On NBC's "Frasier," openly gay Butler plays it straight

By Jeff Walsh
Oasis Editor

On the award-winning series Frasier, Dan Butler drips with testosterone as the very heterosexual sports jock Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe. The role pits Bulldog against the more fey, sensitive radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane.

The NBC series won the hotly contested 9 p.m. Thursday seat left warm due to Seinfeld's departure last season.

But Butler isn't heterosexual, he just plays one on TV. The 43-year-old actor, who is a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign's National Coming Out Day Project, said he didn't technically come out in Hollywood. He was never in.

"Sometimes I go to gay events and they're surprised I'm gay, but I was always out," Butler said at a recent San Francisco event to celebrate National Coming Out Day in October. "I was doing my own one-man show, which coincided with my first season of Frasier."

Butler's one-man show, "The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me," had a successful run in Los Angeles for seven months, then played Off-Broadway and in San Francisco.

"I took about ten different characters," he said, describing the show. "It was just processing what gay means, if anything, and all the different characters would contradict one another. Just tossing it up, without a resolution."

Butler wrote a screenplay of the show that is going to be made into a movie, but he doesn't expect to perform in it. After the San Francisco run, he also took the show to Chicago and then to his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

"After that, I said, 'This is complete,'" he recalled.

Butler said he doesn't think the show Frasier has a gay sensibility, per se (as I suggested). It does seem that having best-selling gay author Joe Keenan (whose book Blue Heaven is pure comic bliss) as one of the show's producers would have some effect. Butler sees it a bit differently.

"I think the show pokes fun at male energy. Here's two straight men that have sensibilities that people would attribute to gay men. And it's ironic I play a raging heterosexual and I'm out," Butler said. "I think the success of the show is not attributed to the gay influence. There are a lot of straight people on the show and they really help it be a success."

He then starts smiling and chastising me.

"Please, quit discriminating against these (straight) people, because they're really good," Butler jokes.

On the subject of accepting his own sexuality, Butler said it was a "gentle progression."

"I never felt like I was suppressing something," he said. "At first, I thought everyone felt the same way. 'Isn't everyone attracted to men and women?' And then it sort of became men, and then I realized 'No, not everyone feels this way.'"

Butler first came out to his sister, the his mom, and then his dad two year later. He has been out now for 22 years.

His advice to people struggling with their own sexuality is to "trust your instincts."

"I feel very fortunate of the support I had from my family. A lot of people have to redefine what family means. It may not mean birth parents," he said. "You have to go to the people who love you and support you and care for who you are. You may have to cut off from your parents and wish them the best. But just take a step at a time, believe in yourself and create a support system. Don't think you have to do it by yourself."

Despite his role on Frasier, movie roles as varied as Longtime Companion and The Silence Of The Lambs, and a lot of guest spots on other shows (such as an upcoming appearance on Suddenly Susan), Butler is humble about his career.

"My career has been a series of flukes than turn into amazing adventures," he said. "I'm always looking forward to whatever's coming."

Butler reacts to the Matthew Shepard beating

In addition to his interview with Oasis at the event, Butler ignored his planned coming out story to instead talk about Matthew Shepard, who at the time was in critical condition and would die the next day.

He spoke from the heart, still sorting out how he felt. Butler told the crowd:

It's a senseless act, so how do you make sense of it? When my lover and I first got the news, he said, 'Let'm fry,' and there was a part of me that envied his reaction because it was clear-cut, compassionate and gutsy, and I'm trying to think of the higher road, say the right thing. It's very hard to put things in perspective.

Last night, I was at the Human Right Campaign dinner and I was sitting beside this gentleman and I was talking about coming out, and how I felt my experience with coming out paled in experience with Matthew, who was openly gay in Laramie, Wyoming. And the gentleman said, 'Well, why would he do that? That's stupid! He's just asking for trouble.' And we proceeded into the Catch 22 that nothing's going to change unless you come out, but you've got to come out before something's going to change. It just went back and forth. And he was also mystified why I would come out and jeopardize my career and risk my life. He asked me why would I take that risk?

I always feel strange when this question is asked, because I really didn't think about it. It sounds very naïve when I hear those words coming out of my mouth, but there was a clarity about the decision. I was writing a one-man show at the time about being gay and it was clear to me that I'm supposed to do this. Not just as a gay man, but as an artist, to challenge myself. There wasn't anything logical about it. If I was in the logical mind, I wouldn't have done it. There are a thousand reasons not to come out. But there was a clarity that this was being true to myself and what I must do. It was what I had to do, and also I had a faith and trust that it would turn out alright.

Then, the man asked me, where does the faith come from? I don't know. When I look at an event like Matthew's life, I hate that it turned out horrifically, but it is an example that Matthew's life has made a difference to so many people. I do think it's easy to go down the road of hate, to hate them for doing that. I think there is a way to find generosity and change. I don't know the answer to it right now, but I do think there is a way to do that. Within my own profession and my life, I've met a lot of angry, bitter, hateful people. I've met a lot of gay people who are angry and bitter and probably have every right to be. But what has given me faith are the people who have every right, if I look at their lives, they have every right to be bitter and angry, but they're not. They're the most generous people I've ever seen. I gain faith from them.

Another thing I gain a lot of faith from, is that in the same newspaper that spoke of Matthew, it spoke of South Africa and that the Supreme Court has finally struck down the ban for relationships between homosexual men. There were no laws in the books for women. They are the only country in the world that has anti-discrimination laws right in their Constitution. To have hope and loss in the same paper challenged me, and also that it was South Africa, it brought another speech to mind that gives me a lot of faith and I think it has a lot to do with coming out. This is from Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech. This is someone who was in prison for about 30 years. This is what he said:

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, fabulous, gorgeous, talented? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. You're playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that's within us. It's not just in some of us. It's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we automatically give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.

Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at jeff@oasismag.com