Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner Says His Work Was "De-Gayed": "I'm Done With Fear"

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Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Frances McDormand and Miley Cyrus attend the 46th anniversary gala Vanguard Awards, where Nyswaner reveals that 'Freeheld' didn't turn out the way he'd hoped.

A wise man once told Ron Nyswaner that humans are motivated by two things: love or fear. 

The life lesson has stuck with the out Oscar-nominated screenwriter — known for his work in Philadelphia, Soldier's Girl, The Painted Veil, Ray Donovan and most recently Freeheld and Homeland — for most of his. He applied the opposing emotions to his passionate work on behalf of the LGBT community during a moving speech at the Vanguard Awards benefiting the Los Angeles LGBT Center at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Nov. 7.

"Growing up gay in the 1960s and 1970s, I was quite familiar with fear. There were no gay characters in the movies, on TV or in books. In my entire childhood and teenage years, I heard the word 'homosexual' spoken aloud only once. My cousin used it — at Sunday dinner, no less — referring to a man in our church," Nyswaner recalled at the event, which also honored Jane Fonda and Miley Cyrus. "Then, I found the gay civil rights movement in the '70s. I can’t describe the relief I felt. But that deep-rooted shame never completely goes away. The challenge isn’t to get rid of it. It’s to do something with it."

And he has. His 1993 film Philadelphia was credited for bringing the then-challenging conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS to the mainstream thanks to an Oscar-winning star turn from Tom Hanks. While that film has been described as "groundbreaking" (Hanks received a Trailblazer Award for it last week at Outfest's Legacy Awards), Nyswaner recently faced opposition in telling another gay-themed story.

Though he never mentioned Freeheld by name during his Vanguard speech, it's clear he was speaking of the recent film starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. Moore plays the real-life role of Laurel Hester, a woman who fought to give her pension benefits to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, played by Page.

"For those of us who have that privilege I spoke of, earlier, of being artists — we have our challenges, too. We must take care to protect our history and our culture. We must be careful — as we become mainstream — that we don’t forget we’re the descendants of outlaws and rebels. We must resist the tendency to be de-gayed," Nyswaner noted, before getting specific about how that happened to Freeheld. "One of my recent gay-themed projects had a lot of potential. But the producers became fearful. The gay characters were idealized. Their edges were smoothed out. The conflict between them was softened. Over my vigorous objections, by the way, for the record."

Nyswaner delivered the revelation onstage, after receiving his honor from longtime friend Frances McDormand. He said that the main characters were "turned into Lesbians with lower-case 'l.' "

He added: "Because, God forbid, someone might think we were making a movie about a couple of dykes. Out of fear, they were normalized. We must remember — and insist that others honor — our history and our very specific gay culture. We are the inheritors of a culture that was created from pain and invisibility. From being different."

Gay people "don’t have to be normalized to have all of our rights," said the Pennsylvania-born scribe. "And we don’t have to be normalized to be the main characters of film and TV shows. We can still be fags and dykes. We need to have the courage to insist that our gay characters are created within the fullness of their humanity with all their flaws. Just like straight characters," he said.

Nyswaner then took a vow in front of the capacity Vanguard Awards crowd, one that showed he has not forgotten those words the wise man told him all those years ago. "Tonight, I make this pledge to you," he said. "I'm done with fear. I will never work on something in which I don’t have some measure of artistic authority. I will create art in which gay characters are not normalized. Art that features LBGT characters who are fearless, powerful and scary motherf—ers."

The full transcript of Nyswaner's speech can be found below.


Presenter Lily Tomlin, left, poses with honorees Jane Fonda, center, and Miley Cyrus at the Los Angeles LGBT Center 46th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Nov. 7. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)


Presenter Lily Tomlin, presenter Frances McDormand and honoree Ron Nyswaner at the Los Angeles LGBT Center 46th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Nov. 7. (Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for Los Angeles LGBT Center)


Honoree Ron Nyswaner and Linda Perry, who performed at the gala, pose together at the Los Angeles LGBT Center 46th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Nov. 7. (Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for Los Angeles LGBT Center)


Honoree Ron Nyswaner and guest at the Los Angeles LGBT Center 46th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Nov. 7. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Los Angeles LGBT Center)

Full transcript of Nyswaner's speech:

"The women I’m sharing this evening with have significantly influenced my life.

Frances McDormand. 'Francy.' We’ve known each other since we were teenagers, in church camp. Frances was then, as she is now, a startling, exhilarating, and sometimes disturbing, teller of the truth. A kind of teenage Olive Kitteridge.

Frances, the signature quality of your art is your willingness to uncover the dark and uncomfortable truth of our human natures.

Jane Fonda. For a high school assignment, I was asked to make a presentation on someone I admired. Now, this was southwestern Pennsylvania, coal mining country, where people loved football, deer hunting, and chewing tobacco. And it was the height of the Vietnam war.

For my report, I chose Jane. I did a collage. I featured photos from Life Magazine of Jane at various protests. Photos from Klute in that fantastic haircut and the turtleneck. I regaled my class with all the reasons I admired Jane. Her fearlessness, her intelligence, her brilliance. She taught me that an artist’s responsibility lies beyond the next step in a career. That with this privilege we have -- and it is a privilege to make a living as an artist -- we must honor the privilege by being engaged with the world. And as I went on and on, talking about Jane, it soon became apparent to my classmates, that I not only admired her but I wanted to be her.

Lily Tomlin. In 1977, she came to the University of Pittsburgh to raise money for the plaintiff in an important, sex-discrimination lawsuit. I was the arts editor on the college paper. After Lily’s show I interviewed her. She told me how the university was handling the case, their dirty tricks and underhanded legal maneuvers. She warned me that I could get into trouble if I wrote about it. Lily, you said, don’t take the risk for my sake. Take the risk only if you believe in the cause and you’re willing to suffer the consequences.

I did write about it and I did get into trouble. Lily, and this is true. … About a month after you and I had that conversation, I came out of the closet. Because you taught me that the consequences we might suffer, when we tell the truth are worth the risk.

Calpernia Addams is here tonight. She is the subject of my movie, 'Soldier’s Girl.' Calpernia, you taught me the value of being true to yourself even when the world, even when the facts of your physical existence, contradict that truth. You are the bravest person I know.

Years ago, when I was at the beginning of my recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism, a wise man told me that we are motivated by two things in life: Love or fear.

Growing up gay in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I was quite familiar with fear. There were no gay characters in the movies, on TV, or in books. In my entire childhood and teenage years, I heard the word “homosexual” spoken aloud only once. My cousin used it — at Sunday dinner, no less — referring to a man in our church. The church organist of course. When she said it my entire family gasped with shock and horror, simply at the use of the word, “homosexual.” What I suspected myself to be was not only invisible. It was unspeakable.

That unspoken truth followed me like a cloud. It tortured me and my gentle, simple, loving parents. Then I found the gay civil rights movement in the 70’s. I can’t describe the relief I felt. But that deep-rooted shame never completely goes away. The challenge isn’t to get rid of it. It’s to do something with it.  

About 20 years ago, I was in my house, in Woodstock, NY. I was taking a break, from writing a script. An I was listening to opera aria by Maria Callas. The music moved me and I cried. I heard a knock at my door. The man who mowed my lawn was standing there, watching me listen to opera, with tears streaming down my face — a true gay cliché.  All that gay, sissy-boy shame came rushing back.

But I could do something with it. So I went to my office and wrote the opera scene from 'Philadelphia.'

And that’s what LGBT people have done for years. We have turned shame into art. We have turned fear into love.

In the 1970’s we were outlaws — it was exhilarating, by the way. As outlaws, we created a powerful political movement. In the 1980s, we were pariahs. And we permanently altered medical care and research for the better — not only for people with AIDS — but for everyone.

We are a remarkable people. We take pain and victimization and from it become triumphant trailblazers. And that is the essence of the institution we are celebrating tonight. The Los Angeles LGBT center.

I want to tell you about three young people I’ve met; clients of the Center’s programs serving Homeless Youth. First, Dari, a young, trans woman from Alabama. We can imagine the challenges she’s faced. She never hid who she was — in her dress, or her appearance — and she suffered the consequences.

Her family was “hateful” to her. She was called names and threatened. She came to LA to escape the hatred and to sing. But her money didn’t last. She ended up living on the street. People tried to take advantage of her. She became desperate. She told me she learned compassion for people she used to judge, people who begged for money or sold themselves. She said, you don’t know what you’ll do when you’re hungry.

She found her way to the Center. Immediately — her first day — she got a case manager. She’s had counseling and classes. Assistance with getting on insurance for her medical needs. And now she’s working, saving money. And looking to begin lessons to train her voice. She said, “The Center cared for me and made me care for myself.”

Karl. From a broken home, here in LA. His childhood was marred by divorce and mental illness. But he knew he liked to tell stories, that he particularly liked thinking about people and why they do the things they do. He is, at heart, a writer. He tried to live at home while going to college, but the strain was too great. He ended up sleeping in his car and dropping out of school. He felt that he was alone in the world. He found the Center where, on the first day, everyone knew his name. He’ll never forget that. Now he’s a student at UC Irvine, studying screenwriting. He said, the center becomes a parent.

They feed you, clothe you, support you and love you. They taught him to trust people again.

Finally, Tomas, from Costa Rica. When he came out, at age 18, his father said he was sending him to the U.S. to visit some friends. But, when Tomas arrived, he realized his father had sold him to human traffickers. He escaped, but they stole his documents. He founds himself alone on the streets, not speaking English.

Undocumented. Terrified of being arrested or deported, he ended up sleeping in a dumpster behind a Starbucks. He felt he was “done with everything, done with life.” Finally, he got to the Center. They found him a therapist who speaks Spanish. The provided legal services and helped him get new documentation. Now he’s working and going to school. He recently completed an internship at Outfest. He said the Center taught him that family can be the people you choose. And it’s stronger than blood, because they chose you and you chose them.

I can’t think of any more potent examples of the way in which our community have responded to fear with love.

But, our struggle isn’t over. We face increasing homelessness, particularly of LGBT youth. HIV/AIDS is not over. The transmission rates continue to rise among young people of color. Gay men are dying in a crystal meth epidemic. And gay seniors find themselves falling into poverty and isolated.

For those of us who have that privilege I spoke of, earlier, of being artists — we have our challenges too. We must take care to protect our history and our culture. We must be careful — as we become mainstream — that we don’t forget we’re the descendants of outlaws and rebels. We must resist the tendency to be de-gayed.

One of my recent gay-themed projects had a lot of potential. But the producers became fearful. The gay characters were idealized. Their edges were smoothed out. The conflict between them was softened. Over my vigorous objections by the way, for the record.

The main characters were turned into Lesbians with lower case l.

Because God forbid someone might think we were making a movie about a couple of dykes. Out of fear, they were normalized. We must remember — and insist that others honor — our history and our very specific gay culture. We are the inheritors of a culture that was created from pain and invisibility. From being different.

And from that difference we created a powerful community that changed the world. Art about gay people has to recognize that power. The power of being different. We don’t have to be normalized to have all of our rights. And we don’t have to be normalized to be the main characters of film and TV shows. We can still be fags and dykes.

We need to have the courage to insist that our gay characters are created within the fullness of their humanity with all their flaws. Just like straight characters.

Tonight, I make this pledge to you. I’m done with fear. I will never work on something in which I don’t have some measure of artistic authority. I will create art in which gay characters are not normalized. Art that features LBGT characters who are fearless, powerful and scary motherf—ers. Maybe next year on 'Homeland,' Dar Adal will finally come out of the closet. Then, we’ll learn the true meaning of Special Ops.

Thank you, Frances, Jane, Lily and Calpernia for sharing this evening with me.

Thank you Dari, Karl, and Tomas for inspiring me. Thank you Lorri, Bill, and everyone at the Center for this incredible honor. Thank you for including me. For giving me courage. For erasing my shame.

God bless you."

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