Coming out of the closet is a bitch. And awesome. And awful. And, well... OK, for some it's harder than it is for others, depending on where we're from and how we were brought up. For those who've 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 the "jocks" who understood the concept of an end zone way before they realized they liked getting jiggy with their own.
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 a need for rebellion, confession or liberation. Once you're out, you can't really creep back in. Well, maybe except if you're in show business.
About one month after I'd met Don in 1992, he invited me to be his date at the premiere of his first film, Love Field, starring Michelle Pfeiffer. The invitation arrived in the form of a card, with the one-sheet for the film on the cover and the details on the inside. "You and a guest..." it said. I remember feeling a wave of excitement: I was going to be Don's "plus one." They were having a screening and an after-party in Westwood. But we wouldn't be staying for the screening, he told me soon after. Don and the film's producers, along with Michelle and her new husband, David Kelley, would all go to dinner during the screening. My jaw dropped. I was going to dinner with Michelle Pfeiffer? I had some limited experience with celebrities, but certainly none with celebrities of Michelle Pfeiffer's stature. I mean, OK, I met Big Bird at a street fair in New York City when I was 6. I saw Cher up at Vassar once but didn't have the nerve to approach. I flew behind Jack Klugman on an airplane. Oh, right, and I once saw Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro shooting Falling in Love in Grand Central Station. Awed by the glamor of it all, and with cajones I haven't sported since, I snuck into the crowd of extras to do some filming with them. That was until I was caught, about half an hour later, and booted shamelessly back onto the street.
This was different. 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. In this case my histrionic eye rolls and sighing may have tipped him off.
"I'm not sure I can go." I felt fairly certain I would have to take a pass. It took me a while to admit to Don the reasons for my trepidation.
At 27 years old I had moved to Los Angeles only a year earlier to pursue my career as an actor and writer, but I was still very much in the closet, professionally speaking, of course. It was 1992. There was no Will & 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 of trailblazers like Elton John, Rosie O'Donnell, Neil Patrick Harris and most recently Anderson Cooper. Now, such events barely make headlines. Who ever imagined that we'd 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" was synonymous with "desperate" and "hungry" and "unemployed." I had come out to my family merely two years earlier, but the notion of being out in public, even before anyone in the public knew or cared who I was? Unfathomable!
"What if I'm in a movie one day with Michelle Pfeiffer?" I argued. Don laughed. "What? It could happen!" I was adamant.
"Yes," he finally conceded. "Of course it could. But you think she hasn't come face to face with a homo before? You think there haven't been gays on her movies?" He laughed again. Of course he was right, but I'll say it again: I was only 27. "Who do you think does her hair and makeup?" Don has always felt comfortable in the eye of a storm of gay clichés.
I remained fixated on this notion that, as an actor, it was my duty to remain a mystery, a blank slate, a chameleon in the eyes of my future employers and co-stars. And to that end I knew I had to remain in the closet. Of course, that was the romantic version of the truth: I panicked over the possibility that I would never get hired if people knew I was gay.
After a week of being at the receiving end of some subtle cajoling (and some not-so-subtle taunting), I did go with Don to the dinner with Michelle 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 someone I don't remember, who sat next to famed agent Ed Lamato, who sat next to Don, who sat next to me. I don't think it'll cause anyone to spit-take their cappuccino to learn that Michelle didn't know the names of everyone at that table. 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 first and foremost on her mind.
"Phew," I thought. "I could probably still work with her and she'll never remember."
It took me several years before I felt comfortable having people in the industry know I was gay. It took maturity and experience and self-acceptance, all with the aid of a strong mental health care professional, to feel inspired by those who paved the way before me. It didn't hurt that I seemed to be cast mostly in roles as gay men.
In 2001, when my film All Over the Guy was released, it was the first time I had to deal with marketing campaigns, publicists and press junkets. At long last I had managed to wedge my way front and center. And though 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 very definition of a gay film? But it was the same year as Kissing Jessica Stein, a love story about two women, which did seem to garner a wider appeal for an indie, so that's what I wanted for mine. I convinced myself that 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.
In hindsight, I realize that what I wanted, really, was for people to believe I could play any role, not just gay roles. 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 happened to be" gay, I was exposing myself, too. 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 if, 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 have been published and released as a book titled 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 now play the character of James Novak on Shonda Rhimes' ABC series Scandal. James is the husband of the gay chief of staff of the president of the United States. I play a man who struggles with giving up his career as a journalist to be a husband, and eventually a father, he hopes.
If anyone had told me back in 1992 that one day I'd be married to a man with two kids and write a book about how it happened, I wouldn't have believed it. If, on top of that, they'd told me that I'd also be playing some guy's TV husband on a show that launched its second season a few short weeks before we unanimously cast our votes for our incumbent president, the first black president this country's ever seen, a man who had spoken out in favor of marriage equality... what?! Look out the window, people, and watch out for flying pigs. Yes, progress may not come as fast as we'd like, but it's still progress. Sometimes we have to come out and then come out again. And then again.
Here we are. 2012. And I'm gay. And out. Again. And pigs are flying! Oh, and I'm trying to get an address for Michelle Pfeiffer so that I can send her my book.