When Noah Galvin casually referred to himself as a gay man in front of 200 TV journalists in January, he thought nothing of it. The 21-year-old actor spoke at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, on how his friends reacted to his being cast as gay teen lead Kenny O'Neal on ABC’s The Real O’Neals — his first small-screen gig — and mentioned his own sexual orientation almost in passing.
“I have found that there is a very clear distinction between how young people view the show as opposed to older people who have gone through this,” he said at the time about the family comedy. “I’m gay myself, and I haven’t gone through a lot of the things that Kenny goes through in the series. I felt a little disconnected from it because I was experiencing these things again but I was like, ‘Is this … crazy new and groundbreaking?’”
Noah Galvin didn’t think much of saying those three words —“I’m gay myself” — two months ago. “I've been out since I was 14 years old,” he recently told BuzzFeed News over coffee at a sunny cafe in Studio City, California.
But when he left the press conference that day, Galvin was quickly reminded that, for many people, the idea of an openly gay actor playing a proudly out teenager on a network TV show is still something noteworthy. “I came off the stage and Twitter was ablaze with ‘Noah Galvin comes out at TCAs’ stories," he recalled with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I didn't come out to anybody. It was just new information to you.’”
Galvin is part of a generation that grew up with a previously unimaginable amount of LGBT representation in the mainstream media, from Degrassi and Glee to Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris. The importance of LGBT visibility has been a predominant motivation in many coming-out stories in the last 20 years, the logic being that kids are more likely or willing to embrace their own sexuality if they grow up seeing a larger number of LGBT performers and characters in the spotlight. So Galvin completely understands why his nonchalant approach to referencing his sexuality in such a public forum elicited a strong reaction, most notably from the older sect. “They are the generation that went through the bullshit in order for this show to be possible,” he said.
He notes, however, that not everyone in Hollywood shares his outlook on embracing one’s authentic self. “There is a certain level of closeted-ness among the male acting community here I experienced that doesn't exist in New York,” he said with palpable incredulity in his voice.
Galvin — who was raised in an artistic community in upstate New York — moved to New York City when he was 15 to audition for theater roles following a stint in a national tour of Les Misérables. Two years after the move, he began flying back and forth to Los Angeles to try out for television shows, with little success.
Then, in 2015, he landed the role of Kenny, the son of uber-Catholic Eileen (Martha Plimpton) and Pat (Jay R. Ferguson) who comes out to his family in the pilot episode. Kenny’s landmark moment is overshadowed, at first, by a trio of additional revelations: His introverted sister Shannon (Bebe Wood) has been stealing the money she raised for charity, his jock brother Jimmy (Matt Shively) is anorexic, and his parents are getting a divorce. This group confession notwithstanding, Galvin stressed that he and his character had very different coming-out experiences: “Mine was in a very liberal family and his was not.”
The connection between the show’s religious and sexuality-focused themes is one of Galvin’s biggest sources of pride when it comes to talking about The Real O’Neals. “He's gay and Catholic and has a relationship with God, and it's the others around him who need to accept it and get used to it,” he said. “It's a cool thing … to show kids that they can be religious and they can have a relationship with God regardless of their sexuality.”
The first three episodes of the series — which is loosely based on author and show executive producer Dan Savage’s childhood — not only tackled Kenny’s coming-out and his religious mother’s struggles with her son owning his sexuality, but most recently told the story of Kenny’s first date with a guy, Ricky (Garrett Clayton). In “The Real Lent,” which aired March 8, the date doesn’t go quite as hoped; however, the episode did feature a fantasy dance sequence between the two men that Galvin felt was significant.
"One of our showrunners showed her daughter the episode … and after she watched it, she stared at it for a little while and then asked to watch it again, because she had never seen two boys dance together,” he said, a smile exploding on his face. “I love that [people] can watch this on TV and it's going to be completely the norm. It's not going to be something that's an oddity. It's going to be a complete nonissue, and that's a really cool thing.”
Upcoming episodes chronicle some more firsts for Kenny — his first kiss, the first time he asks a boy to prom. It’s personally important to Galvin that the show continues to honor the romantic elements that are part of every teen's coming-of-age, not just gay teenagers. “There wasn't a lot of man-on-man or woman-on-woman affection on TV when I was growing up, and I'm excited for kids to see that,” said Galvin, citing Will & Grace and Modern Family as shows that have been criticized for failing to show realistic physical contact between the gay male characters. “Kenny's just like any kid going through adolescence, so I like the idea of him getting to ask a person out — it just happens to be a boy — and getting to have his first kiss — it just happens to be with a boy.”
It’s not lost on Galvin that he is now playing the kind of prominent gay character that the next generation of TV watchers may look to for comfort; that was why it was of particular urgency to him that a gay actor played the role of Kenny, so “it wasn’t an affectation.”
“You can't replicate the gay experience or the coming-out experience … to really understand that was so important to me,” he said, his hand unconsciously rapping against the table to emphasize his thought. “I have been given this amazing opportunity to tell the story of a young gay man coming out of the closet, and — even cooler — it’s not the story of a kid who is struggling with his sexuality. I'm excited for people to see that.”