Sean Hayes: When I came out my mom told me to see a therapist

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In 2017, a bunch of celebrities came out as gay, bisexual or transgender, including True Blood’s Rutina Wesley, 13 Reasons Why star Brandon Flynn, Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser and even Barry Manilow (was anyone really surprised about that?). While it can be a difficult thing to reveal to the public, it can be even harder to come out to family and friends, as evidenced by the experience Sean Hayes went through as a teenager.

Sean, 47, plays Jack on Will and Grace. (Side note: if you’re not yet watching the revival, catch last week’s episode with guest star Nick Offerman. You’re welcome). Sean spoke with PEOPLE’s Jess Cagle about returning to the show, his relationship with his husband of three years, Scott Icenogle, and telling his family he was gay.

Sean grew up in Glen Ellen, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He was the youngest of five kids, and was raised by his mother after his father left when Sean was a child. He recalled that although he had what he described as a “fun childhood,” “We had to parent ourselves…it was chaos all of the time.” He also shared that “my mother loved me very much and it gave me the confidence I have today.”

It was his love for the theater that planted the seeds for Sean’s eventual coming out. Sean said, “I kept it hidden, the fact that I was in high school plays, from my brothers and my family because this is 1986, being gay then was different.” He went on to say, “I kind of knew I was, but not quite yet. I associated, like society taught me, that theater was for gays, and it was for sissies, and things like that. Things that you were taught to be ashamed of.”

When Sean reached the age of 18, which he remembered was “early” for the time, he finally told his family. He recalled, “It was 1988 when I came out. It’s so cliché that it was during Thanksgiving weekend.” (Sean must have also been thinking of the 1995 movie Home for the Holidays, because that’s the first thing that popped into my mind when he said this.) Unfortunately, Sean didn’t get the reaction he was hoping for. He remembered that “My mom said I needed to go see a therapist. She wrote me a 10-page letter, both sides on legal pad-sized paper. ‘This is not what God…’ You know, the whole uneducated view of it.”

Fortunately for Sean, his mother came to accept her son’s homosexuality. According to him, “She became educated and had friends who [were] gay people. She was like, ‘Oh I see. You’re just like me,’ and all that. It became fine and wonderful, and then she became so supportive and awesome.” While acceptance has become more common among friends and families of LBGTQ people, Sean noted that “We have tons of work to do still. People still don’t quite understand.” He went on to say that he’s glad to have shows like Will and Grace (and The Real O’Neals, which was awesome and canceled before it’s time) that kids can use to help better explain their own decision to come out to their families. “There’s so many more examples now to help people and give them tools to communicate to kids and their families that being gay is as normal as being straight. There’s no difference.”

If you have 38 minutes to spare, the whole interview is quite interesting, especially if you’re a fan like me. For someone who kept himself closeted so long professionally, I’m glad Sean is still committed to helping increase the representation of LBGTQ characters in entertainment and I’m glad he shared his story. If it helped even one kid come out, it was well worth it. Also, if you’re going to take a photo with Tom Hanks, do like Sean did at the Golden Globes and make it epic.

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38 Responses to “Sean Hayes: When I came out my mom told me to see a therapist”

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  1. Lolo86lf says:

    My mom told me that I needed hormones when I came out. Her priest told her that it was okay for me to be attracted to men, but not to have sex with them.

    • Eveil says:

      I’m sorry. ❤️

    • Beth says:

      Now the vice-president thinks getting some counseling will make homosexuals become straight. Ugh. I hope you never let your mother or her priest get in the way of who you are

    • elimaeby says:

      Oh, do I relate. When I came out to my mom as bi shortly after Ellen came out and it was a national discussion, she said [read this with the most Midwest Mom accent you can think of], “Oh, well that’s okay; you still like men. Just don’t sleep with women and you’re okay with God. Pastor so-and-so said gay feelings are okay, just don’t act on them.” Long story short, God is mad at me a few times over. I’m sorry you had to deal with bigotry.

      • jwoolman says:

        Remember that old poster with a kid on it , saying something like “God made me and God don’t make junk”? I think that might apply….

        Also sweetly asking “What would Jesus do?” might work. (Stopped my aunt in her tracks when she was saying how we have to bomb people to protect ourselves.) Jesus was known for hanging out with a lot of people rejected by the mainstream. Financial crimes and sins against children were what got him riled up.

        People have to get to the point of understanding that our sexuality is really very much based on our body chemistry and is not something we choose deliberately, and also that people attracted to their own sex are no more likely to be pedophiles than people attracted to the other sex. I saw the same phenomenon when a family member was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I had to explain the physical and chemical realities of how our brains work to other family members repeatedly, since they assumed it was all in his head and not real and he could talk himself out of it if he just tried.

        Obviously nature leans much more toward bisexual or heterosexual to keep the species going. But apparently a certain percentage of people have always felt that chemically induced tug toward their own sex. It has to be a natural variation. Children’s hormones start working much earlier than puberty, so kids sensitive to what their bodies are telling them may very well realize which sex they are attracted to long before they are ready to do anything about it. People really need to shift toward focusing on what makes for healthy relationships rather than on who is having sex with whom. I’ve used that argument with Christians, pointing out that so many heterosexual pairings are abusive and they have a lot of work to do on that issue in their churches. Ask whether a couple is kind to each other and not abusive and don’t worry about what’s inside their pants or what they do in bed.

        As I once pointed out to a startled colleague who was insisting that homosexuality just wasn’t natural: “Cats do it, so it must be natural.” Really. Cats are an important frame of reference for me.

        One cat in my house was lesbian. She was a 1 or 2 year old stray who had given birth within the past 2 or 3 months, according to the vet. She was totally uninterested in the local tomcat’s calling card but got all chirpy and mooney-eyed and vibrating whenever the young spayed female bounced through the cat door for a snack. The object of her affection was annoyed at first, thinking her snack was in jeopardy, but turned around on the matter when she discovered that the Happy Hooker would vibrate faster if whacked on the backside with a paw. Was really disappointed when Happy Hooker was finally spayed and stopped reacting. They remained close, though. The former Happy Hooker resisted a collar until I switched hers with the object of her affection (who didn’t even notice collars). Smelled heavenly, I assume. The vet said all this was perfectly normal. Cats are pretty loose about sex. A cat in heat will get mooney-eyed etc. with a human target if no other cat is available. My lesbian cat was following me around before she fell in love with the backside whacker.

    • Sabrine says:

      It was about 15 years ago my son told me he was gay. It took me by surprise but not for long. I adore his partner who is trans-gender. They are so good to me, bringing me food after I had surgery, helping with yard work, being wonderful overall. I just shake my head in disbelief when I hear about parents throwing their gay/trans child out on the streets to fend for themselves.

    • Otaku Fairy says:

      The ‘mental illness’ card and the ‘damage from abuse’ card are often equally handy tools for those who are unwilling to take a critical look at themselves and their views about sexuality and gender. It’s a way to pass prejudice off as ‘concern’ and reinforce inequality as ‘the natural order’.

    • LizLemonGotMarried says:

      I’m so sorry. My parents believe this too, and one of their pastor’s is a celibate gay man who talks about using celibacy as the Christian coping mechanism for homosexual sin. It’s incredibly depressing.
      I’m bi, straight passing as I’m married to a man, and I’m closeted with family. At this point in my life, I just get on my soapbox and yell from the rooftops about LGBTQ+ issues, but both my parents have weak hearts and I am their only child and I just don’t want to give either one a heart attack and kill them by coming out. I wish I was kidding.

  2. damejudi says:

    Corey, I apologize for being nit-picky, but in Illinois the town is Glen Ellyn.

    • elimaeby says:

      Chicago native; came here to say the same. Beat me to it.

    • Esmom says:

      It may be more diverse/tolerant now, not sure, but that probably made coming out even harder — Glen Ellyn was (is?) extremely conservative. It makes me sad to think he had to hide his high school theater performances from his family. I find it so inspiring to see teens creating and performing in the arts, gives me hope for the future. He was probably really great in his roles, too.

    • Dolkite says:

      I always think of Glen Ellyn as the place they filmed “Lucas.”

  3. Realitycheck says:

    It’s so sad how people use religion to educate themselves about issues only science is meant to explain. Science and biology.

    • dappadaph says:

      There is nothing wrong with religion, as a matter of fact, it has been with us for thousands of years. What’s wrong is when members of certain religions become fanatical about their religion then uses their own interpretations to use it in a racist, bigoted, over the top manner.

      • realitycheck says:

        Because it has been used for thousands of years is the problem, the era for which religion served a purpose is no more The interpretation of these scriptures is so subjective . Its not just fanatics, religion does not allow people to use their brain logically, they rely on God and prayer.

      • Otaku Fairy says:

        I’m with realitycheck. Fanatics have exploited religion to justify bigotry, violence, and all kinds of attacks on human rights, but it’s hard to deny that there are parts of the world’s major religions that are inherently homophobic and sexist.

      • SK says:

        I think there is a lot wrong with religion! But it exists and that’s something I must accept, it seems to be a psychological phenomenon with most cultures having a creation story of some sort… personally Im an atheist and i am working on being tolerant about religion, it’s hard for me but I know it’s important

    • I rarely comment but... says:

      I am Christian. I love science and I love my religion. I believe that for the most part the two things can coexist beautifully. I can only speak to Christianity because it is what I am most familiar with but I don’t get people sometimes. Our ENTIRE religion is based on believing that Jesus was born to spread the word of God which was basically God is love. That he was a forgiving God, to love everyone and judge nobody because we are not God. It bugs me so much when people use the bible as a way to spread hate because our religion is really the message of God through Jesus and then they’re like but let’s read about the all punishing, never forgiving God for the gays and the loose women.

      • jwoolman says:

        People just use whatever weapon is handy to control others. It’s a common human sin and often is combined with group think in all areas of the world.

        It’s not just about what we think of as organized religion. Taboos and bad luck beliefs are a common manifestation – such as the place in Madagascar where twins are considered such bad luck that the mother is ostracized if she refuses to part with one of them or both. Another place somewhere in Africa has or had a taboo about whether the child’s first tooth is in the upper or lower part of the mouth. Have the first tooth erupt in the wrong place and you are marked for death, and this is enforced by the elders. One woman was interviewed for a documentary and many years later was still terribly traumatized because the old men came to take her baby away from her, since she was unable to hide his little tooth (as many parents tried to do). She bore other children, but still greatly mourned the loss of that one. Think of attitudes toward girl children, who were left to die in ancient times and are still discarded today, and who may be underfed and not given medical attention when resources are scarce. Whenever you see an imbalance between males and females among older children, that is a likely cause. Girls are sturdier in the womb, and more of us make it to birth under natural circumstances. We have more stamina after birth, also.

        There really is no support in the Old or New Testament for fearful attitudes toward people in homosexual relationships and other sexual matters. I don’t think it was a big issue at that time. The story of Onan is about not fulfilling an obligation to impregnate your dead brother’s wife. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about inhospitality to strangers (the hero went rather overboard offering to toss his daughters to the crowd to protect the visitors, though). Jesus didn’t seem to address it. If Paul said something in his letters (Epistles), well, that’s just Paul. Not the most flexible and tolerant guy in the world.

        I wonder if the early Christians got the idea in their head that homosexual relationships were part of other religions at the time, in particular non-monotheistic ones, and so they needed to distinguish themselves. Maybe the same thing happened earlier or later with Jews, and Christians originally started out as Jews (conversion to Judaism before baptism was common until Paul got involved and the religion spread beyond Palestine). Islam draws heavily on Jewish and Christian traditions, they really are all related.

        But the problem in such matters and others really is not with the basic religious framework, which can support the tolerant as easily as the bigots and the peaceful as easily as the belligerent. People just naturally try to justify their cultural choices any way they can, and formal religion is an easy weapon to cultivate for social reasons. Here in the US people also use twisted ideas about patriotism and idolatrous devotion to the flag to beat up on anybody different from themselves.

  4. FHMom says:

    I think seeing a therapist is always good advice. That letter must have hurt a lot, but i’m glad his mom came around. I can’t believe he is 47. Everyone on the Will and Grace reboot looks so stinking good

  5. jaylee says:

    My step mother was in complete shock when Barry Manilow came out. She also fell madly in love with Adam Lambert when he was on American Idol. I told her he only likes men but she was not trying to hear that!

  6. SoulSPA says:

    I still don’t understand the connection between mainstream religions like Christianity and Islam and Judaism maybe?? with all their branches versus vilification of gay. Does it only have to do with reproduction? And control of women in the sense women need men to be controlled (historically speaking) thus men and woman, no men and men or women and women? Reproduction and a form of control of women and their sexuality? I mean, I don’t know any society where homosexuality was accepted historically except for ancient Greece. Then Christianity came. I am sticking to Europe and the Middle East plus countries where the mainstream religions rule.

    • Turtle says:

      That’s a big question. Just remember one thing: When you state, “I don’t know any society where homosexuality was accepted historically except for ancient Greece,” you are referring to textbooks and historical records written by conservative, fanatically religious straight white men who wrote out anything they didn’t like. So, no gay people, no people of color, no accomplishments by women except in service to men. There are huge, huge gaps in the historical record because most of the records were written by fanatically religious heterosexual white men. This continues to this day.

      • SoulSPA says:

        Yes, I agree with all you said about the gaps in historical records. But still my question regarding religion vs homosexuality in mainstream religions. I particularly mentioned ancient Greece before Christianity arrived in Europe.

      • jwoolman says:

        Christianity in particular has been around for about 2000 years, Judaism much longer than that, and Islam a few hundred years less than Christianity. But they all are related religions and coexisted in the same regions of the world. So if some shift happened to one, I wouldn’t be surprised if the other two were similarly influenced. Antagonism toward homosexual relationships would be such a shift.

        Maybe they were trying to distinguish themselves from non-monotheists. Maybe the Christians in particular were heavily influenced by one of the off-beat religions they shared the Roman Catacombs with (they certainly picked up their ideas about an afterlife from such underground neighbors, since that was not a Jewish emphasis and Christians originally were Jews). So looking at the details of those other persecuted religions in ancient Rome might give a clue.

        Some bias toward heterosexuality is simply due to the drive to have grandchildren….. But Ancient Greece was certainly not the only culture tolerant of homosexual relationships, although a different dynamic was also involved there (in particular, the attitude that women were inferior though needed for procreation, and that sexual/intellectual relationships with boys or men was superior since those penises made them naturally superior). Also homosexual activity is a rite of passage for males in quite a few old societies. I chalk that one up to male preoccupation with their genitals, since they have them in front of them all the time.

        But a lot of cultures and religions around the world don’t seem to have made a big deal about homosexual preferences. Certainly those didn’t preclude procreation, since marriage was pretty much a business transaction until fairly recently in human history.

  7. chlo says:


  8. Mumzy says:

    After her letter, therapy was an excellent next step.

  9. Malificent says:

    Hey Corey, Sean’s hometown is spelled Glen Ellyn.

  10. Milla says:

    He came out during AIDS witch hunt, it was gay disease and homophobia was high, tnx to uneducated doctors and media.

    But the same shit keeps happening now, and there will always be some reason not to be supportive. But if you think about it, the only thing parent should want is a happy and healthy child. We abuse religion and create new stories, despite that first rule of every religion is not to judge.

  11. momoffour says:

    It was a different time then. I grew up in a very religious community and my best friend came out as gay after college (we are both 43). It’s shocking to think about Now but she was completely condemned and her family actually disowned her. I remembering struggling so much with whether I could keep the friendship because of “her decisions.” Society has been on such a learning curve. I learned a lot from my friend and I’m forever grateful she didn’t ditch me- when really I should have been ditched. Even though it’s ancient history, aboit a year ago I sat her down and deeply apologized for my response to her coming out. she said she understands bc she felt the same thing about her gayness- that God hated it. It’s really hard to overcome what you have learned your whole life. It takes time and loving another person willing to teach you.

    • Turtle says:

      I came out in 1994 and was disowned by my mother. She died resentful that I caused strife in the family. My father came around, for the most part, but there are still relatives to this day who think I somehow caused her diabetes to kill her by coming out. Some people just do NOT want to change their minds, no matter what evidence is in front of them.

      • Otaku Fairy says:

        I’m sorry you were treated that way. It’s shocking that someone would blame your mother’s struggles with diabetes on you coming out.

  12. SoulSPA says:

    I got a comment on this article deleted or it went to spam. I’ll try to say something again but more moderately because I am very upset when I hear the words “gay” and “therapy” together. Sorry, I don’t understand how “therapy” is good advice. Therapy for whom and for what?

    • Shelly says:

      Therapy to deal with his mom not accepting him and writing a huge letter telling him why.
      The therapy would be to get over the fact his mother is a unsupportive b*tch

  13. adastraperaspera says:

    Yeah, my family put me in the hospital for a week, doing every test the docs could think of to figure out what my “problem” was. That was in the early 1980s, and my family was fundamentalist Christian. Fortunately, the docs told them nothing was wrong with me, except that I seemed “angry.” Gee, wonder why? Thankfully, I moved away and lived an actually normal, lesbian life mainly in coastal cities. Glad that Sean went on to do a show like “Will and Grace,” which definitely helped clear the way for laws to change.

    • Turtle says:

      I’m sorry that happened to you. It just shatters my heart to think of all of my LGBT brothers and sisters who had the same thing happen to them and couldn’t get away and live their own lives. You’re right about “W&F” and Ellen DeGeneres causing society to change, but it is infuriating that it had to be TV shows before people thought, “OH, you mean gay people are people, too?”