Helping a Friend Come Out

"Any time a person comes out, it displays someone’s courage and bravery," says the actress. Standing up and saying that you are different is "remarkable and terrifying."
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What was it like helping former cast mate Danny Pintauro come out? 

Judith Light: I think any time a person comes out it displays someone’s courage and bravery. The difficulty to stand up in front of God and everybody and your community and your religion and your friends and your family and your everybody and say, “I’m sorry, this is my truth. I’m not like you,” with the fear of rejection on all fronts is remarkable and terrifying. And so, do I think it helped? Yes, I think it helped tremendously. I think he was inordinately brave. But, he was about to be outed and he called and he said, “This is going to happen.” And so, he knew Herb very well and so Herb really talked him through it and I said, “I think this is what will help you,” and he listened and he did it. I don’t know whether it was the Enquirer or Star. I don’t remember, but they said they were going to out him, which was rather generous of them to say, “We’re going to do this story. Do you want to comment on it first?” And Herb and I both said to him, “You should do this. This will make it much easier on you.” 

It gave him a kind of freedom that he didn’t have before, so yes, I think it’s very, very important that a person live their truth and be who they are. Do I think it’s incumbent upon anyone to out anyone or for anybody to... "must" they come out? I think that’s a personal choice. I would never push anyone to do that. I would encourage someone to do that. I would support them in doing that. Sometimes... I can’t make it a rule. I think it’s a principle more than a rule to me. Sometimes there are situations where there are people who are doing terrible things to this community and they are closeted and it’s important to talk about that and I don’t quite know how you do that in a way that really makes a difference without getting your fingers into their business. But, I have to say that sometimes when that happens I have to say that I have been delighted. 

Question: How has television contributed to the LGBT equality movement? 

Judith Light: They have done the most extraordinary job in making the LGBT issues mainstream and what's so valuable about that, I think, is that in the very beginning of the movement, there were no role models for anyone. People didn’t know that they could connect to other gay people. There was nobody out there for them. So, what David Cohen and Max Mutchnick did when they created "Will and Grace" was they gave it a face, they gave it a name, they gave it a place in history, they gave it a way for that young, gay person in nowhere USA to say, “There’s somebody out there like me and I don’t have to feel bad about myself. I’m on television.” And that changed the world. 

Question: Who was the first person to come out to you? 

Judith Light: I do not know who the first person was that came out to me. I've been surrounded by gay people all of my life. I went to a performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania and anybody who’s in the gay community knows New Hope, Pennsylvania and Bucks County, it was a performing arts camp and everybody came there for summer from New York. So, I just knew that everybody was gay. I had one good friend who was in repertory theater with me and I remember him agonizing about coming out to me. I had somebody else in college come out to me. Also, a very agonizing, painful expression of who they were and fear and terror that I would reject them. And, in both cases, I already knew that they were gay. 

Question: How did that affect your understanding of LGBT issues? 

Judith Light: It wasn’t just my understanding of LGBT issues, it was my understanding of human issues. It was like I had been that little girl who was the star of the high school play and the junior high school play. I had been the outsider. I was the "other." I was the different one and I understood it. Because I was around gay people and they were my friends. I mean, they were these dancers at this performing arts camp in the summer that they looked out for me. I was really, really young and they protected me. They were my family. It was as though I grew up in that, not anywhere else. So, all I knew what that they were my family and they protected me and they changed my life and they were my friends and I wanted to be connected with them forever. 

And, when things were not going well for them, it was incumbent upon me to stand up and say, “You're doing something terrible to my family.” So, that’s kind of how it really worked for me. And, when you're in a drama department at Carnegie Mellon University, I mean, at least three quarters of the people are gay. So, it wasn’t unusual for me. 

Question: What inspired you to become so involved in the LGBT equality movement? 

Judith Light: I was reading about this "gay cancer" in the 80s and I had heard about some people that I had worked with. One gentleman who had died and I said, “God, Bobby was young. That’s weird.” And then I started hearing about these other friends who were sick and they had this weird disease that nobody seemed to be able to diagnose and then I started putting it all together as it was coming out in the news what was happening. And so, I was offered the role to play Jeanne White in the movie of the week, “The Ryan White Story,” which told the story about this young boy, for those who don’t know, who are too young to know the story, who was a hemophiliac who, in order to save his life, had to have a blood plasma infusion a couple times week and it was called Factor VIII. And it kept his blood clotting, otherwise, if he banged himself or hurt himself, the possibility was that he could bleed to death. 

And so, his mother, Jeanne, was his staunch supporter... and at that time, the blood supply was tainted with the AIDS virus and so was his Factor VIII. So, Ryan acquired AIDS. And it was the story of his being told that he was no longer allowed to go to school because he had AIDS and his mother Jeanne and he decided to fight it and he was, in fact—the courts overturned the first ruling and he was allowed to go to school. Very powerful story. 

I desperately wanted to do that movie. I got to do that movie and I got to know Ryan and Jeanne very well. Well, one day on the set there was a woman who was interviewing him from the local paper in North Carolina and she said to him, “So, why don’t you tell me what your experience was in Indiana, in Cicero, Indiana... in Kokomo, Indiana?” They moved to Cicero afterward so he could go to school. And he said, “Well, it was really tough,” and he said, “Sometimes I would be places and people would spit at me and call me a fag.” And do you know how you have those moments in your life where everything just sort of... all the pieces of the puzzle just fall into place? 

I was so unnerved and upset and I get upset to this day thinking about it...  appalled and shocked and disappointed and it was like somebody drove a stake through my heart and I thought, “These are my friends who are dying and this young boy is in the process of dying and this is historic and we are making this story about his life and what transpired and his bravery and his courage,” and I started thinking about my friends who had to come out at the same time as they were dying and their families disowning them and discounting them and not coming to see them and rejecting them and they’re lying in hospital beds dying and I thought, “These are the people who cared for me, who I love and I’m not doing anything. I’m making a movie.” Not enough. Not enough. 

So then, I began to see that people like Elizabeth Taylor were befriending Rock Hudson and I saw that organizations were springing up to help this community that was becoming so powerful and alive with its courage and its bravery and I watched the lesbian community say to the gay men, “Look, you guys need help. Just get out of the way. Let us help you.” And that community bonded with each other and the transgender community and the dancing queens and the magnificence of the events that everybody was doing and I said, “This is a community that is magnificent and they're being... viciously... and,” I don’t even know the word that I want... discounted as human beings in a way that I found appalling. That this country that says it is a country of compassion and love and Christian values could do this to my family and to my friends and I was disappointed in myself for not standing up and for not saying, “You can’t do this. You can’t treat this courageous, magnificent, amazing community the way that you are. You can’t be a president and two presidents and not mention the word AIDS. You can’t fly over the quilt display in Washington and leave town when the community comes to display their dead. Can you really mean that you will do that? What kind of human beings are you?” And so I saw it and I saw that it was... there was massive homophobia in the country and I just had to talk about it. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t talk about it. 

So, it was for me. It wasn’t like I was going to stand up and be this hero for the gay community, the LGBT community, here I come. It wasn’t like that. It was I can’t live with myself if I don’t stand up. And I was working with Herb and his partner Jonathan at the time, and my husband, Robert, and I said to all of them, I said, “I want to do this. I want to do this. I want to find a way, if I can, to make a difference or tell the truth or talk about it.” And they said... and Herb in particular said, “I can help you do that. That I can help you do.” And that’s how it happened.

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen