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Ryan Murphy on the Hollywood closet: "I was traumatized but I didn't realize it"

Murphy’s experiences breaking into show business inspired him to clear the path for new voices.

'Feud' Tastemaker Dinner Photo by Rabbani and Solimene Photography/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“I realized that I was traumatized, but I didn’t realize it until later.”

It’s easy to forget that powerful people often have to struggle to get where they are. But if we’re lucky, they carry that struggle with them and use their power to make things better for the rest of us.

One of the most powerful people in Hollywood right now is television producer and creator Ryan Murphy, whose litany of hit TV shows includes Glee, American Horror Story, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. But Murphy is also a gay man who began his career in the late ’90s — a time when Hollywood wasn’t exactly clamoring to embrace industry diversity. Since becoming one of Hollywood’s reigning showrunners, Murphy has been attempting to level the playing field for creatives from underrepresented groups like himself, starting the Half Foundation in 2016 to make sure that 50 percent of all directors within his production company are women.

Murphy recently appeared on the debut episode of Vox culture critic Todd VanDerWerff’s new podcast, I Think You're Interesting, and he related a painful and personal story about the obstacles and homophobia he had to face before he could represent queer characters onscreen.

“It was really painful and it was really difficult,” Murphy began. “I don’t really talk about it too much because it really is painful … but it was really rough.”

I was a gay kid and I was both popular and persecuted, so I always sort of understood both angles. But when I started writing, the first thing I sold was a TV show called Popular, and I had really cool executive producers, a woman named Greer Shephard and a guy named Michael Robin, who were sort of my mentors, and they were like, “You gotta write what you know, write your voice.”

So I did, and I wrote — I didn’t dare even start off writing gay characters, but I had sort of outlandish characters in there, and I would get notes literally from executives saying, “Could this character be less gay?” even if it was, like, a straight woman. Or, “The language coming out of this character’s mouth seems very flamboyant, which we think is too gay and will offend some of our viewers, can you take that out?”

And then two things happened. It just sort of made me mad, so I just sort of leaned into it. I wrote a bisexual character, I wrote about ... a lesbian character, I had gay characters. And I would have meeting after meeting and they’d ask me to take them out and I’d say, “No, I won’t do it, why do you want it taken out?”

They were interested — this was at the WB — they were interested in gay people who were tragic. They were interested if you were gay and you would kill yourself. Or if you would try and commit suicide. They weren’t interested in gay sensibility, or the language of being gay, which is sometimes not just gay characters.

So I fought and I had great executive producers that backed me, and I kind of got those characters on, but then the show was canceled after two years.

But in that process … I had one meeting with an executive about a script, and I showed up at the meeting, and he started imitating my voice, and making feminine hand gestures — which I don’t have — and I never thought my voice was gay until he repeated it back to me. I literally was stunned into silence and he was being really, really brutal to me.

What’s most heartbreaking about Murphy’s anecdote is not that it’s unusually harsh — it’s that it isn’t. Countless queer men and women in Hollywood, many of whom are still trapped within a closeted industry, have endured similar experiences and have had to suppress parts of their identities in order to succeed.

In Murphy’s case, however, when he decided to resist the way he was being treated, he had the executive backing and the burgeoning success that allowed him to fight the system. He took risks — which led to his first breakout hit, FX’s Nip/Tuck.

As he explained to VanDerWerff, his experience not only made him want to fight back, it made him socially conscious in a way he’s carried with him ever since.

I was very pained by [the homophobia]. I’d never understood it. But right from the beginning of my career, interestingly enough, I did feel homophobia and I did feel, “no,” and I remember one of my early agents was fired for being gay. This was in the mid-’90s, if you can imagine.

So then when that show was canceled, I kind of was like, fuck it, I just have to do what I’m going to do … and then I had Nip/Tuck; I really just leaned into everything that people were telling me not to do.

I don’t think I would ever do that now — I think looking back on it in a career it was my teenage rebellion phase. But I think it only came about because I was made to feel so bad about my sensibility and writing gay characters at my WB experience, which was painful.

So now when I’m interviewing women for the Half Foundation and they tell me these stories about straight white men in power who make them feel bad and discriminate against them, I’m like, yeah, I get it. I’ve been there.

Murphy went on to describe the industry as a “business of fear” that can often stifle diversity, and the importance of “new voices being allowed to step up and being allowed to tell their story.”

He also described his primary interest as a creator as “people trying to find their way in the world when the world says you’re wrong” — clearly a theme drawn from his own life.

I Think You’re Interesting is available on iTunes and Android apps, or you can stream the entire interview here.

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