Don't Act, Don't Tell

"If they smell gay on you, it's over!" This was stingingly declared by my friend, a prominent casting director. She referred to the flat rejection actors face at auditions when they "seem gay," whether the part is gay or straight, large or small, no matter how right they might otherwise be for it.
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"If they smell gay on you, it's over!"

This was stingingly declared by my friend, a prominent casting director. She referred to the flat rejection actors face at auditions when they "seem gay," whether the part is gay or straight, large or small, no matter how right they might otherwise be for it. Acclaimed out-actor André De Shields lends credence to this, having said that his casting director friends won't cast anyone who is "too gay."

What, then, are such actors to do? (If only Sir John Gielgud had written Letters to a Young, Gay-Acting Actor). Unfortunately the actors' unions are limited in the advocacy they can provide, because the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a proposed bill that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, still awaits approval -- and it was first introduced to Congress in 1994.

Meanwhile, in separate interviews, gay film actors Rupert Everett and Richard Chamberlain have both offered the same cynical mentoring to their kindred thespians, recommending that they stay in the closet, much like "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), which prohibited openly gay and lesbian people from military service.

The problem however is broader, more elusive, and more insidious than actors getting penalized for "telling" who they want to sleep with. The salient issue is that casting directors, like my friend, determine whether an actor is "too gay" based on how that person seems/presents/acts, forcing the "gay-acting" actor to wrestle with an unspoken policy that should be called "don't act, don't tell."

What is meant by "gay-acting"? As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote on The Huffington Post in 2009, "Gay and straight aren't actable things. You can act effeminate and you can act macho," clarifying that qualities of gender can be enacted, but you can't play a sexual orientation "any more than you can play Catholic." However, as a handful of studies (including Johnson's "Swagger, Sway, and Sexuality: Judging Sexual Orientation from Body Motion and Morphology ") indicate, people reflexively perceive sexual orientation (at lightning speed) based on gender expression. In other words, gay or straight, if you're gender-nonconforming, you're perceived to be gay; and if this is conveyed at your audition, "it's over!"

This unspoken "don't act, don't tell" practice affects all those who either have jobs or actively seek one (not just actors). Earlier this month Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) publicly stated that all LGBT people should stop wearing "their sexuality on their sleeve." In arguing to against the passing of ENDA, Rep. King stated that unless a person "makes their sexuality public," they shouldn't fear discrimination.

Surely by "makes their sexuality public," Rep. King doesn't mean gratuitously flaunting it by keeping gay porn on a work computer, or having crystal-meth-fueled trysts during work hours, as these activities are more commonly associated with religious leaders who promote anti-gay beliefs, as opposed to your average gay, working American.

Rather, he suggests that people "project" or "advertise" their sexuality in the way they act. For instance, in attempting to demonstrate how one can successfully keep closeted, King shared with an anecdote about how his colleague, Senator Jerry Behn (R-Iowa) couldn't get LGBT activists to guess his sexual orientation, based only on a brief encounter with him. Interestingly enough, while sharing this, King glibly remarked that "actually they should have known," suggesting that Behn's heterosexuality should have been easily detected by voice and mannerisms alone. Had my casting director friend been there, perhaps she would have even been able to "smell" it on him.

Because people rarely acknowledge or discuss prejudice based on gender nonconformity, and due to the distinct absence of anti-discrimination laws, many feel entitled to openly deride and discriminate against others on this basis. Take, for example, the behind-the-scenes clip of a recent Fox interview with Mitt Romney (currently viral on the Internet) featuring the presidential hopeful affecting an effeminate voice while jestingly requesting a pink tie. Certainly LGBT rights are not a priority for Romney's campaign, anyway, but neither is the plight of Latino voters (as evidenced by his lack of support for the DREAM Act, and his recent confounding references to "self-deportation"), though we're not likely to catch him on camera derisively "acting Latino."

Perhaps more importantly, Romney would legally be prohibited from discriminating against Latino employees, or "Latino-acting" employees, for that matter (as long as they were U.S. citizens, of course), but he has carte blanche to do so against effeminate male employees who happen to like pink ties (Romney's new, openly gay foreign-policy spokesman,Richard Grenell, may want to keep this in mind). To many, Romney's momentary attempt at levity is a harmless, vocal inflection, and that alone exemplifies the lack of social power and legal protections for those he impersonates.

This issue is constantly overlooked or dismissed due to the widely held expectation that people can easily mute or cover their gender nonconformity. In his book Covering, law professor Kenji Yoshino says, "[C]ourts will not protect mutable traits, because individuals can alter them to fade into the mainstream, thereby escaping discrimination." Given this expectation, it's no wonder ENDA is still in limbo, or that Obama refused to sign an executive order on LGBT nondiscrimination for federal contractors earlier this month. This is too bad, as not everyone can easily change the expression of gender in their mannerisms or vocal inflection, nor should they be pressured to do so in order to get hired or keep a job.

Last week's EEOC decision -- that discrimination against transgender people violates the existing federal ban on sex discrimination in employment -- is undeniably tremendous progress for transgender and transsexual rights, but it still leaves open the Achilles heel of being (or "acting") gay at work. The expectation remains that people "act" according to their identified sex.

"Don't act, don't tell" creates a dilemma for all gender-nonconforming workers, LGBT and straight alike, causing them to focus more on how they move and sound, their gender performance instead of their job performance. For example, an effeminate actor friend of mine recently described the excessive burden he feels at auditions. He said, "Let's say I'm trying to be convincing as the guy holding up the bodega; the character's not thinking, 'Do they think I'm gay?' The guy holding up the bodega wants to get the money. An actor who reads straight wouldn't have that extra layer of worry to get to the truth of the scene."

The passage of ENDA would create much-needed protections for working Americans and spark desperately needed discussions about each individual's right to "act" and express gender without fearing discrimination. It would also benefit employers whose gender-atypical workers would spend less energy on covering and more on doing the job they were hired for. In the meantime, everybody loses.

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