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 straight, the 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
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 Oliver, Claudette 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Hunt began dating her now-wife, psychotherapist Karen Kline, in 1978, but it appears she was not officially out until the 2000s.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first openly queer woman to win Original Song was Melissa Etheridge in 2006.
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.
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.)
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.