay sides to them, and I am put up for them, which might mean I’m on a list somewhere, I suppose, and that makes me laugh a bit. But generally I have played all sorts of parts - gay, straight, nice, horrible. I don’t think it has affected me.
I think, however, there may be a difference between theatre and television or film. In theatre there is no obvious ceiling that prevents the success of gay men and women, who thrive in all sorts of roles.
But for television or film, where actors are cast for a mass audience - especially in the US - things might be different. Most gay young actors today are completely out, but there can be an issue if they go to Hollywood for pilot season where they meet American agents and then different conversations are sometimes had.
I am involved with the International Federation of Actors, the FIA, and at our last conference we spoke about whether there should be a charter to protect the rights of gay people. The European countries questioned whether this was necessary, but in America it’s a hot issue, and all three acting unions there said it was a big deal for them. Young gay men and women are under pressure from producers and agents to keep a lid on it.
The finding in Equity’s own survey that just under half of all gay performers are not out to their own agent in the UK is worrying, but then work is scarce and, whether sexuality is a barrier or not, people may just err on the side of caution. They don’t want to test the water to see if it’s all right.
I think the great issue today is the nightmare problems facing gay teenagers in coping with vicious bullying in schools. But if they can get through that, and then college, and can find a job in the business then things have become much better.
My advice is that it does get better, and when you do come out you will be surprised by how many people say: “I knew that.” And in this business, when you come out, you will usually find yourself surrounded by people who are there to support you.