Most gay characters on television may as well be impotent. That’s not to say they’re asexual, mind you. When the scriptwriter needs a campy wisecrack about cleavage, who better than the Quick-Witted Gay Man to deliver it? But network television has never quite been able to bring itself deeper than this level. They may advertise the peas out of the “Must-See Episode of Will & Grace! “ where Will finally gets the same-sex smooch that was, what, three years in the making? For a two-second smack on the lips? And even then, no tongue.
Which is what made — and continues to make — the gritty, show-all Queer As Folk, on Showtime, so groundbreaking. And it’s what makes Ben Bruckner — the HIV-positive gay college professor played by Robert Gant — such a refreshing character.
After appearing on a swath of sitcoms, often as the husband-material boyfriend of the floofy female lead, Gant has come into his own in his true-to-life, no-holds-barred portrayal of a modern gay man on QAF.
Gant appears at Capital Pride this year as a new man — not only recently out of the closet as a celebrity, but also as the face of a reality that you won’t find anywhere else on TV.
PRIDE GUIDE: Your acting career is like David Letterman’s teeth — prominent, but with a big gap right in the center.
ROBERT GANT: Yeah, when I was really young I did commercials. Some singing, dancing, a little tap. I did some soft shoe with Bob Hope in a few of his O.S.U. shows. And then I went to law school at Georgetown.
PG: Where did that come from?
GANT: I think I felt like I was supposed to do something practical, not just something crazy like following my dreams. I’ve always been a little hyper-analytical, and I’ve always had a sense of wanting to fight for the underdog. Becoming a lawyer seemed like a natural segue, but it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was like a big, corporate, bureaucratic version of what I had pictured.
PG: So you went back into acting and did some TV sitcoms. How did you end up on Queer As Folk?
GANT: I had been cast in the lead role of the national company of The Music Man — Harold Hill, a role I’d wanted since I was a little kid. But when I got the part, I found out that the show was non-union, and I had to back out. It was very painful. A week later, I was faxed about a part on Queer As Folk, which I hadn’t seen much of. It sounded like an interesting character. He was described as someone “as comfortable on the dance floor as he is in the classroom. ” Spiritual, a writer. I identified with him. All my previous roles were in comedy, and they didn’t know if I had the chops for an HIV-positive character. But I was cast, and came in on the sixth episode of the second season.
PG: You came out after that season in an interview with The Advocate, and it caused quite a stir.
GANT: And in all candor, the stir was unwarranted. Unwarranted that my coming out should get any more focus than someone’s who works at a grocery store. Originally, I wanted to come out by writing my own article for The Advocate. No offense, but I wanted to make sure it was said with care, and the media’s editing and whatnot can warp that. But the magazine said that they had a format, the same format they had used with Ian McKellen and Nathan Lane, and that was an interview format. And we had a great three-hour interview, and I was happy with the outcome.
PG: Before that, though, you had dodged the gay question on Larry King Live. Why did you do that?
GANT: I still feel a good deal of emotion about that. The truth is, he never asked me. The woman who did the pre-interview asked me if I was gay, and I told her this wasn’t the forum I wanted to do that in, to come out on national TV and then cut to a Toyota commercial. That night, [King] introduced me as “Robert Gant, heterosexual, ” and I said, “Actually, the jury’s still out on that, Larry. ” And later in the show he said, “What’s it like to be a straight man playing a gay role? ” And I just said, “It’s just great to be on the show. ” I was nervous, it was live, and I was doing the interview via satellite with a three-second time delay. That really bothered me. I wanted to be honest. The last thing I wanted to do was lie.
PG: Do you resent him for asking you that on live television? There’s always been two camps in the gay community regarding whether or not gay celebrities should be outed by the media.
GANT: For me, the litmus test to know whether or not I’m doing the right thing is to examine whether my decisions are love-based or fear-based. I think outing people is fear based, the fear that if we don’t out them, it will make things harder for all of us. It’s important to treat people with love. How would you treat your own kid? Would you whip him out of the closet, or would you sit down with him, talk, hug and help him come out on his own? I get emails from closeted actors who ask me what they should do. All I can say is, my career has never been better. I feel prosperous and free, energy-wise. It takes so much energy to hide.
PG: Your more recent piece in The Advocate was much more outspoken than back when you did Larry King. Do you consider yourself politically oriented?
GANT: I think I’ve become more political because of the show. I said in that piece that what I love about [HIV]-positive/[HIV]-negative relationships is that they show that HIV isn’t a death sentence. People were outraged that I said that. But then I’ve also gotten thank you emails from all over the world for saying that, and I’m more inclined to go along with those.
PG: What gay causes do you feel most strongly about?
GANT: I’ve been doing some stuff with Lambda Legal, HIV/AIDS issues, gay youth. I recently got a call from Howard Dean. His campaign wanted me to appear at a series of events to commemorate the third anniversary of Vermont’s civil union bill. When we spoke, I took him to task on a couple of things. For instance, he had said in an interview that the civil union bill gives gays all the same rights as straight couples, but that’s not true. It’s still not marriage, and I wanted him to acknowledge the distinction. If I was going to endorse him, it was important to me that he doesn’t give the “political answer. ” But I signed on, and a week before the first event in L.A., I got hold of his Democratic National Committee address, where he says, “I don’t want a country divided by race, by class, by sexual orientationÂ… ” and I knew I’d listened to my heart.
PG: Is following your heart the way you tend to make decisions?
GANT: I realized a while back that overcoming my inadequacies wasn’t going to come from an external source. I had a Catholic upbringing, but was basically raised Baptist because that’s what all my friends were, and I had a sense early on that there was more out there, that I was only getting part of the picture. I got involved with Judaism through school, studied Buddhism, read a lot, gathered different concepts to try to explain this thing called God. For me, the biggest problem was the word God. I couldn’t let go of the image of the white bearded man. I believe that every religion has been, to some degree, distorted by man’s influence, by the need to control, when really, these religions are rooted in truth and love and the path. I remember seeing an interview with Madonna on Larry King, and when he asked her about her interest in religions, if she had a preference for one specific religion, she just said, “All paths lead to God. ” That’s how I feel.
PG: Speaking of love, are you in it?
GANT: I don’t have a partner, no. I’m not interested in just having a boyfriend anymore, and a partner isn’t something you can just pluck out of a nightclub. When it’s supposed to happen, it will happen. I’m learning to live in acceptance of what is. I’ve spent a lot of my life not doing that. It’s an abundant universe with enough love for everyone. Too often, we operate on the “scarcity model, ” the theory that there’s not enough love to go around. That causes people to out in bars hunting for it rather than trust that it’s there.
PG: Queer As Folk is such a strong show now, as are many of the shows with gay characters. But for some reason, a gay television cable channel hasn’t been able to take off. PrideVision is one, but it’s not been able to turn a profit.
GANT: Like finding a partner, I think that’s just timing. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen. There were many attempts to get man to fly, and when it was supposed to happen, it did. There are so many factors. A combination of there being enough of an audience out there, of waning homophobia. But I think [a gay television cable channel] is inevitable. There’s a community out there with a tremendous amount of disposable income, and they want to focus their gay dollars on gay industries. It’s very exciting. And we’re right in the midst of all of it. It’s all happening before our very eyes.
Robert Gant will speak on Sunday, June 8, at the Capital Pride Street Festival Mainstage, located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 3rd Street NW. For more information visit www.capitalpride.org. For more information on Queer As Folk, visit Showtime at www.sho.com.