For many LGBT actors, coming out professionally is still a problem: If they come out, will they be discriminated against? Will they only be cast as gay or lesbian characters? Will audiences accept them in straight roles? A recent survey of SAG-AFTRA members found that 27% of gay actors, 21% of gay actresses, 53% of bisexual actresses, and 68% of bisexual actors have not come out professionally. Even today, it seems, it’s one thing to let your friends and family know but something entirely different to let the whole world know.
At the union’s Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Town Hall meeting Wednesday night in Los Angeles, keynote speaker Dan Bucatinsky, who won an Emmy last year for his portrayal of James Novak on ABC’s Scandal, discussed his own misgivings about coming out professionally and how he finally made the decision to take the big step. His speech begins at the 18:10 mark.
Here is a transcript of his remarks:
“Coming out of the closet is a bitch; and awesome; and awful. And well OK, for some it’s harder than others, depending on where we’re from and how we were brought up. For those of us who have been twirling in tutus to the soundtrack of Fame since age 3, the news hits with a much lower, let’s say, ‘gasp factor’ than for others. Regardless, the tiny three-word phrase ‘I am gay’ feels almost nuclear in its power. It indelibly marks that particular before-and-after in a very specific life-defining way. It takes courage, self-acceptance and resolve. It changes us forever, whether the act comes out of rebellion, confession or liberation. Once you’re out, you can’t really creep back in, unless, you know, maybe you’re in show business.
“About one month after I met my current husband Don in 1992, he invited me to be his date at the premiere of his first film, Love Fields, starring Michelle Pfeiffer. I remember feeling a wave of excitement at the opportunity to be Don’s ‘plus one.’ They were having a screening and after-party in Westwood, but he told me soon after we wouldn’t be staying for the screening. Don and the film’s producers, along with Michelle and her, at the time, new husband, David Kelley, would all be going to dinner together instead. My jaw dropped. What? I was going to be sitting at an intimate dinner table with Michelle Pfeiffer. My heart should have skipped a beat, but instead it sank. ‘What’s the matter?’ Don asked, already adept at reading my pathetic attempts to hide my emotions.
“At 27, I had moved to Los Angeles only a year earlier to pursue my career as an actor and a writer. But I was still very much in the closet, professionally speaking, of course. It was 1992; there was no Will and Grace yet, and it was easily four years before Ellen kissed Laura Dern on that groundbreaking episode of her television show. It was more than a decade before the mad dash out closet doors led by trailblazers like Elton John, Rosie O’Donnell, Neil Patrick Harris.
“Now such events barely make headlines. Whoever imagined we would live to see America take a casual, almost who-the-hell-cares approach to this kind of news? But this was a different time, and I was different. I was an aspiring actor before I knew the word ‘aspiring’ at the time was synonymous with desperate and hungry and unemployed. I had come out to my family merely two years earlier. The notion of being ‘out’ in public, even before anyone in the public knew or cared who I was, unfathomable.
“So I say to Don, ‘What if I’m in a movie one day with Michelle Pfeiffer?’ Don laughed. ‘What, it could happen.’ I was adamant. ‘Yes,’ he finally conceded, ‘of course, it could happen. But you think she hasn’t come face to face with a homo before?’ He laughed again. Of course, he was right, but I’ll say it again: I was only 27. Do I go to dinner and support my new boyfriend and meet an iconic movie star and possibly risk whatever professional fallout comes from being an actor who is outed? Well, I did go with Don to the dinner with Pfeiffer. She was lovely; probably the most radiantly beautiful woman I’d ever seen up close and personal, so to speak. Michelle sat next to her husband, who sat next to someone I don’t remember, who sat next to their publicist, who sat next to someone else I don’t remember. Michelle didn’t know the names of everyone at that table either, and she certainly didn’t register my name or that I was even there, let alone whose boyfriend I was or wasn’t. She was polite, of course, but we were not friends, and she must have met hundreds of people that night. I was not the first and foremost on her mind. ‘Whew,’ I thought. ‘I could probably still work with her and she’ll never remember.’ It was important to me, still, that I feel that nobody knew.
“It took several years before I felt comfortable having people in the industry know that I was gay. In 2001, even, when my film All Over the Guy was released; it was the first time I had to deal with marketing campaigns and publicists and press junkets. At long last I had managed to wedge my way front and center. And while the film came from a place of truth, I still fought it. I had convinced myself, ‘It wasn’t a gay film, but a romantic comedy that just happened to have two gays as its protagonists.’ Isn’t that the definition of a gay film? (Audience laughter) I convinced myself we would cross-over to a straight audience as long as I didn’t push some kind of ‘gay agenda.’ Oh, how little I understood about the audience’s appetite for man-on-man action. (Laughter) In hindsight, I realize what I wanted really was for people to believe I can play any role, not just gay. And I was willing to closet myself once again in the press in order to achieve my unrealistic goal. Luckily though, my closet was a glass one. Your work speaks louder than your agenda. I had written a role for myself as a gay man looking for love and honesty and intimacy. And by exposing the simple truths about characters who ‘just happen to be gay,’ I too was exposing myself. It scared me; I wasn’t ready for it. But sometimes, you need to be pushed off the diving board before you can show the world that you know how to swim. What had I been fighting so hard for in the end? The way to reach my most authentic self on screen, in my writing and in my personal life, was to be honest.
“It’s 20 years later; my soul-bearing stories of being a gay dad published, released, ‘Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?’ Yes. It’s a fairly ironic title, given my earlier desires to ‘pass’ as straight. But now nothing is farther from my mind, and certainly from the minds of those who know me and are gifted with sight and hearing. Furthermore, I got to play the character of James Novak on the Shonda Rhimes ABC series Scandal. It was a complex role that challenged me as an actor in ways I never thought possible. And yes, it led to the most surprising turn of events in my career; an Emmy. But make no mistake; it was a role I got because I was gay. Would I have gotten it had I not been out? No way to know, but probably not. This was my journey. For me, coming out was essential for my growth as a person, and as an actor. I am a gay man, which mean I am gay, yes, but I’m also a man, and as a man, there are some things I can’t do. I’m not talking about peeing sitting down because I can do that, and I do from time to time. (Laughter) But seriously, I don’t feel like the limitations of being a man should be looked at as an injustice for which I need to be protected nor compensated. They are realities based on who I am. And at times I’ll benefit from who I am and at other times suffer for it. I know women feel even more so, that their gender feels at times like a disadvantage, and other times quite the blessing.
“Now, while I think we can all stipulate that there should be zero tolerance for the mistreatment of someone based on their sex or gender, religion, sexual orientation. Let’s talk about the word ‘discrimination.’ We are in a business where the very creative process is an act of discriminating. A painter chooses purple rather than yellow. He visualizes those first few brush strokes on that canvas, and maybe sees purple. Is he discriminating against yellow? In that moment: sure. Likewise, a writer comes up with a script and visualizes those characters. They are, hopefully, specific and real and complicated. So casting based on that script is an act of discriminating, distinguishing, in our minds, who that character is and how they may look or sound or behave. The job of casting is a job of distinguishing, discerning; yes, discriminating, talent, one from the other. I can’t play a woman. I can play a man dressed as a woman, but nobody wants to see that. It’s not pretty. It’s not my forte. If someone writes a script with a female African American lead, would I deserve the right to be considered for it? I know, race and gender are very visible traits, so it’s much harder to ‘pass’ as a black woman when I am, in fact, a white man. But as a gay man, the fact of my sexuality, my orientation, with which I believe I was born, can in many cases be hidden from the discriminating eye; but not always. I believe our job as actors, as much as possible, is to be a blank slate; a chameleon who can become, if cast, someone else. Our ability to get inside a character, first created in the mind of a writer, is what we trained to do. That’s our craft. Our goal is to be as authentic and honest in those roles as we are innately able to do, or trained to do. But therein lies the irony. I spent years in the closet, afraid that the fact of my sexuality would hinder me from getting roles in television shows and films. And as a result, I worked very hard to ‘act’ like an actor who wasn’t who I was. My first role, for which I cast myself, was that of a straight actor. I walked into every casting session with a mask already on. And from there I would add a second mask – that of the character for which I was reading. Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of work. But to the gay actor who has made his living as a heterosexual sex symbol, or to any actors who continues to remain a mystery to the public, and are able to reap the rewards of employment as a result, I say: Stay in the closet, if that is working for you authentically. Nobody can tell anyone else who they must be, or to whom. And there are varying degrees of ‘out.’ Not everyone needs to live their lives like an open book. That’s a matter of personal choice. But if anyone had told me back in 1992 that one day I’d be married to a man and have two kids and also play some guy’s TV husband on a show that launched around the time the first black President of the United States spoke out in favor of marriage equality, I would have sworn pigs were flying.
“While I don’t think it’s anyone’s business in our business who we sleep with, who we vote for, what our religious beliefs are, or political affiliations, or our actual age, god help me, those facts about ourselves help define us. And in stripping away the layers of masks that hide our true selves, we become more honest, more open, more authentic. And I would say – I would dare say – better actors. So there is the rub.
“What we do need to do is fight to make sure actors live in an environment where we can feel free to be who we are, if we so choose. In some cases, it may make people have a harder time imagining them in roles for which we feel we may be right. When I see an actor I know is straight in a love scene with a man – I don’t know about you, but I can’t help wonder, ‘Is that the first guy he’s kissed? Is he comfortable? Does his wife mind? Does he secretly love it? (Audience laughter) It’s distracting; as distracting as it may be to see a gay actor – an actor you know is gay – playing a straight role, and knowing, ‘Wow! I wonder if that’s hard for them?’ I play mostly gay roles, and I know for a fact that it’s harder for people to imagine me as a straight man because they know I am gay. Is this something I need to fight? Is it their fault that they imagine me with a penis in my mouth when I’m reading for straight roles? (Audience laughter) I can’t help what they think. Being out to myself and the world limited the ways in which people can see me, yes. But it also made me a better actor, and it afforded me opportunities I know I would never have had if I’d stayed in the closet.
“So, here we are: it’s 2014 and I’m gay and out, and pigs are flying. Now can someone get me an address for Michelle Pfeiffer ‘cause I want to send her my book. Thank you very, very much.” (Audience applause)