BY Jason Lamphier
January 12 2010 11:00 AM ET
Set in 1950s Los Angeles, The Temperamentals is the true story of gay Communist activist Harry Hay (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) and his Jewish, Viennese lover, Gernreich, the costume designer who would later become famous for his topless swimsuit and would grace the cover of Time in 1967. Embittered by the antigay discrimination they witness, the closeted pair team with three friends to create the Mattachine Society, the widely overlooked and pioneering American gay rights organization. “It was just too soon,” says Urie, explaining why the group failed to leave a deeper footprint on gay history. “Almost 20 years later was Stonewall, and that was very dramatic. The Mattachine Society was a quiet rupture, while Stonewall was a violent eruption. Mattachine was a secret organization. The more they wanted to branch out, the more they got scared. But in many ways it’s a fascinating story that paved the way. It’s Mad Men meets Milk.”
Taking its name from an early euphemism for gay men, the play not only delivers an enlightening, poignant lesson on gay proto-activism, it also reveals another side of Urie, who nimbly renders Gernreich as the conflicted, driven professional he was. While Hay went on to openly embrace his sexual orientation and form the Radical Faeries in the late 1970s, Gernreich left his fight for gay rights behind to focus on his career. “He’s an artist who survived the Holocaust and now he’s faced with a world where ironically as a fashion designer he can’t be himself,” Urie says. “To me, he’s a hero, a pioneer, and he’s troubled—he’s got a major problem. He has to hide part of his life to make it in the fashion business. It wasn’t like he pretended, but he never came out.”
Some would argue that Urie has done some hiding of his own. His Ugly Betty alter ego has become a byword for today’s confidently flamboyant gay man: Marc is very out at work, dishing out sassy sexual innuendos and flaunting a wardrobe that suggests he’s snatched up nearly every fabric Mood has to offer. In another scene he’ll switch gears, playing a surrogate big bro to Betty’s seemingly gay teenage nephew, Justin, as he copes with high school bullies. And Urie says his art is his form of activism: “Both Ugly Betty and The Temperamentals have given me a platform to help people see the world in a different way, and that to me is going to do a lot more than standing on a soapbox.”
Yet the actor has never openly addressed his own sexual orientation, going only so far as to identify himself on his website as “a member of the LGBT community.” Discussing The Temperamentals, he told The New York Times last June, “Playing a guy who is struggling with his career and his personal life is familiar to me, keeping your personal life to yourself but also being free and open to be yourself in the world.” At the time some said Urie was being disingenuous, that he was trying to have his cake and eat it too. If he can play gay advocate on TV and onstage, they asked, why can’t he share his own experiences with his fans?
“I’ve never been in,” Urie responds today. “I’ve never said I was straight, and I’m not saying I’m gay now. I never lie, and I’ve never shied away from the topic. I’ve certainly chosen through my work to do things that promote the rights of LGBTQ people. I am not a hypocrite—certainly not now.”