Jesse Tyler Ferguson on marriage equality: Love won. Hollywood helped.
How entertainment played a part in marriage equality's evolution from plotline to reality.
I know how things can go. I lived through the disappointment of Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that literally stripped away rights from friends of mine who had been married. So when the Supreme Court passed down its decision to finally recognize the freedom to marry on June 26, there was a great sense of release and relief. My husband, Justin — a lawyer who is the political fire under me — came into our bedroom and said, “It happened, it passed.” We hugged and we cried, for so many reasons — partly because we’ve been such advocates for marriage equality over the years since we started our nonprofit organization Tie the Knot, but also because while we’re married ourselves, we’ve traveled to states and have met couples who were still having to fight for that fundamental right.
As an actor, you’re so lucky to work, and if it’s a job you love and people respond to it, that’s even better. But if it effects social change and it progresses something you care about, that’s something that almost never happens. From day one of Modern Family, I was blown away by how personal it was to me. Now people come up to me all the time to say how much the show has helped the fight for marriage equality. Sometimes it’s hard for me to see that from the inside, but I know the power of television and of Hollywood, and I’ve met the families who watch the show and have conversations about what it means to be gay in America — and I do understand that it’s something we can own and feel proud about.
Will & Grace was the first time I remember feeling like I was being represented on television. I didn’t specifically identify as a Jack or as a Will, but the fact that a character who was openly gay was on television was a really powerful moment. I felt represented. And to me, Modern Family showed the first gay couple on network TV that felt real in a grounded way. You met Mitchell and Cameron when they were coming home from adopting a child, and it wasn’t about them being gay — it was about them being new dads who just happened to be gay. Years later, in season 5, they got married. On ABC, at 9 p.m., all across the United States. We knew there was a lot of responsibility behind that, and we took it very seriously. We wouldn’t have been able to tell that story in season 1. We had to earn the trust of the audience. They got to know Mitch and Cam, and in return we were able to have that episode.
Doors were held open for us, and we’ve since held the door open for others. When success is proved with something like Modern Family, having a gay character as a lead on a show is no longer quite as scary as it once was. That’s where change happens, when people are willing to take a risk, and sometimes the risk pays off. There has been a wonderful, beautiful flood of LGBT characters on television in recent years, from Orange Is the New Black to Glee to Happy Endings. Hollywood’s being a little more brave; it’s nice to see gay characters that are substantial and feel like solid people with rich, vivid lives.
The evening the SCOTUS decision passed, I was looking at social media and saw the White House illuminated in rainbow colors. If I had told my 12-year-old self that this day would come, I never would have believed it. But evolution happens slowly, and part of what makes this -moment so sweet is that it did take time. The fight was there, and it’s all the sweeter because of it. I’ve been involved in this movement for the past 10 years, and I wouldn’t trade those 10 years of fighting for anything.
As told to Marc Snetiker