The True Accurate History of Queer Women and Acting Oscars

The history of LGBTQ representation in the acting categories at the Oscars is a wild one: we’ve got heaps of possibly-queer actors who are now dead, a handful of actors who weren’t out when they won but are out now, and a small, tiny little teacup of out actors nominated after coming out — including 2022’s historic win from Ariana DeBose, the first queer woman of color to win an Oscar for Acting.

Ultimately we are left with a key question: why have so few LGBTQ+ actors been nominated for acting Oscars? The problem here likely doesn’t start with the Academy, as so many problems do, but with whomst even sees mainstream movie stardom as a possibility and who is able to “get ahead” in Hollywood, an industry still run by cis men who are usually also straight and white.

Although young people have been coming out in droves over the past five years and audiences are less likely than ever to insist gay people can’t play straightthe average age of Oscar nominees is late 30s – early 40s, and the marquee names that comprise typical nominee cadre remain heterosexual. Many gay or closeted actors still fear or know that coming out can hurt their career. In 2015, Variety wrote that “no A-list film actor has yet to come out publicly while at the pinnacle of his or her career” which is still mostly true, although Kristen Stewart has since become a notable exception. Top-grossing LGBTQ+ films tend to star straight actors in gay roles. While I absolutely don’t think only gay people should play gay roles, it remains a troubling trend.

So, let’s look back at the history of LGBTQ+ people in the Lead Actress and Supporting Actress categories!


The Unconfirmed But Possibly Gay Oscar Nominees of Early-to-Midcentury Hollywood

Hattie Mcdaniels With Academy Award

Los Angeles, CA: Actress Hattie Mc Daniel is shown with the statuette she received for her portrayal in “Gone With The Wind.”

Early Hollywood was a hotbed of lesbian activity, as Silver Screen stardom was one of a very small number of ways for queer women to generate enough wealth to live independently, build thriving lesbian social lives in a liberal environment and eschew traditional expectations to marry young and procreate. Many bisexual stars of the era had relationships with both men and women, some had lavender marriages sold to tabloids as juicy romances, and most had a very good time. Called “The Sewing Circle,” this group of possibly-gay-or-bisexual women encompasses a major swath of the era’s top talent, and documentation of their activities comes from a variety of sources. Thus, the first three decades of Oscar nominations are dripping with “maybe” to “definitely but unconfirmed” lesbian and bisexual women, none of whom ever personally confirmed their own gayness.

The first-ever actress to win a Lead Actress trophy was Janet Gaynor in 1927/28 for 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Gaynor has been linked romantically to Broadway’s Peter Pan, confirmed bisexual Mary Martin, and it has been said of Gaynor that “Janet Gaynor’s husband was Adrian, but her wife was Mary Martin.” Janet Gaynor was also nominated in 1938 for A Star is Born.

In 1930, bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich was nominated for Lead Actress for Morocco — a film that marked the first time in film history that two women shared a kiss onscreen.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel, who was rumored to have had relationships with women, became the first-ever person of color to win an Oscar for acting for Gone With The Wind. If Hattie McDaniel was gay for real, she’s the first queer person of color to win an Oscar for acting and Ariana DeBose is the second. But we’ll never know for sure, so!

Almost definitely bisexual Katharine Hepburn was nominated for 12 Academy Awards for Lead Actress between 1934 and 1982, and won four. 

Other probably-queer actors who earned acting nominations or wins in the 1930s-1950s include Greta Garbo, Jeanne Eagels, Billie Burke, Edna May OliverClaudette Colbert (who won for It Happened One Night in 1934), Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur (another former Peter Pan), Spring Byington, Joan Crawford (who won for Mildred Pierce in 1945), Elsa Lanchester and Ethel Waters. (Waters, who was 100% queer for sure, was also the second Black actress nominated for an Academy Award.)

In 1966, actress Sandy Dennis, who allegedly had “many lesbian relationships,” won Best Supporting Actress for playing Honey in the film adaptation of gay playwright Ed Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Eva Le Gallienne, another member of the Hollywood “Sewing Circle,” got her first nomination for Resurrection in 1980, making her the then-oldest nominee. She was definitely a lesbian but refused to confirm it.


The Out or Eventually-Out Nominees of the 1970s – present

Tatum O’Neal

Tatum O’Neal was a literal child when she won a Supporting Actress Oscar for “Paper Moon” in 1974 — the youngest winner in Oscars history. O’Neal came out in 2012, making Tatum O’Neal the first eventually-out queer actress to win an Oscar.

Tatum O'Neal Holding Her Oscar

Tatum O’Neal holds the Oscar she won for working alongside her father in the movie Paper Moon. Photo By: Bettmann / Contributor


Lily Tomlin

In 1975, Lily Tomlin was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Nashville. Although she began dating Jane Wagner in 1971 and it was widely known within show business and the LGBTQ+ community that she was gay, she didn’t officially come out to the world until the 2000s.

Lily Tomlin singing a gospel song in a scene from the film 'Nashville', 1975. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

Lily Tomlin singing a gospel song in a scene from the film ‘Nashville’, 1975. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)


Jodie Foster

In 1976, 14-year-old Jodie Foster earned her first nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role inTaxi Driver. Foster, who was always a tomboy and veered from the typical Hollywood startlet mode, was dogged by lesbian rumors and pressure to come out from the jump.

Evelyn Foster, Jodie Foster (right) and guest (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

49th Annual Academy Awards (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

In 1988, Jodie Foster won her first Lead Actress Oscar for playing Sarah Tobias in The Accused. She brought British actor Julian Sands, who she met on the set of the 1987 film Siesta, as her date. This makes her the second eventually-out queer woman to win an Oscar for acting.

Swifty Lazar's Post Oscar Party, Jodie and date

Julian Sands and Jodie Foster (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

In 1991, Jodie Foster won her second Lead Actress Oscar for playing Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, a film many saw as extremely homophobic. (“The Silence of the Lambs was protested upon its release by cis gay men because Buffalo Bill was read as gay and male,” Drew recently wrote of the film. “But Buffalo Bill is undoubtedly a trans woman.”) Much of that outcry against the film from LGBTQ+ activists held Jodie Foster personally accountable for being both in the closet and in the movie. 

The 64th Annual Academy Awards

Best Actor recipient Anthony Hopkins stands with Best Actress recipient Jodie Foster at the 64th annual Academy Awards March 30, 1992 in Los Angeles, CA. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded five Oscars to the film “Silence of the Lambs.” (Photo by John Barr/Liaison)

In 1993, Foster began dating Cydney Bernard, and they eventually would have two children together. They broke up in 2008. (Foster is now married to Alexandra Heddison.)

In 1995, Jodie Foster was nominated for Lead Actress for Nell, and brought her gay friend Randy Stone as her date. Stone’s film Trevor, about the suicide of a gay teen, won an Oscar that year, and inspired the founding of The Trevor Project.

Jodie Foster and Randy Stone (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Jodie Foster and Randy Stone (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

In 2007, Foster publicly acknowledged her relationship with Cydney in a speech at a “Women in Entertainment” luncheon, but her “official coming out” is generally cited as her 2013 Golden Globes speech.


Linda Hunt:

Linda Hunt won Best Supporting Actress for “The Year of Living Dangerously” in1983, in which Hunt, who is white, played a Chinese-Australian man. Both Hunt and the character she played have dwarfism. Her physical transformation into the role married drag with “yellowface,” which included prosthetics to alter the appearance of her eyes. She’s among the nine white actors who’ve been nominated for playing East, Southeast or South Asian characters.

Linda Hunt winning an Oscar

Linda Hunt at the Oscars. Photo Paul Harris/Online USA, Inc.

Hunt began dating her now-wife, psychotherapist Karen Kline, in 1978, but it appears she was not officially out until the 2000s.


Anna Paquin:

Anna Paquin was 11 when she became the second-youngest ever Oscar winner, winning Best Supporting Actress for The Piano in 1994. Paquin came out as bisexual in 2010.

US actress Holly Hunter (L), New Zealand's director Jane Campion (R) and actress Anna Paquin pose with their Oscars during the 66th Annual Academy Awards ceremony after winning respectively the awards for best actress, best original screenplay and best supporting actress for the movie "The Piano" in Los Angeles on March 21, 1994. (Photo by Timothy A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by Timothy A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)


Angelina Jolie:

Angelina Jolie was the first openly queer woman to win or be nominated for an Oscar for acting when she won Best Supporting Actress for Girl Interrupted in 1999. Depending on how you read her character, she is also the first and only openly queer woman nominated for playing a queer or trans role. Only three out LGBTQ+ actors have been nominated for playing LGBTQ+ roles, the other two are Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters, 1998) and Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game, 1992).

Actress Angelina Jolie kisses her Oscar at the Aca

(Scott Nelson/AFP via Getty Images)

But that’s not all! The first openly-queer person to be nominated for acting was Nigel Hawthorne in 1995, though the specifics are contestable, as he was outed in the run-up to the ceremony so he technically wasn’t out at the time of the nomination. I’ve also mentioned McKellan (also nominated in 2002) and Davidson.

But none of these guys won, which I think makes Angelia Jolie the first openly queer person to win an Academy Award for acting.

Jolie dated Jenny Shimizu while they worked together on Foxfire in 1996, and never shied away from identifying as bisexual, telling Girlfriends in 1997 that “I probably would have married Jenny Shimizu if I hadn’t married my husband. I fell in love with her the first second I saw her.”

Jolie was nominated for Best Lead Actress for Changeling in 2008.


Queen Latifah:

In 2003, Queen Latifah was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Chicago. The degree to which Queen Latifah is out or not has been a consistent topic of heated debate in our community, but we can safely say she was not out at this time and that she is out now. This makes her the first eventually-out actress of color nominated for an Oscar.

HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 23: Actress Queen Latifah, wearing Harry Winston jewelry, attends the 75th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater on March 23, 2003 in Hollywood, California.

HOLLYWOOD – MARCH 23: Actress Queen Latifah, wearing Harry Winston jewelry, attends the 75th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater on March 23, 2003 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)


Elliot Page:

In 2007, Elliot was nominated for Best Lead Actress for Juno. Page came out as gay in 2014, and then as a queer non-binary trans man in 2020. This makes him the first and only transgender Oscar nominee for acting, although nobody knew he was trans when he was nominated. Meanwhile, eight cisgender people have been nominated for playing transgender characters, two of whom won.


Lady Gaga:

In 2018, openly bisexual actress/musician Lady Gaga was nominated for Lead Actress for A Star is Born. This makes her the second openly queer actor nominated for an Academy Award for acting. She didn’t win for acting, but she did win for Best Original Song.

Lady Gaga clutching her Oscar

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA: Lady Gaga, winner of Best Original Song for ‘Shallow’ from ‘A Star is Born’ poses in the press room during the 91st Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 24, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

The first openly queer woman to win Original Song was Melissa Etheridge in 2006.


Cynthia Erivo:

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 09: Cynthia Erivo arrives at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 09: Cynthia Erivo arrives at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

In 2019, actress/singer/songwriter Cynthia Erivo was nominated for Best Lead Actress for Harriet. She came out in August 2021, telling The Standard, “I am queer… I have never felt like I necessarily needed to come out just because no-one really asked.” This makes Erivo is the first and only eventually-out queer woman of color nominated for Lead Actress.


Ariana DeBose:

US actress Ariana DeBose accepts the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in "West Side Story" onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

US actress Ariana DeBose accepts the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in “West Side Story” onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2022, Ariana DeBose won Best Supporting Actress for West Side Story. This made her the first openly queer woman of color, and the second Afro-Latina, nominated for an acting Oscar, and the first openly queer woman of color to win an Oscar for Acting.

She is also the first Afro-Latina and the second Latina woman to win an Oscar for Acting, and she won it for the same role Rita Moreno won it for in 1962. (Some count Mercedes Ruehl amongst Latina winners because her Grandmother is Cuban, which would make Ariana the third winner.)


Kristen Stewart:

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 27: (L-R) Dylan Meyer and Kristen Stewart attend the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 27: (L-R) Dylan Meyer and Kristen Stewart attend the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

In 2022, openly queer actress Kristen Stewart was Nominated for a Lead Actress Oscar for Spencer, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Stewart is the first female Lead Actress nominee to bring a woman she is openly in a relationship with as her date to the Academy Awards.


In total, this list of LGBTQ+- related acting nominees now contains:

  • Four people who were openly queer at the time of their nomination for Lead or Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose, Kristen Stewart, Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga), of whom two won (Ariana DeBose and Angelina Jolie)
  • Eight people who were not openly LGBTQ+ at the time of their nomination for Lead or Supporting Actress, but are now, one of whom was nominated four times (Jodie Foster).
  • 20 straight cisgender women who were nominated for playing lesbian, queer, or bisexual roles, two of whom were nominated twice for doing so.
  • Five cis men and one cis woman nominated for playing trans women and two cis women nominated for playing trans men
  • 17 now-dead women who may have been LGBTQ+ according to historians but never personally identified that way themselves on the official record.

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Riese

Riese is the 40-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in California. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2988 articles for us.

31 Comments

    • I never knew if Cynthia Erivo was out, but I always felt like she was queer or I suffered from wishful thinking. Thank you Reese for clarifying.

      PS did anyone else notice that she and Lena Waithe appear to be each other’s date for the Oscars?

    • when i re-watched in in 2018 i was honestly SHOCKED like wait what! i remember it being a homoerotic movie (i saw it in the theaters when it came out by myself)

      but it yes seemed so gay but like why isn’t her character talked about as gay in the same way that like, Legs is in Foxfire???

  1. I recently read this interview with Tilda Swinton which makes it pretty clear she’s not queer in the way that we’re interested in. She says it’s nothing to do with her sexual life, just to do with feeling like an outsider. Which I think is a little rich coming from someone so dazzlingly rich and white and well-supported but ok! I don’t know her interiority.

    https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/jan/07/tilda-swinton-my-ambition-was-always-about-having-a-house-by-the-sea-and-some-dogs

    • There are other interviews where she sounds non-binary or genderqueer (using she because she’s never claimed other pronouns AFAIK). “I don’t know if I could ever really say that I was a girl,” she says. “I was kind of a boy for a long time. I don’t know, who knows? It changes.” Which probably was quite othering and made her feel like an outsider growing up in upper class 1960s and 70s UK.

    • @Riese – I’m going out on a limb here and say I’m guessing she is trans (or gender fluid) and men-loving i.e. gay, but non-transitioning (Non-transitioning and trans in the sense that some butches are).
      She is obviously not a poser, her involvement with the gay male community is real and started early. Back then, she was not seen as an ally but an acknowledged part of said community, without having words to explain in what way.

      Swindon was born in 1960. In her generation, coming out as a non-transitioning, gay, trans man would have been de facto impossible. At the time most people didn’t know that trans men existed, and the idea of a gay trans man would have been unintelligible even as a joke.
      Lou Sullivan came out semi-publicly to the medical establishment as the “first” gay trans man in 1988, but before that he was denied transition for several years because he was gay. This was because through transition, doctors only wanted to “heal” homosexuals, not create more of them.

      Without the internet, information about Sullivan’s coming out was not internationally available in 1988, small snippets were published only from 2010. His role in fighting for the rights of gay trans men and homosexual transsexuals was only recognized after 2010. Until ca 2005, unbelievably, most people had never heard about gay trans men, or only in the sense of “butch lesbian before transition, gay male after transition”.

      Because she looks so young, one should remember that Swinton was 28 in 1988 and 50 in 2010. She is 62 this year.

      Especially as Swinton wanted children, transitioning might not have been a choice at all, as castration was mandatory for transsexuals in most EU countries until recently. I know gay trans men with children, but only since the 2010s.

      Regarding the use of female pronouns- she is from a generation when gay men commonly addressed each other with female pronouns, and many had female nicknames. This practice was not confined to the drag communities, and stopped only when trans communities became an “official” part of LGBT around the late 1990s or early 2000s. But the older gays still use female pronouns today, so the whole pronoun situation for a gay trans man from her generation is interesting.

      • “Swindon was born in 1960. In her generation…”

        LOL, I was born in 1962, and this comment definitely makes me feel like an exotic (and valuable?) historical artifact!

  2. I am always hyper appreciative of your thorough research on these topics Riese!

    Also, “almost definitely bisexual” and “definitely a lesbian but refused to confirm it” need to get added to the official list of sexuality labels.

  3. I love this so much!!!!
    Adding one to the ‘unconfirmed but probably’: Paulette Goddard was nominated in 1944 for best supporting actress. She was never out out, but it was allegedly an open secret that she had affairs with women, including (but certainly not limited to) Frida Kahlo. She’s also just a dang delight to watch

  4. Riese, thank you so much for this.

    I just felt I took the Gay Hollywood 101 college course. Right now I think I would flunk, need to read it over a few more times to get a passing grade. Amazing compilation.

    You really are a wonderful teacher on these subjects!

    THANK YOU

    WARM HUGS

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