We Love Soaps had the privilege of catching up with Hal Sparks last week at the International Gays of Our Lives Event. Money raised at the event, which included social outings and discussion panels, is going to two great charities: The Trevor Project and Aidshilfe Köln.
We Love Soaps: I have been hearing for over 13 years how much we look alike. I don’t see it, do you?
Hal Sparks: I don’t see it. I have a totally different nose, you have an ovular face, I have a square face.
We Love Soaps: You’ve been leading a panels today about gays on German and American soaps. Here at We Love Soaps we often discuss the social relevance of the continuing story format and it’s ability to help others. You were on QUEER AS FOLK for several years. Do you think your role as Michael helped others?
Hal Sparks: No question that socially-politically it was great to have gay characters showing their real relationships and showing their relationships and have ups and downs similar to everyone else’s. I think the exaggerated nature of soap operas and the constant drama aspect, the enforced drama, that is unnatural to human interaction, is not necessarily the most helpful thing. You literally see the dance of people thinking that relationships should be full of that craziness. I don’t think that’s the case. There are legitimate concerns people work out in relationships and the rest of the times things hum along. If they don’t, that’s not a relationship, that’s an argument that just has breaks for food.
We Love Soaps: And this is an argument that came up during a panel. Do we want soaps to reflect reality as it is, or do we want to be exaggerated? A loving respectful healthy relationship won’t play well on TV.
Hal Sparks: Then you can’t look for reflection in a soap opera. I ride a motorcycle, but I don’t look to Evil Knievel for how to ride a motorcycle. And I don’t look to soaps on how to run a relationship or how to interact with my partner. That is an exaggerated, over-the-top, extraordinary microcosm of what a relationship might be. A soap character in three weeks goes through the entire spectrum of emotion that someone goes through in a five year relationship that culminates in marriage. I think the imbalance is there for television. If you go look at it and say, "I'm never going to treat my partner like that,” that’s where the value of it comes from.
We Love Soaps: I think soaps used to do that well, to show there is no definite right or wrong, and that a problem can be seen in two different ways.
Hal Sparks: But there are definite rights and wrongs in the world. If I was in a relationships with someone, and I was beating her, then I’m wrong. There is no middle ground in that conversation. There’s no point where I need to see how someone can fix their partner who beats the shit out of them. I’m not interested. I don’t need to see the scars that got them to that point. I’m interested in seeing them shift their behavior. Then we heal something else.
Look at the Star Wars prequels that came out. They were excusing the fact that Darth Vader destroys planets full of people because he lost his mom. To some degree, I’m sorry you lost your mom dude, but that’s not the reaction. I can understand you being interested in people who killed your mom, that I get. But randomly killing millions of people who you’ve never met because your mom was taken from you by sandpeople is a bit odd of a reaction. I don’t need to see that backstory. There is no second side.
We Love Soaps: Yet as a therapist, I’ve often been in the position of seeing the person behind the terrible violent behavior.
Hal Sparks: But until they stop that behavior, there is no conversation to be had. I think in soap operas, because you enforce drama, it creates a false balance. And that’s fine for entertainment value. But once you start reflecting it on your relationship in any other way than, “I would never do that,” then you’re in trouble.
We Love Soaps: What led you to want to be here today hosting this Gays Of Our Lives panel?
Hal Sparks: Because when you have a group gathering around shows like this, the fans, and frenzied friends, these people are the outliers in their community. They are so drawn to these shows and sociopolitical underpinnings of them, so when they go home, they affect maybe tens or hundreds of people. When you can gather them together and can sit and have a deep philosophical discussion about the nature of these shows and why they need to be done and where we need to go as a society, you shift them from being passive viewers to agents of change. Television is the single biggest social change device of the last millennia, if not the last five millennia. In the time television has been on the air we have gone from a woman not even being able to use the word “pregnant” to openly talking about the need for choice to have an abortion. You’ve gone from “confirmed bachelors” being the gay characters on shows who were clowns who never had relationships to gay couples openly getting married. And that is because of television, not because of film.
We Love Soaps: At the same time, we are concerned that daytime soaps are going backward in that regard. A year ago five soaps had gay characters, by September there will be none. Any thoughts about why daytime is getting more conservative?
Hal Sparks: It may just reflect what the audience wants to see for themselves, and the fact that there is an outlet for gay characters that there never was before. In a lot of ways, the artists behind the scenes were pushing the gay story lines because they wanted to see themselves reflected on TV, even more so than housewives or whomever were their main targeted audience.
We Love Soaps: One thing I have admired about you is that you have never allowed fear to determine your choices. Have you ever been afraid to do a role and then taken it anyway.
Hal Sparks: No.
We Love Soaps: You were not afraid to take the role of Michael on Queer As Folk?
Hal Sparks: No, but my agents were. My agent at the time, who I’m not with anymore. My manager at the time, who I am also no longer with, were both very concerned. But I live fearlessly. It’s how I like to live, and I don’t apologize for who I am. Ever. That happens not only when I’m talking to racist homophobic redneck christian psychopaths who are going to throw acid in my face when I come down for a DVD signing, or gay people in the community who think I have no right to play a gay character because I’m straight.
I remember there was a period when people kept saying, “Why does he keep bringing up that he’s straight? He’s a homophobe!” If I was a homophobe, I never would have taken the role. Beyond that, the value of letting everybody know that not only did I start the show straight but that I stayed straight throughout the whole show, let straight people who were scared by it know that gay is not contagious. You don’t catch it by being around it. It is who you are, and it’s okay. There’s a good portion of the society who think it’s contagious. Now that they realize, “He’s straight and he’s never going to change,” and “They’re gay and they’re never going to change,” then they have to shift their view to, “I have to start dealing with them as people who exist, not people who I can wish out of existence.”
Damon L. Jacobs is a Marriage Family Therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve". He is re-imagining a world without "shoulds" at www.shouldless.com.