I stir my Venti Caffe Latte, after adding chocolate powder and Stevia, and gawk out the Starbucks window. The crowd rushes by on 43rd Street, near Broadway. Yep, I’m back on Broadway, well, not the Great White Way, but I am in Manhattan. I’m here presenting one of my seminars; this time the topic is, “Safe and Social: Having Sex on the Internet.”
Of course, one way to practice safe sex is to do it on the Internet, via Skype or some other media format. It’s not for everybody, but it certainly is an option. As I blend my coffee, though, I’m not thinking about this. Instead, I ponder about the straight community. What does a straight man think about the epidemic? Hmmm….
I hop on my cell and call my buddy, Benjamin Farmer. I met him on the set of The Falls trilogy—but I can’t recall which one. The director, Jon Garcia, had planned on shooting only one film, but it was so wildly popular that he wrote two more sequels about two male Mormons who fall in love. Ben plays Chris, one of the boys, and Nick Ferrucci plays RJ, his
lover. The three films were shot over seven years. Garcia is gay (ironically the two actors aren’t), and he wanted to make a statement about safer sex. In part three, condoms are quite visible on the bedroom nightstand.
Benjamin, thirty-three, began performing at the age of three. Reared in Salem, Oregon, he attended New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. He told me that he would have stayed in New York had it not been for a girl he fell for. He returned to the Pacific Northwest but after several years, he returned to the Big Apple. Now married to Megan since 2014, they have one child, a dog named Rocket!
Ben can currently be seen in Season 3 of Showtime’s Billions and in the film The Texture of Falling, for which he won Best Supporting Actor at the Oregon Independent Film Festival. This talented chameleon can play sweet and innocent as well as blood and guts, from a father to a killer. He’s portrayed gay characters several times, like in the play As Is, about a gay couple living in New York City during the early AIDS crisis.
Not living too awfully far from where I am, Ben soon joins me for a late afternoon tête-à-tête.
Ruby Comer: It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. [I look him over, up and down, giving him the keen eye.] Is it really you—or is it your twin, Gabriel?! [He chuckles, and gives me a tight hug.] Okay, it’s you! What’s Gabe doing now?
Benjamin Farmer: Gabriel works as a corrections officer at Oregon State Penitentiary! [He shines with pride.] He has a military background, and loves his job.
Good for him! Okay, I have to ask a cliché question. Tell a trick you guys pulled on someone.
Well, for one full day, we convinced all of our teachers that I was Gabe, and Gabe was me. That was my first great acting role. [Ben grins, as he swizzles his hot chocolate with a shot of espresso.]
Hee, Hee. Ya know…I want a straight man’s view, Ben! Tell me when you first heard about the disease.
When I was seven or eight years old I was attending the local Boys & Girls Club. They sat all of us kids down in the gym and played a video called STOP: The Truth About HIV/AIDS and YOU. That was the first time I’d ever heard those words. [He takes a sip of his cocoa.] My parents weren’t pleased that the kids watched the video.
How ya mean?
I come from a religious and sheltered background. I was taught that homosexuality was both a choice and a sin. [Benjamin places his elbow on the table, propping up his ruddy, good lookin’ face with his hand, then adds an afterthought.] Only much later did I learn that there were some religious communities that claimed God created AIDS to kill-off homosexuals. I never heard that in my community or church.
Yes, sadly, there were “ignorants” who said that. How did your upbringing play out with regards to sex?
I became sexually active relatively late in life. It wasn’t until college that I began my exploration. My girlfriend and I at the time were more concerned about getting pregnant. STDs were never a concern.
Did you always wear protection?
Not always. But actually, things never progressed to that point, so…hands and mouth were used with creativity.
And why not?! Some religious zealots believe that teaching children about protecting themselves against STDs promotes sexual activity in children. What do you think?
People are going to have sex—period. We need to educate to ensure there’s as little disease in our communities as possible. If parents and private schools devoted half the energy they put into teaching abstinence and instead teach: “How to better protect oneself and communicate effectively with one’s partner,” we’d all be better off. We simply have to change the narrative!
Hear, hear! Indeed! Should condoms be available in public schools, including primary school?
I believe they should…yes.
When did you first get tested?
In my late teens. My brother and I found out that you could get paid for donating plasma! In order to donate, they would run the usual blood tests, which included HIV. While waiting for the test I started thinking of all of the things my girlfriend and I had done together. [With his hand, Ben feathers through his gingery hair.] I still donate blood, about twice a year.
Do you think most Americans still think of AIDS as a “gay disease”?
Looking back on all of the history, plus some of the plays and work I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, there’s a small part of me that believes that to be true, especially among the less educated. I can’t help but think of fundamentalists in Southern states. [He succinctly looks down and continues.] It breaks my heart. I believe most people have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear the words HIV or AIDS.
Speaking of plays, you were in a production of As Is.
Ruby, I’m thankful for the work I’ve been able to do relating to HIV and AIDS, specifically this wonderful work by William H. Hoffman. It gave me such insight into what it must’ve been like to be alive in that time and place, specifically a gay man or woman in New York City during the height of the epidemic. Doctors knew so little about it. A lot of the treatments were unbearable. It was a terrifying time, and those who were sick must’ve felt helpless and afraid.
If only more of your generation had that opportunity, Benjamin. It was not a fun time, I can tell you. Whom do you consider a leading person in the epidemic?
Magic Johnson! He’s the first face I put with the epidemic. He’s done so much to raise awareness. There are also countless celebrities who have lived with the disease and created such amazing work and shared it with the world. Freddie Mercury of course comes to mind. Thanks to Hugh Jackman’s amazing work in The Boy From Oz, shining the spotlight on the talented Peter Allen, as well.
What did you take away from your experience shooting The Falls trilogy?
So. Many. Things. [He answers gradually and meticulously.] It’s given me some serious pause—again—about the house and community I grew up in. How blessed I am to have so many LGBTQ persons in my life, and to know that they were born the way they are, just like I was born the way I am. In the end, it’s taught me that love is love is love is love….[His smile brims with gratitude.]
I hope we see you in more meaningful projects like The Falls trilogy. So what was the challenge of playing gay and kissing another straight guy?
Nick’s facial hair! Kissing Nick was just as nerve-wracking as kissing any female co-star. It puts you in a very vulnerable place, but there was and is a lot of trust between Nick and myself. He’s a very lovable man and a tremendous actor.
Any closing remarks? Then let’s go catch a foreign film.
I wish my parents and teachers had talked more to me about HIV so that I could have had a better understanding. It was completely ignored in my community when I was growing up.
Straighten up with Ben at www.benjamin-farmer.com and on FaceBook and Twitter, as well.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].