In a memorable scene in Shameless — Showtime's long-running dramedy about a dysfunctional family — bartender Kevin Ball (Steve Howey), or Kev, stands behind his bar, bulging muscle and bravado in South Side Chicago. The bar is known to have housed undocumented Russian women upstairs, who pay rent through sex work. At this moment, the venue hosts an after party for the baptism to the son of Mickey Milkovich, a juvenile delinquent and (secret) boyfriend to one of the show’s troubled leads, Ian Gallagher. Kev fills Mickey’s flimsy paper plate with corn beef — an act of kindness — and Mickey asks him why.
“I’m just trying to put everything in the past, OK? I’m a ‘conscientious objector’ now.” Kevin says. Mickey, masked in his own masculinity, fearful of what kindness could indicate, asks him what that even means. “I don't really know. Something to do with Muhammad Ali. Peace and love.”
Shortly after this moment of heart, the bar breaks out in a fight. Ian gives Mickey the ultimatum of coming out or breaking up, and so Mickey announces “I’m fucking gay. A big old ‘mo.” Mickey’s homophobic father, just released from prison hours prior, leaps over the bar, fists ablaze, to punch his son in the face. Amidst the bloody brawl, Kev holds a standing meditation pose behind the bar. This moment of zen is a short-lived retrospective to a prior incident — when Kev accidentally fired a gun he took from Mickey, in order to take back money Mickey stole.
Steve Howey, who brings Kev to life on Shameless, is best known for this combination of masculine demeanor, naivety, and heart of gold that he has mastered onscreen in roles in shows like Reba and films like Supercross, See You in Valhalla, and the upcoming Game Over Man. His young fans on social media love to call him “zaddy,” or daddy with swagger, but he’s more than just your dad-kink fantasy. He’s a father, and a father-figure in real life as well as in the troubled fiction he portrays.
Showtime’s Shameless is no stranger to fights between about fathers and changes of heart. The entirety of the show is centered around the Gallagher family, whose problems stemming from their absent alcoholic father have caused issues both monetarily and of the health variety for the five children. With absent parents, the eldest siblings bear the responsibility of raising the younger children, forfeiting their own goals in the process.
“I’m like a big brother and a dad. You can have a sip of the beer, but you can’t have the whole beer,” the 40-year-old actor said with a laugh to The Advocate. His real-life role as a husband to actress Sarah Shahi (The L Word) and coparent to three children is key to how he reflects on his relationships with the characters in Shameless. This season introduces new dynamics between Kev and Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), when Kev gives the second youngest Gallagher relationship advice for the first time, because the paternal guidance Carl needs isn’t present with Frank (William H. Macy).
Most shockingly, this season finds Kevin’s true blood lineage with inbred members of the Ku Klux Klan when Kevin and Veronica, his wife who happens to be black, see a geneticist to check their daughters’ genes after his breast cancer scare.
The breast cancer scare takes the mask of tough resilience that Kev puts on for his bar patrons, and allows him to show vulnerability around new people for the first time.
“I do make an effort to show Kev’s vulnerable side, because I think there’s more strength in that than being the cold, hard, rigid stereotypical masculine guy,” Howey says.
And in the age where we’re discovering the true fragility of toxic masculinity — behavior of sexual dominance, violence, and lack of empathy, as described by The Huffington Post — real man’s-man characters like Kev showing vulnerability are more important than ever.
“I think vulnerability and sensitivity is very masculine. Just like having a strong work ethic and being very tough is feminine. I don’t abide by the classic traditional definitions of what masculine and feminine is,” says Howey. He continues, “My wife, for instance, is all of those things. She embodies so much strength, and power, and intensity, and it comes from her femininity. So, it is all open to me.”
The world we live in often pushes men to live up to standards of what masculinity “should be,” causing them to bottle feelings inside and just “man up." The rigid standards of masculinity can create overall psychological distress and other social health problems, according to Psychology Today. This unfortunate circumstance is exhibited by other characters on the show, which Steve brings up in relation to Noel Fisher’s role of Mickey.
One of Howey’s favorite moments in Shameless is when Kev finds out that Mickey is gay, and then Mickey comes out. Kev just says, “No one gives a shit. Just come sit down. It’s not about that, it’s about you.” Reflecting on lessons from his character, Howey reiterates a message of acceptance — whether it’s being gay, an ally, a vulnerable man, or in a mixed-race relationship.
On social media, Howey has tried to broadcast this message the world — sometimes with mixed results. In 2012, Howey tweeted: “I’m gay and proud” after being in a heterosexual marriage with a child. Suffice to say, the reactions were those of confusion — but most were positive. “Are you single?” asked one fan. “Does your wife know?! LOL,” wrote another.
I'm gay and proud.
— Steve Howey (@stevehowey) October 9, 2012
“That was one of those where I wanted to say it, even though that I’m not gay, I can say it and have support for those who are, and for those who have a problem saying it out loud,” Howey, who is straight, explains of his intent in the tweet. “I was just hoping that maybe me saying it takes a little bit of stigma off of it. I didn’t want to invalidate or take away.”
By coming out as gay, even though he is not, Howey hopes to challenge those who still harbor anti-LGBT bias and help open others’ hearts and minds.
“I’m not gay” Howey clarifies. “But so what? What if I was?”
His character in Shameless, who is also straight, is an ally to the LGBT community. Kev wears his allyship as easily as he wears his golden uniform undergarments with his Timberland boots, at his side-gig as a dancer at a gay bar. To him, it isn't a big deal, because it is normal.
“I have friends and family in the LGBTQ community,” Howey says, “And you know, I just think it’s so basic and normal. I’m a supporter, I’m a friend, I’m an ally, and maybe my voice can help those who are struggling to come out or those who have issues to let them know that if they are a fan of mine, that I’m here to support and have their back.”