Creator & Star of Special, Ryan O’Connell Talks to A&U’s Dann Dulin About Writing, Sex & the Toxic Effects of Shame
by Dann Dulin
Photography by Ryan Pfluger
You will never die. You simply lose your body. You will be the same except you won’t have to worry about rent or mortgages or fashionable clothes. You will be released from sexual obsessions. You will not have drug addictions. You will not need alcohol. You will not have to worry about cellulite or cigarettes or cancer or AIDS or venereal disease. You will be free.—Cookie Mueller, author, actress (a part of John Water’s motley crew), and died in 1989 at age forty of AIDS-related causes.
Cookie’s words have been an inspiration for Ryan O’Connell, who’s been deeply impacted by the epidemic.
When Ryan was nine, his uncle’s boyfriend died of AIDS-related causes. In 1986, while Ryan’s mother was pregnant with him, her father died of AIDS-related causes. He was fifty-five.
For Ryan, AIDS was a familiar term while growing up in Ventura, California. “For me, there was no stigma attached to the disease,” notes Ryan, as we talk via Skype. “It was normalized, which was good.” His mother is a nurse and does AIDS outreach.
Ryan grew up with cerebral palsy (he tags it “Cerebral LOL-zy”), wearing braces on his legs, and having to undergo numerous surgeries. “It’s really all a blur…,” recalls Ryan simply, looking back. Ryan cannot write or tie his shoes, and for one year all he could do was type with one finger.
Ryan was also gay. He was closeted until he was seventeen, and closeted about his disability until he was twenty-eight. “Being gay was not an issue,” he points out, glaring into my computer screen. “I’ve been on such a journey with liking myself and that’s so tied into my disability. I did such a number on myself that I was so full of self-loathing for most of my life, up until four years ago.”
In 2012, Simon & Schuster offered him a book deal to write his memoirs. In 2015, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves was published. Jim Parsons…yep, the guy on The Big Bang Theory…read the book, optioned it, and in mid-April, the Netflix series, Special, based on Ryan’s writings, premiered.
Ryan is executive producer, writer, and star (he’s never acted before) in the clever groundbreaking comedy that is honest and bracingly heartfelt. The main character, “Ryan,” is a gay man who lives with his mom. He has cerebral palsy but is too ashamed to admit it. The storyline is in many ways a reflection of his own life. It’s a hit, with one critic lauding, “Special lives up to its name.” He recently received the Human Rights Campaign 2019 Visibility Award. As we go to press, Ryan is waiting to get the green flag on season two.
Today though, his focus is the grandfather he never met. “AIDS has a special place in my heart because of him. He died when my mom was pregnant with me,” he explains, as he tilts his computer to get a better angle. “He was diagnosed in 1986, and in three months he was gone. He was the first AIDS patient in the Granada Hills/Northridge area of Los Angeles, where he lived, and in the hospital they had to wear HAZMAT suits.”
This was around the time Rock Hudson died, and they were nearly the same age. Though the topic of AIDS was out in the open in Ryan’s family, they kept his grandfather’s diagnosis a secret for a long time. (Ryan has one older brother, one older sister who is “heteroflexible,” and a younger half-brother.)
“The party line was that he had died of cancer. It’s weird because someone I grew up around died of AIDS when I was younger. So it wasn’t like it was hard for me to comprehend…,” he declares.
“But I think my family was repressed and didn’t want to have this conversation. So no one really spoke about it until I was much older when my dad let it slip. After that there was a dialogue around it,” he says. “Not enough for me, as I’m very curious about it. But I guess it’s a hard thing for them to talk about—understandably so.”
Ryan grew up in a loving, supportive, non-religious household. His dad was an atheist and his mom “slightly religious.” Ryan attended Episcopalian school and was even an altar boy. “I would go to church five days a week, which was part of the school [schedule], then I’d come home and dad would say [Ryan chuckles], ‘God doesn’t exist.’”
Ryan describes his dad in his book: “My father is a giant liberal teddy bear, but it’s obvious that he comes from a very different generation than ours. When he decided to have kids, I don’t think he even considered the possibility of having a bisexual polyamorous daughter and a gay son with a disability. We are modern as fuck.”
Ryan’s language is refreshingly blunt. In fact, just a few minutes into our chat, after a “bitch,” “fucking,” and “bullshit,” I feel right at home this morning. Fresh from the gym, Ryan kicks back on his bed, dressed in a light gray Nike T-shirt, wearing his trademark glasses and cheery smile. He puts his arms behind his head that rests on a light brownish bed pillow, which exposes his worked-out biceps. I compliment him on them, as I read he works out five to six times a week. He responds, “Thank you,” then immediately adds, “I workout only to maintain an average body so I can eat carbs after 6 p.m.!”
He and his partner of nearly five years, Jonathan, live in a 1920s-era apartment building in West Hollywood. “They fall apart easily,” bemoans Ryan of the old Golden Age dwellings that are abundant in Los Angeles, “but they are dreamy!”
Ryan returns to the subject of religion and firmly boasts, “Not having religion forced down my throat really gave me a headstart in life.” I share with him the book I just read by Christopher Hitchens, God Is NOT Great, and a loosely based quote by Frank Zappa and George Carlin, “Religion is the poison of the earth.” Ryan nods in recognition. “Kids I know that grew up in religious households [were impacted by their] trauma. It does a number on ya,” sighs Ryan in a cocksure mindset. “I’m not saying religion is wrong, it’s just that when it’s interpreted for selfish and manipulative reasons; it becomes corrupted by people who use it to lend credibility to their prejudices.”
While Ryan was in high school he worked at the LGBT center promoting STI awareness. “I taught them that safe sex meant more than just locking the door,” he balks, as his hand combs through his hair, twisting and fluffing it. At age seventeen, Ryan briefly had a boyfriend who broke up with him. He was devastated. Feeling unlovable, Ryan deemed he was destined to live the rest of his life alone.
“It was sad…,” recounts Ryan. “I felt I was entitled to the breakup because I am disabled. It made me retreat even further. Then I was celibate for most of my twenties, having dated a couple of guys in college briefly. I had intimacy issues up the wazoo. If someone shared a bed with me, I would say, ‘Where are my running shoes?’ I would panic.”
Ryan moved to New York City and attended The New School, receiving a degree in Creative Writing in 2010. He then served as editor for Thought Catalogue (an Internet youth culture magazine that publishes stories on an expansive array of topics, which is similar to Eggwoke, Ryan’s workplace in Special). In 2013 he moved to Los Angeles and began writing for MTV’s Awkward. At the same time he was sweating it out penning his book, which took three years to complete.
“The fear of embarrassment and shame [of not completing the book] kept me writing…,” Ryan half-heartedly quips, but meaning it. As for book to screen, it took four years. Ryan wrote the Special script while he was writing for the revival of Will & Grace. “I sent the script to Netflix and they eventually came on board. It sounds short and truncated, but trust me, it was hell—and—it was just real, real luck.”
Since Ryan has been more public about his identity, sometimes life has been surreal. Earlier this summer, he was chosen to be the Los Angeles Gay Pride Grand Marshall. “It was such an honor,” he gushes demurely, “and it was very meaningful to be asked.”
“Stigma keeps you in the closet,” he rages plainly, explaining that it took him twenty-eight years to shed all the psychological bullshit. After he came out, his life opened up in exhilarating ways. “Guys started coming up to me because I felt cozy in my own skin,” he admits in a delightful manner. “People are attracted to confidence. They just are!”
“I just reached a breaking point where I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m done!’ Now I’ve gone the complete opposite direction. I think I am making up for lost time. I am so resentful of the time I lost by not being honest of who I was. Fear is fucking irrational.” Ryan’s body is rigid and he’s revved. A contemplative wash comes over his face. “I’m trying to deconstruct stigma….” One of Ryan’s happiest places to go is a nearby park, which he does often. When there, he sits on a swing. “It is my heroin,” offers Ryan gleefully.
One of Ryan’s close friends with HIV felt stigmatized. For a long time he felt shame for acquiring the virus. “It wasn’t until he came out of the HIV closet and wrote about it publicly that he felt better. “There …still.. is… stigma,” enunciates Ryan with meticulous precision announcing each syllable then shoots a sour-apple grimace. He’s aghast, not wanting to believe it. “Shame. It’s like me coming out about being disabled.” He instantly halts. “I don’t necessarily mean to compare the two, but in a way, I do. They both still have stigma attached to it.
“In my experience, you can make something into a monster when it’s just a little ant. I chose to be so deeply ashamed of my disability …and that breaks my heart. If you come out and you are authentic,” he points out, “the universe rewards you. Once you own everything, nobody can take it away from you.”
The Skype screen freezes.
He calls back and continues. “The parallel between living with HIV, feeling shame about it and not necessarily wanting to be open about it, is similar to how I felt about having CP. There’s still a lot of misinformation about HIV and there’s a lot of misinformation about living with a disability. People are nervous to talk about it and that prevents a dialogue from happening,” he says. “But the more you are open and honest about it, the better off we will all be.
“But I’m not stupid. I understand people are behind in many of these things that swirl in stigma,” counters Ryan. “But I know when I talk about it, it brings awareness and normalizes it at the same time.” Ryan turns solemn. His expressive round browns dart left, then right. “This is not strange. This is my life. It’s not weird,” rhapsodizes Ryan bluntly. “I don’t feel like I’m living some fringe experience.”
Ryan folds his hands, laying them on top of his chest. “My grandfather, I suspect, didn’t know what mold to fit into,” he speculates, introspectively, revealing that he’s presently working on a screenplay about his grandfather. Ryan questions whether he was gay or bisexual, and wishes that his grandfather could have lived a freer life and been open about his sexuality.
“I believe that I’m living the life my grandfather wished he could have lived. It sounds corny, but I try to live my life in tribute to him.” He takes a beat. “I feel like I’m pulling a Lady Gaga/”Joanne” [song] here, where I’m mourning someone I never met.” Ryan sits back and hugs a pillow. “I inherited my grandfather’s corduroy jacket, and even though he was a slight man and it’s half my size, and it looks like I’m wearing a midriff…it’s an honor to wear it.”
He strokes his hair. “I learned from my grandfather that secrets kill,” notes Ryan critically, deeming himself privileged to live in an era where people are open to discussion. “I try to be loud and outspoken. There’s no use in being ashamed of who you are.”
Sex Is Not Taboo
Call Me By Your Name did not sit right Ryan.
After the laborious pent-up sexual tensions of teasing each other for days, the characters played by Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet finally have this rapturous moment in bed. Then the camera pulls away from their intertwined naked bodies and pans out the window, onto the evening Italian countryside. C’mon now.
“It still frustrates me that we are still in a space where gay sex is considered taboo.” Ryan looks away. “It’s just wild to me. This is natural.” Amazement washes over his face.
Sex is not taboo in Special. One episode finds Ryan hiring a sex worker [played brilliantly by Brian Jordan Alvarez [Ruby’s Rap, May 2017]. It’s Ryan’s first time. Not much is left to the imagination, as the escort tenderly penetrates Ryan. It’s a well-done scene and meaningful to the story.
In Ryan’s personal life, there’s Jonathan. The two met on Twitter and were friends for several months before romance flourished. Each had a boyfriend, but eventually those relationships ended. At the beginning of their relationship they agreed upon an open relationship.
Ryan explains. “I said to him, ‘Honey I have not sowed my wild oats. You had that experience of living, laughing, and fucking in your twenties in New York, when I was literally fucking my bottle of Percocet. [Ryan had a drug problem for a couple of years while living in New York City, but thankfully he rectified it on his own.] Our twenty-something experiences were very different.’”
“What I love about being gay—there’s so many things—I love the level of communication Jonathan and I have around desire and sexual needs. When I say I need to have sex with other people, Jonathan doesn’t internalize that as being a reflection on the relationship. It doesn’t translate to, ‘I’m not getting enough here so I need to get some elsewhere.’ It’s not about that. In fact, it’s not about him at all. They are totally separate.”
Ryan feels that most gay men have open relationships, even if they don’t admit it. “There are exceptions…,” he admits. “Monogamy is restrictive. Most guys don’t want the single chapter of their life to end, and it doesn’t have to end. Communication is key. Most of us are raised with heterosexuals, who become our first role models, and many times we, as gay men, think we need to fit into that mold.” [He pauses.] We’re …not…. robots! If you keep the communication lines open—no pun intended—you’ll be fine!”
Name your favorite movie last year.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
I spend a shocking amount of time in bed. I take to the bed in a good way and love nothing more than to be alone in my bed.
Name your first celebrity crush.
Name guests (dead or alive) you would invite for dinner.
Cookie Mueller, Nora Ephron, and Parker Posey.
Who’s your role model?
Who’s your favorite historical figure?
What was the name of the first person you ever kissed?
Have you been told you resemble any celebrity?
Andrew Rannells. [He quickly adds] I just want to get drunk and make out with him!
Name one of your pet peeves.
People who are rude to waiters.
When was the last time you heard, “I love you”?
Today. Jonathan and I say it like 40,000 times a day. We’re like mentally ill.
Name one word to describe Ryan O’Connell.
To a special lady, Maya, for her support and help with this article!
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed advocate Rebekka Armstrong for the August issue.