What Are The Challenges and Rewards Of Being an Out Actor?: 19 Broadway Artists Respond

As part of Playbill.com's 30 Days of Pride initiative, a mix of Broadway actors were asked the same question: "What are the rewards, challenges and/or surprises of being an out actor?" Their answers follow.

Nick Adams
Nick Adams

Nick Adams
Living my life fully as myself surpasses any obstacles my career may face from being openly gay.

Murray Bartlett
It was never an option for me to not be out. And, I don't really make a big thing of talking about it because I feel like it's a non-issue for me, personally. I feel like I am who I am, and why would I hide it? But I also think that it's definitely important, particularly for young gay people to have role models, or to see that it's okay to be out and have a wonderful life.

Bryan Batt

Bryan Batt
I realize that this is Gay Pride month, and I am thankful for it, as this movement was born out of necessity to raise awareness and prevent persecution. Great strides have been made in achieving equality since the Stonewall Riots of 1969, but needless to say, there are many more hurdles ahead. When asked to write on this topic, to be honest, I bristled a little, to me both personally and especially professionally it is such a non-issue. Who cares what sex I am attracted to? To boot, I really am not interested in anyone else’s preferences…What bearing does something so innate and personal as sexual attraction have on one’s ability and talent to perform a role?

I remember when my book “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother” was nominated for a LAMDA Literary Award, and Edward Albee received a special honor at the ceremony. In his speech, Albee mentioned how he was not a “Gay Writer” rather a writer “who was gay”…He didn’t just write about gay issues, but the complete life experience…I identified with that sentiment. For an actor to be constantly referred to as an “out gay actor” somewhat implies that he is limited to play only “gay” roles. And, luckily, I’ve had the good fortune to play some wonderful gay roles and some wonderful straight ones. They were just meaty roles. Has anyone been referred to as an “out straight actor”? We as a society are constantly labeling people, trying to force everyone into their definitive cubicle, and as people we are all different, we have different ideals, we are wired differently, we have different truths.

That being said, I have to sit back from the computer and think a bit…The plain truth is, I am what I am. I am a proud gay man, blessed to be in a 25-year relationship. I am honored to have worked in nine Broadway shows, many Off-Broadway shows, film, and television, and did this all happen because I was gay? Maybe, maybe not, but I do believe Shakespeare was right…"To thine own self be true”…that quote from Hamlet struck a chord with me the first time I read it (OK, the first time I heard it was on “Gilligan’s Island” when Phil Silvers directed the musical of Hamlet). Nevertheless, I realized the importance of that line, and that my parents did not raise me to be a liar. I have to pretend to be someone else every time I audition or set foot on a stage. So, I refused to do that in my real life. The decision was not easy. I was told by agents to tough it up, to act like my “look," and never to disclose my true nature. Add to the mix that growing up I had no real gay role models whatsoever. Not until college when I started to work in local theatres did I meet out gay people. It wasn’t until I moved to New York and began working in the theatre that I met so many role models, like Paul Rudnick, Chris Ashley, Jerry Mitchell, Harvey Fierstein and many more both on stage and off. Successful and talented people who just happened to be gay.

To get back to the questions at hand… What are the surprises of being an out actor? It boggles the mind that today some people within the industry still have issue with it…especially in Hollywood.

What are the challenges of being an out gay actor? Getting great seats to see Barbara or Liza…Life is a challenge no matter who or what you are. No one is exempt. What is the best reward of being an out actor? Besides living your life in the light and in accordance to your heart… the best reward is helping young and other people who are struggling with this issue. About ten years ago, I was approached via my website by a Broadway smitten teenage boy who had seen me in the film "Jeffrey." He knew he was gay, he came out to his parents, and unlike my coming out, it did not go well. Fortunate to be comfortable in my own skin, having lived through some bullying, I was able to just be there for him, honestly answer his questions with no judgment, and let him know that I was living proof that it does get better. To me that is a real reward.

So in closing…what I am called doesn’t really matter to me. I cannot control that… Call me…actor, stage actor, film actor, TV actor, serious actor, comic actor, musical actor, and, of course, please call me an out gay actor, I am truly fine with that…just call me…I’m with Don Buchwald and Assoc.

Jenn Colella

Jenn Colella
I remember early on in my career, when I was doing Urban Cowboy, many of my friends in the business encouraged me to stay in the closet. I had a director friend who said if he knew an actor was gay, then it would color his opinion of that actor's ability to convincingly play a straight character. So, I made a (feeble) attempt to keep my personal life separate from my career. That soon proved to be too difficult. I didn't feel I was being authentic to myself or to my partner at the time. So I started inching, tip-toeing out of the closet. The more honest I was with myself and those around me, the better I felt. Cut to a couple years ago, during rehearsals for the Off-Broadway revival of Closer Than Ever… I asked Richard Maltby, Jr. if we could change some lyrics in the song "The March of Time." Instead of "husband who adored me," I wanted to sing "partner who adored me," and subsequently, change all of the following pronouns from "he" to "she." Richard took one second to consider my request and then confidently replied, "Well, I don't see why not." Later, he agreed to let me record the cast album with those changes as well! It felt like a true triumph. It still does.

Now I am proud to say that I am waaaaay out and incredibly proud. Any director, producer or casting director worth his/her salt knows that a competent actor is perfectly capable of creating chemistry with whomever is necessary for that role. I genuinely feel accepted and loved by my theatrical community, and I am deeply honored to be a part of it.

Lea DeLaria

Lea DeLaria
Lately, there has been a lot of hype both in print and word of mouth about myself and Laverne Cox. The conversation revolves around the idea that it is amazing having a butch dyke and trans portray a butch dyke and trans. Really?

I was the first openly gay comic to perform on television in America. It was "The Arsenio Hall Show," 1993. I entered the stage screaming, "Hello everybody, it's the 1990s. It's hip to be queer and I'm a BIIIG DYKE!" This was an unheard of admission at the time, and it propelled me into an exotic world of agents, mangers, People Magazine, European tours and, of course, acting. The roles I was given were usually comical of nature and strictly kept with in the confines of that box marked "lesbian" that Hollywood had enclosed me in. In other words, I played a lot of PE teachers and police lieutenants. I also portrayed THE LESBIAN WHO INAPPROPRIATELY HITS ON STRAIGHT WOMEN AT EVERY FUNCTION. In fact, that was my niche because at that time it was difficult for Producers, Directors, Writers, etc. to see me as anything but "a Lesbian." Unless, of course, "the Lesbian" was a lead, then the part went to Gina Gershon.

I really wanted to act as something else, like a straight girl. I hoped and wished and even prayed to St. Anthony, thinking if he can get people a parking spot then why not third banana?

There was an obvious bias at the time, openly gay actors played gay roles. PERIOD. It was as if the industry could not believe we were capable of anything else.

One only has to picture me and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the front of a cab to know that is untrue. That moment, when Jesse and I danced down stage center, he in a sailor suit I in a magenta dress and heels, that moment marked for me the beginning of a different time in our industry, a time where ALL actors could and can use their craft as ANYONE or ANYTHING.

Don't get me wrong. This is far from over, which is why the conversation regarding Laverne and I is still important. It's a struggle, a crazy kind of struggle, but that's why they call it show BUSINESS, not show PARTY or show PLAYGROUND.

I clearly remember the time my manager Jeremy Katz sat me in the office chair across the desk from him and told me there was a casting call for a nice-sized roll in a major motion picture. The breakdown described the character as A REALLY BUTCH DYKE. He had of course called about me. I mean, TBH if the breakdown says REALLY BUTCH DYKE, then it's either going to be me or Chris O'Dowd.

We were laughing. We were laughing because when Jeremy contacted the casting director and dropped my name, there was a pause, then the CD said, "Yeah, Lea DeLaria, I think that's a bit much. We want her to be really butch, but not REALLY BUTCH." A long haired blonde babe with pink nails ended up with the part... yeah, that's butch.

Cherry Jones
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Cherry Jones
It sort of crept up on me that how I lived my life mattered to anyone. The first time it became national news that I was gay was when I was doing The Heiress because nobody cared one way or the other up until that point, and suddenly journalists were saying, "Tell us about your love life." And I thought, "Well, this is it. Either I do, or I don't." And I did, never thinking that it would affect my career at all because I live in New York City, and I live in Greenwich Village, and I work in the theatre, so I was pretty well-shielded from anything damaging. But there was my lover's mother, who didn't know, and all that stuff that you have to think about. But what happened was we managed to shield her mother, because she didn't want to know anyway, and what I started to realize was how much it meant to younger people. And not only younger people, but to older people. It's amazing how anyone who stands up for a cause makes a difference. I in no way think of myself as a trailblazer. The trail had been blazed. I just got to stand up easily when it came my turn.

Andrew Keenan-Bolger
I think the greatest reward of being an out actor is getting to feel comfortable being myself. I think especially working in a profession that requires us to be vulnerable and natural I would have a hard time doing my best work if I was worried how I was being perceived in rehearsals or in between takes. I realize that being "out" may have lost me hypothetical jobs, but to be honest, if I had to work for a team that wasn't content on me being myself behind-the-scenes, I don't think I would want to be a part of it in the first place.

Kevin Smith Kirkwood

Kevin Smith Kirkwood
I "came out" pretty early, I guess, before I was an actor. In the early 90's, my friends and I were some of the first openly gay people in both my high school and college. So, of course, I had professors, mentors, directors, and others along the way tell me that I shouldn't be out for fear of "career suicide." Though, in my heart and mind, there was no choice in the matter. I am what I am.

Frankly, I've been passed over for great opportunities in my career because I was out. I've also come into great opportunities because I was out. And though I may not have Will or Denzel's career, I have no regrets. Living my truth everyday and being the most authentic version of me in the world is my biggest reward! And that journey makes me a stronger person and more dynamic performer.

One of the great surprises has been watching the world, and thus "the business" change. Perceptions, attitudes, and expectations of what it means to be an out actor are constantly evolving and progressing. It was great to receive a New Hampshire Theater Award for playing Angel in Rent a few years back. But to me, the even greater accomplishment was being nominated that same summer for Flick in Violet (a role some didn't think I was "right" for) and even playing Will Parker in Oklahoma! I think we grow in those moments and even surprise ourselves, since the biggest challenges, limitations and obstacles to overcome are often the ones in our head. Next stop, RuPaul plays Walter Lee in a TV adaption of A Raisin in the Sun! Smile.

Jose Llana

Jose Llana
My reward for living as an out actor is knowing that I'm doing my small part in a movement that depends on people in the LGBT community living out and proud. Our visibility is crucial to changing hearts and minds. The more of us who do, the closer we'll get to achieving our full civil rights.

Douglas Lyons
The reward of the theatre is that sexuality is celebrated; I mean it's basically a huge pride march. It's a safe haven for people to be whoever they want to be on or off stage. I've never felt so much love living in my own skin. That sense of community makes Broadway a special place beyond the costumes and lights.

Kyle Dean Massey
That it's not as big a deal as people want to make it!

Denis O'Hare
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Denis O'Hare
I've been out since I was 16. I've always been out as an actor. Oddly enough, it didn't change my career because I usually play mean straight guys or closeted gay guys [Laughs.] So maybe it has had some weird sort of inverse effect. But to not have to lie is a great thing. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't lie, doesn't have to remember anything." I think it's great to not have to worry about who you are, just to know who you are.

Rory O'Malley

Rory O'Malley
The rewards of being an out actor are many, but most importantly I have peace of mind. I never have to worry about who knows and who doesn't. That was an incredibly exhausting mind game that I played in my personal life before I came out at 19. I hated it. I decided pretty early on in my career that becoming an actor might mean making a lot of sacrifices, but my dignity wouldn't be one of them. (Ok, ok, unless that dignity is being lost onstage under a production contract.)

Being in the closet feels like being shrouded in shame, and once you tear that shroud away, you don't want to put it back on every once in a while for certain parts of your life. Not even your career. Just burn the damn thing! Let it go! ... cue Ms. Dazeem.

That's not to say that being an out actor is totally easy. I know that I haven't been seen for roles before because of it, but for some reason this doesn't bother me. I just know that if someone doesn't get that acting is an art of transformation... then I don't want to be in their shitty play anyway. Seriously, it must suck.

What surprises me is that there are so many rich gay characters being written for stage these days. In the last year I've had the honor of getting to play a whole range of them. Elder McKinley's struggle between his love of Heavenly Father and his love for Liza. Evan's over-the-top super-fanning and excessive hash-tagging in Nobody Loves You. Uncle Frank's intellectual superiority and emotional immaturity in Little Miss Sunshine. The challenge for me is to continue to play gay characters with honesty and integrity. Remembering that the gay community is a diverse group of human beings and each of us has a unique story to be told.

A lot of actors came out before me in times when it wasn't easy. When it could be career ending and frightening. I am so grateful for their bravery and courage. I'm also inspired by actors much younger than I am, who seem to be completely fearless at such a young age. I am extremely proud to be a part of the theater community's out actors.

Andrew Rannells

Andrew Rannells
I'm very fortunate to say that that was an easy transition. I came out at 18 so…it was never really an option. It didn't really seem like anything I would ever not do. And I was working for so long, and no one really cared. I was doing Book of Mormon, and all of a sudden it was a question — it seemed very odd to have people asking. I was very lucky that "New Normal" came along and "Girls" came along. I personally feel that it was a very easy transition. I know that that's not everyone's case professionally. I was very fortunate that it was pretty seamless. And, the biggest reward, particularly with "New Normal," was hearing from young people, young gay kids, just saying that the fact that that show even existed, for the short time that it did, gave them sort of an idea as to what their future might look like, which was really nice.

Tony Sheldon
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Tony Sheldon
After playing gay characters in two plays when I was 17, I was advised by an older theatre professional to steer clear of such roles unless I wanted to be "pigeon-holed." So for the next ten years I played "straight" in television and film, new Australian plays, Chekhov, Shakespeare, musicals, you name it. Then I had a major commercial success in Torch Song Trilogy, and that was it. Pigeon-holed. Big gay old drag queen. Thus followed another 15 years of turning down gay roles in favor of Sondheim, Neil Simon, Noel Coward, Eugene O' Neill, trying to become as well-rounded a performer as possible.

I was invited to give an in-depth interview to a gay publication in which I made mention of a casting agency that reputedly kept a list of gay (or "gay-associated") performers who were never invited to audition or cast in "straight" roles. The day of publication this one comment was picked up by the daily papers, I was besieged with early morning phone calls for radio interviews and the Anti-Discrimination Board called for an investigation. In the face of the casting agency's understandable denials, I chose not to comment any further on the subject. Immediately, I was called in by said agency to read for every inappropriate role under the sun, often several times in one day: old Korean shopkeepers, teenage surfer dudes, three-legged jugglers. After two weeks of this lunacy and, of course, never landing a single job, I was escorted from the office by the head of the agency who murmured a single comment: "Weren't you a silly boy?" After that, the auditions abruptly stopped. 

In 2003 I was asked to play Roger DeBris in The Producers. Three times I turned it down (I was desperate to play Max), but when they came back a fourth time, I figured I was being an ungrateful wretch so I bit the bullet and donned the Chrysler Building gown for the next two years. Bingo. Big gay old drag queen. The very next offer was to play Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and fortunately, this time I embraced it. It was the role that changed my life, took me all over the world and earned me Olivier and Tony nominations.

I think certain roles have your name on them whether you're gay, straight, black, white, male, female, short or tall. The average working actor has such little control over his or her career that if someone in the chain of command decides not to hire you because they know you're gay, there is little you can do about it. You can only be the very best that you can.

Bobby Steggert

Bobby Steggert
This year has been a big one for me, and not necessarily because I appeared in two Broadway shows in one season. The serendipity of two back-to-back shows is certainly something I’m grateful for, but I’m far more grateful for the decision I made last August to officially come out.

It hadn’t consciously occurred to me that I was holding something back when I spent my first ten years in New York as an openly gay man to my friends and colleagues, but not to the public. I justified it as a private matter, having nothing to do with my work.

A year later, I can confidently say that total transparency has been far more telling than I would have imagined, because truth be told, very little has practically changed in my personal or professional lives. What does feel remarkably different, though, is the way in which I am framing my experience within these realms. Something happens when you take the risk (and yes, it is a risk still) of announcing to the world your differences. You develop a candor and honesty in your individual expression that is far more interesting than it ever was being vague, or mysterious, or intentionally ambiguous. In my experience, I have been far more able to look myself in the mirror and be proud of who I see, and to worry so much less about how I may or may not fit the expectations of someone else, whether they be a potential date or a casting agent.

I feel stronger, more authentic, and a lot more centered in myself. I feel, curiously, even more able and willing to explore different parts of me as an actor, because I am finally operating from a place of total honesty with myself and those around me, as if a stronger home base allows for further wandering. I feel older, because I have taken on the very adult position of standing behind who I am despite the fear that people may not accept me. I feel happier in my work, because I am not using the stage as a secretive opportunity to work out the unexplored pain I harbor, but to more fully express the complexity of who I am.

Life is short. We all make the terrible mistake, from time to time, of forgetting how big this world is, and how insignificant our tiny little industry is to the rest of humanity. If there are challenges to being an “out” actor such as diminished perception of your “range,” or less attention from Hollywood, then I say good riddance to the complete waste of energy it is to worry about an antiquated viewpoint that only asks you to deny your true humanity. I would honestly rather be unemployed. The best artists are the authentic ones. They are not ultimately successful because of their looks, their high belts, or their resumes, but because they express an indelible authenticity that no one else can replicate. Look at the leading men in our community - Nathan Lane, Michael Cerveris, Brian d'Arcy James, Billy Porter…..and the women - Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, Kelli O’Hara. None of these people is anything like the other. There is no mold. There is no formula. They have all achieved notoriety because their artistry is uncompromising and personal. The “IT” factor is nothing more than comfort enough in one’s own skin to express it bravely to the world.

This year has taught me that I would much rather be an actor who shares with the world every color he possesses in his soul than one who picks them out and displays them for effect. It's scarier, it's uglier, it’s riskier. But it's human. And I now realize, it's my job.

Bobby Steggert
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

John Tartaglia
I've been an out man since I was 18 years old and first moved to New York City. My friends and family all knew I was gay, and I was lucky to be surrounded by love and support.

But when I opened in Avenue Q Off-Broadway, suddenly there was a lot of attention starting to be focused on me not only as an actor, but on my personal life as well. I remember our publicist, Sam Rudy, coming to me in between the show transferring from the Vineyard Theater to Broadway and saying that The Advocate wanted to do a feature article on me. I had never had an opportunity like that before and was excited about the proposition, but Sam warned me that it was my decision to make as to whether to do the interview or not. Whether to do a national publication interview or not —huh?

And then it hit me — those closest to me knew I was a gay man, but suddenly I was being asked to declare it to the world (well, at least the world that read The Advocate) and come out as a gay actor in the business publicly. What surprised me was how quickly some of my most supportive friends and family voiced that they had very strong feelings against this: "If I come out now, I'll kill my career before it's begun, any chance I have to play a major role on TV or in film will be lost, I'll be pigeonholed forever, etc. etc." Suddenly, I was hesitant, and it felt like I was that scared 13 year old again who knew that he was gay but was scared for anyone else to know and felt alone and wrong and like he was a freak.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that I owed it to that scared 13 year old that I used to be to stand strong and proud and confident about who I was. There were really no openly gay celebrities that I knew of or could look up to when I was growing up...Ok, well, there was Liberace, but still...I thought, if I could be a positive force by coming out as a gay actor for even one young person out there and give them some sense of purpose and hope, then it was worth whatever career opportunities I might lose. And, besides, if some producer or director or casting person out there wouldn't want to hire me because of my truth, then why the hell would I want to work with that person anyway? There is no change until YOU change. I was suddenly honored at the opportunity to tell my story openly and be whatever positive example I could be.

So, I did the article, and guess what? The world didn't end, and neither did my career. I've been working steadily and never lived one day hiding who I am. In fact, I ended up having an eight-time Emmy-nominated television series on the Disney Channel that I produced and starred in on camera — to my knowledge, I'm the first openly gay children's television star ever, and I'm incredibly proud of that. And, I have to believe that when you live your life openly and you're being the true essence of who you are that it relieves you and gives you power as opposed to weakness. I only wish more of the closeted celebrities in Hollywood would live the same way and give hope to the young LGBT generations out there who need to know they're not alone and that their lives have worth. But, the world is changing, and when you look at the amazing success of folks like Neil Patrick Harris and Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Page, it is exciting and beautiful because it shows that you don't have to sacrifice your happiness to work in this business. I wouldn't change being an out gay actor for anything.

Wesley Taylor

Wesley Taylor
You can talk about art and talent all day long, but if you're a realist, you know that being an actor is also like being a brand. A brand that you have to market and sell. Gay actors who want to be considered for all roles have a tough decision to make. Fortunately, I think our culture is changing at a rapid (and wonderful) pace and personally, if someone doesn't want to hire me because they don't believe I can play the role, it's not the right project for me! I am not (and will never) claim to be a role model, but I know kids are watching me cause I have a f-ing twitter, I hear them. I realize how important it is to know you're not alone. My belief is that being out as an actor is for the greater good, even though it may hurt your career. I'll end with this...after "Smash"'s first season, I went in for no less than 11 gay roles that pilot season. People don't have imaginations. So life's too short to care.

Michael Urie
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Michael Urie
If I weren’t truthful in the press about my sexuality, then my life - and career - would be a lot less fulfilling. Tackling the incredible gay roles I've played and being a part of the amazing LGBTQ support groups I've worked with have helped define me as a man, but the most rewarding aspect of being "out in showbiz" is helping LGBTQ people who don't have a community to see that one exists. Hearing that my playing a gay character on stage or screen has led to a healthy coming out, absolutely trumps whatever doors it shuts for me as an actor. And, frankly, most of the best parts are gay!