Interview: Sean Maher on coming out in Hollywood

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Sean Maher made headlines last week when he became the latest Hollywood actor to come out. With a film and TV career spanning 14 years, he is perhaps best known for his role in Firefly and its movie sequel, Serenity. He currently stars in NBC’s The Playboy Club. Laurence Watts caught up with him to discuss the public’s reaction to his announcement.

Sean Maher’s coming out interview with Entertainment Weekly was published on Monday September 26th. The interview itself took place in Los Angeles the Thursday before.

“I had lunch with Tanner Stransky from Entertainment Weekly and we talked for about two hours. I was extremely candid and I left terrified because I told him everything. He told me he’d write it up over the weekend. I spent time with my family, and then flew to Chicago on Sunday.”

“It was about noon on Monday when I came out of a yoga class and my BlackBerry started having a seizure. It went crazy. I knew the story must have been published. I started to scroll through the emails and text messages and I stopped at an email from Craig Zadan. The subject line read: congratulations.”

For those wondering, Craig Zadan is the Hollywood producer behind films such as Footloose, Chicago, Hairspray and The Bucket List. Craig and Sean worked together on 2006’s TV movie, Wedding Wars.

“He said he was so proud of me and honoured I’d mentioned him in the interview. He said he thought it was a beautiful article. At that point I hadn’t read it myself, but I knew it would have to be pretty good for Craig to say that. I finally found a link to the piece and I sat there in the yoga studio trying to contain my emotions.”

By saying he was gay he not only came out as a gay actor, he also came out as a gay father. He and Paul, his partner of nine years, have a daughter, Sophia, four, and a son, Liam, one. Sean’s name can now be added to the growing list of prominent, gay parents that already includes Ricky Martin and Neil Patrick Harris. Sean’s family featured heavily in his decision to come out.

“When my daughter was born we decided I’d be a stay at home dad for the first two years. During that time she had a huge impact on me. I learned so much from her about who I was as a parent. I realised that by living in the closet I wasn’t being true to myself: the values and the morals we’re trying to instil in her were contrary to the way I was living my life.”

Sean’s coming out story is interesting because of how open he’s been about the pressure he was under to keep his homosexuality secret. It began as soon as he moved to LA. His then manager advised him to keep a girl on his arm and, if pressed, declare himself bisexual rather than gay. Publicists for his first show contradicted that advice. They wanted him to keep any girlfriends hidden so as not to put off a female fan-base.

“Initially it was a manager, an agent and a group of publicists who instilled this fear in me. I then internalised that fear. I lost a lot of sleep thinking: ‘If I get found out I’m going to be fired. I’ve got to keep this to myself. I’ve got to pretend I’m an alpha male if I want to be a leading man’.”

An increasingly confused Sean went to extreme lengths to keep his sexuality private. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment with an ex-girlfriend at her suggestion. They slept in the same bed. When outsiders assumed their relationship was sexual he didn’t correct them. Eventually his act became so all consuming that after an industry event he went so far as to sleep with a woman he’d met there.

“When I read that part of the Entertainment Weekly article I was so embarrassed,” Sean tells me. “I guess, I thought I could change myself. Or, worse still, give myself the perfect cover. I’d had a lot to drink. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it did happen so I’m not going to lie.”

Times though have changed. Having taken the decision to come out he informed his current manager and publicist. Both supported his decision. The rest is history. Since his announcement he’s gained an extra 5,000 followers on Twitter.

“After my yoga class I ran back to my hotel and didn’t leave for eight hours. I couldn’t tear myself away from my computer. I’d glance away to look at my BlackBerry and when I looked back I’d have 250 new tweets. I read each and every one of them. I didn’t see any negative responses”

Equally as important as the public’s reaction was that of the entertainment industry itself:

“I got emails and messages from a lot of studio executives and people in the casting industry, who either found me through Facebook or reached out to my manager. They said it was an incredibly brave decision on my part, they’d always admired my work and this was only going to make them fight for me more.”

All of this is because of Sophia and Liam. It’s only with the insight raising them gave to Sean that he’s at this place. His children put his life into perspective and taught him that happiness alone is what’s important. Should more same-sex couples have children?

“I think any gay couple should know they can have a family,” he answers. “Whether or not they want one is their own decision. For us adoption rather than surrogacy was the path we wanted to take. I’m a huge fan of adoption.”

When I ask him if he worries his children might be stigmatised by having two dads, he tells me a story from November 3rd 2008:

“The day before the presidential election I drove down to Southern California to cast my vote. I couldn’t go on Election Day. I was sitting in my car, queuing to get into the voting area when I noticed some protesters advocating Proposition 8.

“There was one girl, really young and she was screaming. I thought: maybe she just doesn’t know a gay person. So I rolled down my window and said: ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I’m a gay man, I have the most wonderful partner and we have the most exquisitely beautiful little girl. We just want the same rights as everybody else.’

“She lowered her sign, leaned forward and said: ‘I feel really f**king bad for your daughter’. I started shaking a little bit because the hate coming from her was so strong. Before I rolled up my window I told her: ‘I’m so sorry that you’ve got so much hate, that’s got to be so exhausting’.”

“There are crazy, hateful people out there,” he continues. “That’s why I did this. We try to instil confidence, compassion and acceptance in our daughter because we know she’s not part of a ‘traditional family’ and we know people might ask her why she has two dads. We’re equipping her to deal with that.

“Our closest friends are two women and they have two adopted trans-racial children. So Sophia’s used to seeing two moms with different-looking kids. At school one of her friends has a black dad and a white mom. For her generation a diverse family isn’t any different. I think one day the word diverse will just disappear: a family will just be a family.”