At a very young age I knew I was different, and it terrified me. Growing up, I always wanted to fit in, and I tried very hard to wear the right clothes, say the right things, and basically just try to blend in. I just wanted to be like everyone else, so I pretended I was. I acted as straight as I possibly could, but one day I decided enough was enough.
The first person I told that I was gay was a costume designer at the local community theater, where we were putting up a production of Twelfth Night (I was very much the thespian at a young age, and my family was its own little troupe of actors). After coming out to her, it spread like wildfire. Soon my family knew, then my friends, then the whole school. I was so out I even did an interview with my local newspaper about what it was like to be openly gay as a teenager in a small town. I definitely got called "fag" a few times in my high-school career, but ultimately I was 100-percent OK with who I was, and I didn't care what anyone else thought.
Then, after a brief stint as a business major, I decided that the only thing I wanted to be was an actor, so I took my A-OK-with-being-gay self to Los Angeles and went to a conservatory theater school. Upon graduation, I realized I had some tough choices to make. At that point in time there were very few out gay actors making a successful living in TV and film, much less and out and proud stars.
And therein lay my dilemma. Should I be who I am, Ben Baur, the out-and-proud gay man, or Ben Baur the actor who skirts around the issue of sexuality and plays the pronoun game? ("I am seeing someone. They are great. We are very happy together!")
On the one hand, my sexuality is private and really isn't anyone else's business. I want to go to work and do a job that I am passionate about and have that be enough. However, with any measure of attention in this day and age, it's foolish to think that who an actor is dating is never going to come up. There are whole magazines devoted solely to this issue. And if the truth were to come out at some point in my (hopefully lucrative) career, I feared it might be a scandal that would cause people who liked me to see me in a less flattering light. Let's face it: This kind of thing (almost) always comes out. So even if I did have a booming career, I would be constantly on edge, unable to live my life as freely and as openly as I wanted to.
On the other hand, however, I am completely free to be who I am, but there's the fear that my career would suffer because of it. Recent tweets/interviews from the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and Rupert Everett have contributed to the message that being an openly gay actor will definitely hurt your career and you will definitely be pigeonholed and typecast. These guys are trying to lend the voice of their experience to a struggle that all gay actors must face. And let's face it: There aren't that many gay characters to go around (or at least there weren't when I graduated). Being an out actor could leave me penniless and waiting tables for the rest of my life!
The decision that I thought I had made was to skirt the issue. I wanted it all, and perhaps I could have it both ways. I decided to be the one who would let writers refer to my permanent state of bachelorhood and discuss why I hadn't met the right girl yet. I was readying myself for a life of loneliness, of never putting myself out there and keeping everyone at arm's length, in order to have the career that I thought I wanted.
I discovered that it's much easier to compromise your life away when it's imaginary. As soon as I got the script for Hunting Season, I was struck by the honesty and the complexity of the writing. I felt excited to see gay characters with a sex life, who weren't neutered or just there for laughs. And right in my gut I knew then that I wanted to play the lead role. But even through the entire production, which was physically and mentally demanding, I still thought, "I'm playing a role. This isn't me."
All that changed, however, when I did my first press interview for the show. I knew that issues of sex and sexuality were bound to come up due to the nature of the show, and I was prepared to be vague. Somehow, though, when I started talking, all that went out the window. I found myself opening up and being honest and talking about how proud I was of this project and how I was excited to see something that resembled my life being out there in the world. I believe so much in the show and the idea of showing gay men having sex without shame or consequences, and I hope that it's opening the closet door just a little wider, until it might even disappear.
This is not to say that my fears have disappeared. I am an out gay actor now, but I worry that I might only play gay characters for the rest of my career, or that I will be forever marked by something I can't control. But ultimately, I realized that being honest about who I am and living my life authentically and with integrity is more important to me than anything else. Plus, there are now more role models out there for me, great gay actors doing amazing work, like Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes, and Amber Heard, just to name a few. These people have braved a path in front of me, and their tracks make my walk easier. These actors didn't choose the easy way; they chose the brave way. And that's exactly what I want to do, and I hope it makes it that much easier for the next people coming along right behind us.
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My favorite scene in Hunting Season happens in Episode 1, when Lenny first buys my character Alex a beer, and they get to talking. For anyone who has tried to do anything creative, the message is this: Be authentic to yourself, and the rest will sort itself out.
Follow Ben Baur on Twitter: www.twitter.com/benjbaur