It came and went so quickly, you may have missed NBC’s new Fall show “The Playboy Club.” With poor ratings and a good deal of controversy about such a racy program being broadcast on network television, the story of the famous club’s early days didn’t last beyond the three episodes aired.
Despite its demise, the LGBT community did benefit from one aspect of the shows short lived life: the coming out of principal actor (and ironically gay character) Sean Maher.
Maher is probably best known for his time on Joss Whedon’s sci-fi show “Firefly” which garnered a huge cult following even though it only aired for one season, and the subsequent film “Serenity” which continued the story arc of the band of space cowboys to its conclusion.
The L.A.-based actor remained in the closet concerning his personal life due to advice and direction from his early managers and agents, and after because of his own fears regarding the much debated question: would coming out as gay prevent him from landing leading man roles and taint people’s perception of him should he play a straight character.
When he landed his first big role at the age of 22 as the title character on cop drama “Ryan Caulfield: Year One,” he was asked by publicists from the show to keep his girlfriend on the side, so they could appeal to the female demographic audience. He didn’t think to tell them then that he was gay, because he had been told by his agent in New York “It’s best if you keep your options open. Maybe bisexual?” He took that initial hesitation and didn’t let it go for the next 14 years of his acting career.
“I kept thinking, This is my first show, I don’t want to get fired. I’m thinking, What is the potential that if they caught wind that they had cast a gay lead actor that they would fire me? I was young, I was 22. I didn’t know anything,” he told Entertainment Weekly in his coming out interview. “So that sort of started the idea of, okay, well, I’m working a lot, I guess I’ll just keep that gay part of my life on the back burner for now. I went so far as to sleep with women a couple times. It was a very confusing time for me.”
A confusing time, and an unhappy one for the now 36-year-old actor. “It was so exhausting, and I was so miserable. I didn’t really have any life other than work and this façade I was putting on,” he says. He forced himself to live two separate lives – that of his personal life, where he was out to his friends from school and to his family, and a separate scene for his professional career.
“I kept my friends from college separate from my work friends, and that was very confusing. I just kept going on and on painting this picture of somebody I wasn’t. And you just don’t realize that it’s eating away at your soul.”
Though never the victim of direct homophobia during his career, there was often the stigmatic potential of being judged for his sexuality. “Whether it be making fun of gays or gay jokes,” he remembers, “I just bit my tongue or looked the other way. That was part of the reason that I didn’t come out earlier — because there was an energy on set, and I felt like my being gay would have offset that, especially with the crew.”
So what finally prompted Maher to make the change in his life and declare his true self publicly? It seems a mixture of right timing, the platform necessary with his role on “The Playboy Club,” and, above all else, his family. His ability to stay off the gay-dar in Hollywood, where celebrity gossip is a rampant by-product of our obsessions with the stars, is impressive. He’s been with his partner Paul now for nearly nine years, and they have two adopted children, Sophia Rose, 4, and Liam Xavier, 14 months.
“I have these beautiful children and this extraordinary family,” Maher says, “and to think in any way shape or form that that’s wrong or that there’s shame in that or that there’s something to hide actually turns my stomach.”
The thought of having to tell his children that they were a facet of his life he was hiding was too much for Maher. In thinking about Sophia Rose, he wonders, “What would she think if I said, ‘Oh honey, you can’t come with me to work because they don’t know I have an adopted daughter and they don’t know that I’m gay.’” He is now ready to own what he feels are the best parts of his existence. “My children and our family, I’ve really never been as proud of anything in my life.”
His role on “The Playboy Club” was the perfect platform for Maher to come out. He played a closeted character married to a closeted lesbian, who together began a chapter of the Mattachine Society, the group founded in the early 50s as one of the first to protect and improve the rights of homosexuals.
Maher can tell the difference now that he’s come out. “Creatively, I feel so much more open and free, and I am so happy,” he says. “I think it’s because I’ve never been so open on set. All of the relationships that I have off-camera, I never would have allowed five years ago. It feels so liberating.”
So, while we’re sad the platform didn’t last for Maher and the rest of “The Playboy” crew, we’re glad it gave him the chance and the courage to make his true self known. Maher can now embody the most important role of all – that of a role-model to aspiring LGBT actors everywhere and an example of why bringing your true self to work, no matter what you do, benefits one’s own life and the community at large.