“I get to the point where I’m like, does the cast know something that I don’t?” I say to my mom after auditioning for another lesbian character. It was a running joke in my family since I was about 16, because almost every audition I had for a queer or lesbian character identified with a reservation.
Huge shock for everyone; cast actually knew something that I didn’t.
I played queer characters for about 10 years – half of my career and six years longer than I dated. I might have recognized my homosexuality earlier if I had actually resonated with the queer stories I saw on television; not to mention how extremely difficult it is to forge a personal identity outside of your career when you grow up as a child actor.
There is an ideology that heterosexuality is the factory default in our society. Essentially, you’re straight until you’re proven to be gay and when you’re gay, you’re just gay, unless you’re bisexual – and then you’re either a gluttonous prostitute looking for sex. be careful not to be ready to commit to just being gay just yet.
Growing up, I never really saw the media telling me otherwise; which described all the ways of lying apart from the heterosexual or gay pair, male or female; stories that showed all the in-betweens of human attraction, identity and existence. I had no reference to describe who I was because I didn’t fit any of the clear options. In retrospect, it’s no surprise that I was drawn to queer coded characters like Jo March, Carrie, and Li Shang (Mulan’s male soldier alter ego).
In my teens, I was particularly drawn to films like “Juno” (2007) and “Whip It” (2009) which featured complicated, nuanced, and dynamic characters. Both films star Elliot Page.
In “Juno,” Page and Michael Cera’s characters were young and fluid, still evolving as humans, and the cinematic relationship worked. In other movies though, despite amazing performances, I noticed a subtle romantic disconnect between Page and various love interests. I found myself completely unsurprised years later when it came out. The camera had captured something that was not yet known to the public. And in my own case, the cast picked up on something that I didn’t realize it yet.
Until recently, many queer stories in mainstream media – when they did happen – were often broad and tackled the most obvious stereotypes. And of course, add the two-dimensional gay or lesbian supporting characters and stories of queer-trauma exploitation. There are notable exceptions, but it still feels like a transitional period in representation. Additionally, as the most underrepresented group in Hollywood, this problem is only exacerbated for black, Indigenous, and visibly queer and transgender people of color.
Additionally, there has been a lack of queer performers who simply inhabit the screen space in a wide range of roles that are not limited by their gender identity. Recent examples include Ariana DeBose in “West Side Story”, Emma D’Arcy in “House of the Dragon”, Keke Palmer in “Nope” and Colman Domingo in “Euphoria”, to name a few.
What I didn’t realize I wanted when I was a teenager was something or someone to tell me that you don’t have to feel 100% gay to know you’re not gay. ain’t 100% straight. You don’t have to feel like a boy to know that you don’t quite feel like a girl.
Oddly enough, the representation I was looking for came in a movie that I got to be in. I often think about my experience playing Mouse in Keith Behrman’s “Giant Little Ones” (2018) and how instrumental that was in my own discovery of identity. The mouse line “all (queer) means is you’re not straight” has been ringing in my head for years. Mouse was so confident and comfortable with the fluidity of identity and attraction that she became a sort of internal mentor to me. As I had to understand Mouse to play it, I started to learn more about myself.
Acting has always been cathartic for me. I feel like my time playing Jack on “Degrassi” gave me the queer relationship in high school that I never had in real life. Playing Lydia in “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” allowed me to channel a very feminine side of myself that never quite fit into my everyday gender expression. Something about the camera safety net allowed me to embrace Lydia’s panache and confidence. Every character I played took a little piece of me, and in return, I took a little piece of each of them.
When I was a teenager and just beginning to develop my sense of identity in any meaningful way, I looked at all the character pieces I’d collected since I was five, and I couldn’t tell where they ended and where I started. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted outside of being an actor. You could say that no teenager knows who they are or what they want, but most teenagers also haven’t been known by their job title or the name of a fictional character since they were kids.
When you’ve been told from childhood what kinds of clothes to wear to work or you can’t cut your hair the way you want because it has to be versatile enough for the cast to see you in any role , you quickly learn to suppress any desire to distinguish yourself as an individual. Without resolution, it leads to a deeply unsatisfying adult life trying to fill in the gaps left in the incomplete puzzle that is your sense of self.
For me, even though I tried to fill it with work and be an overachiever, it wasn’t until 2019 when I moved to LA – where I had no friends – that I was compelled to sit down with myself and explore what I might be missing. It wasn’t until a year later, during lockdown, that I and many others realized the depth of the heteronormative roles we were unconsciously playing every day. When there are no more audiences to watch, you stop playing. You just have to be with yourself.
Now, on the other side, I can confirm that life is much more fulfilling. My career started to mean more to me than just being what I’m good at or known for. The beautiful part of being an actor is that you have the privilege of becoming the representation in media that you wish you had. I’m blessed to be able to inhabit the screen space and be able to create nuanced characters and creatively expand.
I want my work to show you just can be in so many different ways. Not having to subscribe to specific settings of who to like or how to behave. For me, homosexuality is everything outside the infrastructure of heteronormativity, and it’s not like you have to take that same blueprint and just make it rainbow-colored. Queerness is about setting fire to that blueprint and building a house that You feel comfortable in.
And I’m finally starting to feel like I’m building the house I’ve always dreamed of.
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