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Showrunner Neal Baer talks coming out, identifying as gay, having Pride

Neal Baer

Showrunner Neal Baer is photographed at The Paley Center for Media’s 2014 LA Benefit Gala celebrating LGBT equality in media at Skirball Cultural Center on Nov. 12, 2014 in Los Angeles. Photo: Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for The Paley Center for Media.

(For June, which is designated LGBTQ Pride Month, Q Voice News features a series of interviews and first person essays under the theme What Pride Means to Me. Q Voice News launched the series in 2019. Showrunner Neal Baer wrote the following essay.)

I’ve never attended a Pride parade or event. I came out seven years ago and thought of Pride and its celebrations as not what I’m about. But what am I about, then?

I grew up in the early 1970s in Denver, Colorado, where being out in middle and high school was unthinkable.

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Every day I willed myself to be straight, monitoring every gesture, lest my secret be exposed.

I knew when I was five years old that I was attracted to men on TV and a few years later, to my camp counsellor. Why did it take so long for me to come out?  Shame  — which is the opposite of pride. I felt ashamed for being gay.

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Destined to be lonely?

I believed as a child that I was destined to live a lonely life, one that was depraved, sick, unnatural, and disgusting. That belief stemmed from my upbringing, in subtle ways at home, particularly from my father, who told me to “take bigger steps” when I walked and not to hold up my pinky up when I drank from a glass.

And in not so subtle ways in middle school, when I was singled out by a bully who’d follow me down the hallway, wrists exaggeratingly limp, calling in a high-pitched voice, “Oh, hi, Neal.”

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I internalized from an early age that there was something deeply wrong with and perverted about me, something wrong with the very essence of me.

I worked hard at changing who I was. I attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs, a liberal arts school, where no one was out in the mid-to-late 70s. I chose to go there so that I could make the 120-mile round trip three times a week to Denver to see my psychoanalyst. He did his best, I suppose, trying to convert me.

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Regressed Peter Pan?

It wasn’t until 1991 that the American Psychoanalytic Association stopped pathologizing homosexuality. Leaders in the field like Anna Freud and Selma Fraiburg were dead certain that homosexuality was a curable diversion from the road to hetero-normalcy.

My shrink told me that I used homosexuality as a talisman to keep from growing up. I was just a regressed Peter Pan, and if I worked out my issues with mom and dad through transference with him and had sex with women, I’d put myself back on the road to hetero-happiness.

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That psychoanalytic therapy led to my being hospitalized for a month when I was 20 in a psychiatric hospital in Denver because the anxiety I was suffering was overwhelming. During my stay, my new psychiatrist and the staff reinforced my analyst’s treatment by repeating, “You’re not gay, you’re just immature. Go out and get a girlfriend.”

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Building up shame, finding Pride

I couldn’t acknowledge my gayness back then, even though I knew it was true. I tricked myself for years by taking my shrink’s advice and having relationships with women, which would assuage my anxiety for short periods of time until the real me could no longer be held back and would result in my having anonymous sex.

Along the way, I built up more and more shame at being me until, seven years ago, I could no longer withstand the burden and I came out to my wife, my son, and to the world. The relief was immediate, and the new journey has been unimaginably fulfilling, challenging, and invigorating.

I think, though, that I still had homo-shame after coming out because something held me back from attending Pride. But once I really thought about it, I realized that Pride is the step I needed to take in order to be fully out to myself and to others.

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So I’m taking this step in acknowledging that I once feared Pride, and I no longer do. If COVID-19 weren’t preventing us from gathering for Pride, I’d be there.

About the author

Neal Baer

Neal Baer is a seven-time Emmy nominated producer who has worked on "ER," "Law & Order: SUV," "Under the Doom," and "Designated Survivor." On "ER," Baer helped create the first HIV-positive lead character on network TV who didn’t die from AIDS. “Designated Survivor” might be the first show to debunk misinformation about what it means to be HIV positive and undetectable.

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