Before Ellen made the cover of Time, before Neil Patrick Harris came out and before Anderson Cooper finally publicly confirmed that he is, indeed, a friend of Dorothy, there was Jason Stuart.
Stuart came out in 1993. He told Windy City Times that he "came out on the Geraldo Show. They were doing a segment on unconventional comedians and apparently I made the list."
"I found being in the closet exhausting," said Stuart. "It was just so exhausting. The fear of being discovered for who I was became overwhelming and it seemed crazy to remain quietso, I wasn't."
Stuart's very first gay-themed show happened to be right here in Chicago, so it is fitting that he returns to The Laugh Factory Aug. 16-18this time in a new show called "I'm the Daddy and I have the Candy." He said, "The show is about getting older, politics, dating younger guys. I once went out with a guy who had no idea who Barbara Streisand was! Can you imagine? He asked me, 'Wait, doesn't she sing or something?' At this point the KFC spork stabbing should have commenced."
Stuart was the first openly gay headliner for The Laugh Factory and found support from Jamie Masada, its founder and owner. "Jamie [Masada] has always supported me and has always been there for me. I could not do what I do without that support and I am eternally grateful for it," said Stuart.
Still, despite his early success as an openly gay comedian, Stuart encountered the "boys' club attitude" of many comedy clubs and venues across the country. "Gay men were not treated the same way as their straight counterparts," he said. The feat that I am able to work is a grace of God and I am grateful for it." Stuart also found that "people don't see gay men as headliners or even their own spokesman. We see Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho on RSVP cruises. Even Lady Gaga is speaking for gay men. I am grateful for it, but what about our voice?"
Stuart found the sexualizing of men to be omnipresent in television and film, particularly for certain types of men. "If you were under 35, looked white and were chiseled, there'd be something for you," he said. "I play mostly ambiguous roles. I am not the twink. I am not skimpy." It was after more than a decade of seeking work as an out comedian and actor that the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) approached Stuart to head the committee for LGBT actors.
"In 2006, when the committee was organized, it was just me," Stuart said. "Then, I started to meet other gay and lesbian actors. These men and women were scared and not about to come out. They were afraid of being pigeonholed." Stuart explained that every kind of person has a certain kind of role that is "perfect" for him or her: "If you're a Black woman you'll be cast as a nurse or a mom. For gay men over 35, you're getting cast as a manager of something. It gives you the illusion of power but without having any real power. This happens to everyone, not just gay men and Black women. Every type of person has a pigeonholed role."
Other actors have come out in overwhelming support of Stuart. Billy Cliftdirector of Baby Jane?, I Want to Get married and Hush Up Sweet Charlottesaid that "[Jason] Stuart is one of the hardest working actors in the business. He's dedicated, funny and a good friend. He shows up genuine and has been an important role model for our community."
John Fleckfrom Weeds, Starship: Enterprise and Carnivalesaid, "Jason [Stuart] is one of the nicest gay entertainers I know. Always there with a helping hand to support his fellow actor." Wilson Cruz, known for roles in the TV cult classic My So Called Life and the film Party Monster, found Stuart to be "Hilarious! He's been an incredible ambassador for us."
Through his involvement with the SAG LGBT Committee, Stuart has made major headway into minimizing the divide between gay and straight actors. New language has been added in contracts that is more inclusive of gay men. Gay men and women now get health-insurance benefits similar to their heterosexual counterparts'.
"We're even doing seminars, movies and film festivals, like 'Out Fest' in Los Angeles," said Stuart. "We still have a long way to go, though. The running joke is that if you're straight and play gay in a movie, what will you wear to the Oscars." Recently, Stuart became involved in the Williams Institute of UCLA's survey on openly gay actors. "I'm extremely excited to be a part of this," he said. "Some gay actors don't view themselves as activists but just showing up to an audition as an out gay actor is activism."
Stuart emphasized the importance of the gay community supporting one another: "We need to buy each other's books, see each other's plays, go and see each other in our movies. I have a great life, but our goal should be to support one another the way straight people do." Stuart himself has a lot to be thankful for and noted some of his upcoming roles this year: "I'm playing a laundry trustee in a prison in K-11, I'm in Bear City 2: The Proposal and Hush Up Sweet Charlotte, [which is] in pre-production now."
Stuart waxed sentimental about his continued presence and advocacy for out gay actors. "I'm still here and have the passion," he said. "My work is like a lover that just won't stop … and the sex has gotten even better."
Jason Stuart is scheduled to appear at the Laugh Factory in Lakeview Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 16-18. The Laugh Factory is at 3175 N. Broadway. For tickets or info, call 847-331-5862 or visit www.laughfactory.com . Proceeds from the Aug. 16 event will benefit Test Positive Aware Network.