Tyler Blackburn is ready to be free. It’s a bright morning in Los Angeles, and the anticipation is palpable as he speaks candidly on life, acting, and self-discovery. The young actor knows that today is an important milestone for him, yet he can’t help but feel vulnerable during these emotional few minutes.
It isn’t hard to fall in love with Blackburn, whose breakthrough role as Caleb Rivers in ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars solidified him as one of Hollywood’s brightest talents — earning the actor three Teen Choice Awards (two for Best Male TV Star and one for Best Chemistry, which he shared with PLL costar Ashley Benson) and a considerable number of young fans.
Blackburn’s fandom runs deep and heavy among teen audiences. His starring role in the CW’s Roswell, New Mexico as gay war veteran and amputee Sgt. Alex Manes continues to push boundaries while highlighting issues seldom seen on-screen — like PTSD, immigration, and queer love. Finding the character was cathartic, and in many ways Alex’s inner struggle mirrors the actor’s own.
While growing up in L.A., Blackburn says he resisted coming to terms with his identity. A self-confessed “late bloomer,” he was picked on for being effeminate — times he describes as dark periods in his life, when “self-hatred and shame” overpowered him on a daily basis.
“I got bullied a lot by other boys, and I just felt like my soul was slowly being taken from me,” he reflects. “I ended up eating lunch in my biology classroom in 10th grade, and I had no one to talk to. You form a shell around yourself for protection. And you start to make decisions based off of things outside of what you want and who you are. I stopped doing so many of the things that I loved doing because it felt safer. That right there is the outcome of oppression. When you literally have to mute who you are in order to feel safe. That’s soul-crushing.”
But the young star is done caring about what people think. Now he’s building a new kind of role fueled with the intention to be “as happy as possible, as free as possible” and is choosing to own his space after years of avoiding the truth.
“I'm queer,” he proclaims. “I've identified as bisexual since a teenager.” His voice cracks as years of secrets and dodging media questions about his sexuality falls by the wayside. “I just want to feel powerful in my own skin, and my own mind, and in my own heart.”
Embracing the scope of who he was took time and effort. While he had a couple of long-term relationships with women in his early 20s, Blackburn wasn’t entirely fulfilled by them, and he says he always had an “underlying curiosity” about men. But as is the case for many bisexuals, he battled social pressure to remain binary (either gay or straight). Deep down, he knew he was neither.
“I heard so many things from within the queer community about bisexuality being a cop-out or bullshit or the easy way out or something, and that always stuck with me because I felt the pressure from all sides to have [my sexuality] figured out,” he shares. “And I think for the longest time, I suppressed more of my attraction to men. It wasn’t until my late 20s, towards the end of Pretty Little Liars, that I really allowed myself to go there and not just wonder about it or lust over it, but experience that vulnerability and experience the emotional aspect of what it is to be bisexual.”
Blackburn’s role in Roswell, New Mexico came at a perfect time in his life. “I knew this guy in and out,” he says of discovering Sgt. Alex Manes. “I understood feeling oppressed. I understood having issues with my father [wanting to feel] accepted by him. I understood wanting something but being afraid to have it. I understood self-doubt.”
Someone else who understood was the show’s creator, Carina Adly MacKenzie, who Blackburn came out to while shooting the pilot. Not only did she accept him with open arms, but she made a point to nurture Blackburn’s storyline with immense compassion and fortitude.
For Blackburn, the path toward self-discovery is visible both on-screen and off. Even more prominent is the awareness that he no longer needs to be placed in a box.
“Just because you decide ‘I am this thing’ doesn’t mean you immediately feel like you fit into that thing,” he explains. “That’s another part of the journey that I still don’t always know how to navigate, but I’m feeling more courageous and fortified to explore.”
Fans of Roswell, New Mexico have been supportive of Blackburn and costar Michael Vlamis’s on-screen relationship. Michael Guerin (Vlamis) is bisexual on the show while Alex Manes is gay, but one specific scene stands out: Alex and Michael wake up in bed together and Michael puts his hand on Alex’s leg and caresses it downward, eventually touching where his limb ends — a moving act that many amputees can relate to but rarely see on-screen. The fact that Alex is gay also speaks to the roaring debate on LGBTQ people serving in the military.
“It’s little things like that, that made me realize, ‘Wow, this is a big responsibility,’” he reflects, adding that he’s wasting no time on making other people comfortable.
“I’m so tired of caring so much. I just want to live my truth and feel OK with experiencing love and experiencing self-love,” he says. “Yes, there is an element of, I want to feel like it’s OK to hold my boyfriend’s hand as I’m walking down the street, and not worry. Is someone going to look and be like, ‘Whoa, is that guy from that show? I didn’t know that [he was queer.]’ I want to own my space now.”
In every way, Blackburn is exactly where he should be — the here and now.
“Now we’re at a place where fluidity is spoken about in such a beautiful way that it doesn’t make me feel as pressured to have it figured out,” he says. “My goal above everything is to feel as happy as possible. As free as possible. I don’t just mean happy, like, ‘I’m laughing all day, every day.’ That’s actually insane. That’s impossible. What I mean is, I want to feel free.”