In a new first-person essay, Colton Haynes shares his experience of navigating Hollywood as a gay teen and now man.
The actor, 33, from MTV’s Teen Wolf and the CW’s Arrow, writes about his heartbreaking journey, coming to L.A. from Kansas “confidently queer” but being made to hide it to fit the mold for career success in the industry. He faced demoralizing experiences along the way — like being coached to be less gay and being directed to act out graphic sex scenes.
“To be a gay actor in Hollywood, even in 2021, is to be inundated with mixed messages: Consumers are mostly straight, so don’t alienate them,” Haynes, who officially came out in 2016, writes in a Vulture essay. “But lots of the decision-makers are gay, so play that game! Now that I’m older and sober, I’m trying to square who I am with the inauthentic version of myself I invested in for years. I often wonder how different things would’ve been if I were allowed to be who I was when I moved to town: a hopeful kid confident in his sexuality.”
Haynes said his first serious relationship was at 14 with a man in his 40s. That year, he began go-go dancing at a gay bar in Wichita and “felt at home there.” The next year, he got his first modeling agent and he and his then-boyfriend, Jay, posed for a gay magazine called XY. That brought him to Los Angeles, after his high school graduation, where he worked as a phone-sex operator for a year. Then the owner of a management company, who Haynes calls “Brad” for the story, expressed interest in potentially representing him.
Almost immediately, Brad told Haynes, “We’re definitely going to have to change your mannerisms,” saying the way the openly gay teen spoke and stood were too “theater,” which was “code for gay.”
Brad invited him to an acting class, where famous actors were his classmates, including someone Haynes calls “Ethan, whom I recognized from a popular television show.” However, the instruction was further humiliation, he wrote.
“Not so musical theater!” was his feedback Brad gave him, in front of everyone, after he did his first scene. Again, he felt urged to hide himself.
The experience was degrading in other ways, too. One night of class was “sexy-scene night” in which they had to get fully naked and act out a scene with a partner, with Brad giving instruction. Before he and Ethan did their performance, an actress and actor re-created Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton’s graphic sex scene from Monster’s Ball. Already unnerved, he then had to do his scene — fully nude — as he simulated sex with Ethan.
“I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at the audience,” he said. When it was over, “Of all the things that had happened to me in my life, I had never felt more demoralized.”
At the manager’s insistence, Haynes got a military-style haircut, and was sent to deliver paperwork to a potential agent — while dressed “in a cowboy hat and an unbuttoned western shirt” — to try to land the agent’s services. However, Haynes was given the feedback that the agent wasn’t interested, so Brad said he was done working with Haynes.
“I’m sorry, but this isn’t working out. Your voice, your mannerisms — they’re still too … gay,” Haynes was told. As he left, Brad added that if he was hard up for money, he had a contact of someone who Haynes could reach out to for short-term work. He later looked at the contact info and it was for “rentboy.com,” a site for sex workers.
Haynes said he knew becoming an actor wouldn’t be easy, but he didn’t know that “the thing that made me valuable in private — my conspicuously gay sexuality — was a liability as I tried to make my way through the industry.” Haynes set the scene for the time, in the mid-aughts, “when casual homophobia was still a regular punch line on TV sitcoms, Modern Family wouldn’t premiere until a few years after I arrived in L.A. Actors had only begun to come out publicly, and none of them looked like the straight romantic lead. There are still few gay leading men in Hollywood who are out of the closet.”
So Haynes said he “did what I was told to do. I took lessons with a voice instructor who had me talk while holding a highlighter between my teeth for the entire class so that when I took it out, my diction was crisp and clear. I practiced speaking with a folded Post-it note under my tongue to teach me to make my S sounds less sibilant, since the softness of them made me sound gay.”
Weeks later, he booked his first role, in an episode of CSI: Miami, and offers immediately followed from people wanted to manage him. However, “I understood because it was explained to me repeatedly — by managers, agents, publicists, executives, producers — that the only thing standing between me and the career I wanted was that I was gay.” So he hid himself as he built a career out of young adult TV roles. He said his handlers would “send cease-and-desist letters” to any websites that resurfaced his old XY gay magazine photo shoot pix. When he was linked to Lauren Conrad, of The Hills fame, he was advised “not to deny our rumored relationship — better to have the tabloids speculate about us.”
His hiding of his true self, however, started making him sick.
“My mental health deteriorated, and I grew dependent on alcohol and pills,” he wrote. “When a doctor suggested my secret was making me sick, I knew he was right.”
When he did come out, in 2016, “Incidentally, the work mostly dried up,” he wrote. “When I was closeted, I beat out straight guys to play straight roles, and I played them well. Now, the only auditions I get are for gay characters, which remain sparse. Is that because I’m not very good? Maybe. But that didn’t stop me from booking roles before. It’s no different for the young gay actors I see coming up today, trying to make it in a system that isn’t built for them.”
He wrote about those “mixed messages” for gay actors in Hollywood, and how he questions where he would be — personally and professionally — had he just gotten to be himself when he arrived in Hollywood instead of hiding the real him.