PRIDE. That word has always brought up a lot for me. I came of age at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and was immediately thrown into the horrors of the epidemic in NYC, and I felt a multitude of emotions, probably the least of which was pride. I had had a painful coming out with my Ohio parents – tears, disownment, declarations that I would be a failure and an outcast forever – everything a young man tentatively trying to live an authentic life feared most. I got to New York and hunkered down, did my work, and tried to appear as ‘straight’ as possible, not to deny who I was personally – I accepted my sexual orientation – but because being an “out” actor in the 80s meant death to your career. Being gay was immediately equated with having AIDS and that was a liability, business-wise. No one would hire you for a long-running Broadway show. So “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became the rule of the day, and with it came a sense of shame. ‘Pride’ was not a big part of who I was. That took some time to develop.
Riding the bus down from NYC for the first “March on Washington” was an exhilarating initial step. Feeling that massive energy full of anger and communal grief, shouting in the streets, and crying over the quilts laid out on the Mall gave me a sense of identity and purpose. I was cast in the Off-Broadway hit JEFFREY, the first “AIDS comedy,” and then the acclaimed A.C.T. production of ANGELS IN AMERICA, and I felt the power of standing up in stories that were both personal and profound statements of what our community was going through. Each experience was a different step toward maturity, toward authentic living and expressing as an artist, but it wasn’t complete.
Over the last year, I’ve had the honor of presenting my debut short film COMING OF AGE (a project I developed and made with The BGB Studio) in festivals around the world, beginning with the “Emerging Filmmaker Showcase” at Cannes. The film looks at the experience of two men of different generations as they struggle to define trust in the age of TINDER and GRINDR. In the lead up to the festival, I was asked in an interview, “What does it mean to you to be able to represent LGBTQ film, and filmmakers, at Cannes?” and it really caused me to pause. I thought: “LGBTQ filmmaker? Hold on! Is that who I am now? No! Wait!” I’ve had over thirty years of practice “coming out” but there is always anxiety about it on some level. The risk of rejection. And here it was again. I had to stop and ask myself, “What is so threatening about being labeled that way? I mean, it’s true. I am gay, I’m playing a gay role, and I have written a film that deals with LGBTQ concerns about LGBTQ characters and with LGBTQ people on the creative team. I even submitted it specifically in that genre! Why do I suddenly feel so vulnerable being identified publicly as an LGBTQ filmmaker?”
I’m very proud to have the film recognized and I find it incredible that the LGBTQ community is honored and supported by Cannes in such a big way. Our voices as storytellers still need this kind of platform, no doubt. But this was a label. And that goes against my grain, particularly as an actor. I’ve always fought to not let my sexuality limit or define me professionally. Aside from those first years in New York, if asked, I have never denied it. At the same time, I’ve never really declared it, either. I assume people know or can figure it out, and I imagine it may have cost me jobs but, then again, it may have also gotten me jobs. Who knows? I’ve always felt it wasn’t anyone’s business and shouldn’t matter in the casting process. I’m there to inhabit any point of view without judgment and without asserting my personal slant on it. That seemed clear to me and I was okay with it – until the moment of the interview.
My anxiety made me aware that I was still hiding in some way and maybe that was holding me back. As I continued to think more deeply about it, I realized what a great opportunity this was. That being a filmmaker allows me the chance to own and express more fully who I am. Now I can assert my own identity and, through writing and directing a film, finally give voice to stories that are important to me, not just inhabit someone else’s story. And that by being personal, it becomes more powerful. The whole process of creating this film and standing by it has liberated me in a new way. It’s like the final shedding of a skin that has needed to be sloughed off for a long time. And it feels good. Clean. Honest.
Doug Tompos (l.) and Adrian Gonzalez (r.) in COMING OF AGE. Photo: Nick Cinelli
I think one of the hardest things for any artist to do is to not let fear of rejection compromise your vision. We live in a time of rampant lying and glibly false representations of the truth and I encourage all of us to not give in to the pressure to create for popular appeal, but to create and express authentically so we can help the world see the truth of what connects us, not the lie of what divides us. It is risky to stand up and say, “This is who I am and what I believe.” And it is something we have to do over and over again. Life is a constant “coming of age” and, as artists, we never stop “coming out.” We have to continually assert who we are, expose our most vulnerable humanity, and have pride in the beautifully messy, contradictory, alive, courageous humans we are. It’s what we do.
I am inspired by the U.S. Olympic athletes Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy who recognize that in this moment of time, there is a need for them to stand up and be the face of “gay Olympians.” Their hope, though, is that the next gay athletes “will be featured for the incredible stories they have to offer, not because they’re gay. Being gay will just be a fact about them, like their hometown. It will just be a fact.”
Ultimately, I don’t want to be labeled as an “LGBTQ” anything. It is a part of me, it certainly has shaped my experience and informs my creative expression, and I am proud of it, but it is not all of me and it doesn’t define me or limit my ability to tell any story. I have been very inspired by the fact that festival audiences of all ages, genders, races, and orientations have seen past any labels and have responded to what is universally human in the film. But our culture as a whole isn’t there yet, so, right now, it is still imperative for ALL artists to assert who we are whether as women, people of color, LGBTQ, or any other underrepresented group. Be bold. Take risks. Don’t wait. That is the only way we will get to the point where we can be seen simply as people first. People who create and tell stories. Boldly. And with PRIDE.
Check out the COMING OF AGE WEBSITE