Henry Golding is many things. He’s half Malaysian and half British; he’s a powerful screen presence, equally adept at both swoon-worthy lead performances (Crazy Rich Asians) and support for fabulous women (A Simple Favor); and he’s a charming interview. But there are two very big thing he is not: Vietnamese and gay.
Nevertheless, Golding stars as a gay Vietnamese man in new movie Monsoon, a decision he has explained as being made when it was ascertained with gay writer-director Hong Khaou that the character’s sexuality was not integral to the film’s story (and ignoring that being Vietnamese absolutely is), though part of the film’s story involves him falling for a Black American (played by fellow heterosexual Parker Sawyers).
“Yes, he is a gay man but it’s very subtle. That’s just one normal part of him, it’s nothing that’s super sensationalized,” GLAAD’s Head of Talent Anthony Ramos says while interviewing Golding. One wonders if heterosexuality is ever described as subtle, or in what ways one’s sexuality is sensationalized in indie dramas, but that’s more of an earmark of shoddy live interviewing than anything else. It’s Golding’s response that is fascinating:
“It’s a huge responsibility. I think there’s a lot of expectations when it comes to queer characters onscreen. Should they be played by [a member of the] LGBT community or is there allowance for a heterosexual male to play this particular role? For this particular project, we felt as though that, because the story didn’t kind of revolve around his sexuality and the importance of his sexuality or the history of his sexuality, that as an actor I’m able to open myself to that, And I think it is a subject that you can sort of discuss till you’re blue in the face. And you’ve kind of touched upon it, and that sense of normality. When do we get to the stage where being gay isn’t even questioned on screen? Being a straight or LGBT actor, will you always be questioned for your sexuality? We went into the project with beautiful intentions and I think with Hong sort of helming with such a strong voice within the community, we created something beautiful that hopefully everyone can appreciate.”
No one’s intentions are in doubt; surely, a movie about a gay Vietnamese man returning to Vietnam 30 years after emigrating with his parents is not a cynical moneymaking ploy. And certainly the world desperately needs more queer Asian representation. But it’s Golding’s use of the word “responsibility” that sends up warning signals. Why is it a responsibility? Because gay characters, until recently, were rarely the leads in movies and that still holds true for gay Asian characters. And that stems from the routine and casual homophobia that is expressed in subtle and not subtle ways, down to gay actors not being hired for gay roles.
There’s also the jarring declaration that the story doesn’t revolve around the character’s sexuality. Perhaps his sexuality is not the inciting incident, but it’s present enough for Golding to have addressed these questions and concerns for months leading up to the film’s release—and it’s relevant because people aren’t denied basic civil rights because of their eye color, a truly irrelevant character trait. An irrelevant trait would not be considered punishable by death in some countries.
In some ways, straight actors playing gay roles and responding to criticism by saying, “I got hired, so if you don’t like it, fuck off,” would be so much more palatable than genuinely well-intentioned allies stumbling around. Or interviewers, ever reliant on the tit-for-tat that comprises entertainment coverage, carefully dulling their questions so that they can simultaneously claim to have done their due diligence while not hurting any movie star feelings.
Golding’s name and star power gets more eyes on the movie, and that’s a great thing. Too bad it comes at the cost of a gay actor getting a potential breakout role.
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