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From McCarthy to AIDS, Fellow Travelers Shows a Familiar Queer Fight

From McCarthy to AIDS, Fellow Travelers Shows a Familiar Queer Fight

From McCarthy to AIDS, Fellow Travelers Shows a Familiar Queer Fight

On the upcoming Showtime limited series, Out cover stars Matt Bomer, Jonathan Bailey, Jelani Alladin, and Noah J. Ricketts formed found family while portraying decades of queer life.

Starting in 1950, hundreds to thousands of gay men and lesbians were fired from government jobs for allegations of homosexuality under the intrusive eyes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn. They were labeled deviants and morally weak. McCarthy and Cohn said that gay people couldn’t be trusted with your children, let alone to run your country. It’s shockingly similar to what’s happening today.

By 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which barred homosexuals from working in the federal government. Five thousand people were not just fired but were outed to their families and communities, effectively and in some cases literally ending their lives. More followed. It wasn’t until the 1970s that this policy barring gay people from federal jobs started to change, and not until 1998 that it completely ended.

In Fellow Travelers, an eight-episode series airing on Showtime this fall, actors Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey play Hawk Fuller and Tim Laughlin, two men who meet while working in Washington, D.C., at the start of McCarthyism. They fall in love. For Hawk, this means living an existence of discipline and barriers, hiding who he is so he can build a life working in the government. For Tim, it means losing his career and finding a path that allows him to follow his truth.

KING AND TUCKFIELD Collar Trim Open Placket Polo Pants and Jacket; CATHCART HERITAGE Olive King Cole Trousers and Peak Lapel Jacket; SEBAGO Shoes

In order to survive, Hawk and Tim form a chosen family with two other gay men swept up in the big political and cultural changes happening: journalist Marcus Hooks (Jelani Alladin) and drag-queen-turned-activist Frankie Hines (Noah J. Ricketts). Throughout the four decades covered in the series, the four men come back into each other’s lives when things get hardest. For the four out stars of the show, forming that kind of found family was important in order to be able to play some of the most complex and challenging (but rewarding) roles of their careers. That family found its leader in Bomer, a veteran actor (Magic Mike, The Normal Heart). Bailey, an English actor with an extensive background in theater, is internationally famous as the male lead in season 2 of Netflix’s Bridgerton. Alladin (Frozen) and Ricketts (Frozen, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) are known for their Broadway roles.

“Matt is such a giver, and he gave to all of us and provided the space for all of us to feel safe, to feel that we can make bold choices and that we can all play along,” Alladin says, thanking Bomer. “And it really connected everybody on set to say, to trust each other. Rarely do I feel like there’s a circle of four queer men or four queer bodies and I feel like we can all say, ‘I would fall on a sword for you.’”

For Bomer and Bailey, that also meant building the kind of trust that allowed them to film some sex scenes that are among the hottest in the careers of two men who have filmed a lot of heated moments. “It’s funny, isn’t it? Personally, when I read the script, I didn’t think it was explicit,” Bailey laughs. “I think it’s so important. You can’t tell the queer love story and not show how the sex is so intrinsic.”

“It’s all something that is hard to talk about to people who come together and have separate bodies,” he adds. “But if you exist in the same body, how you negotiate that and what that means, how being submissive [affects sex], and well, really what is kink…. It’s all a thing. I just think it’s a really hearty and honest examination of something which I know I’ve always yearned to see properly explored.”

CATHCART HERITAGE Cotton Flannel Camp Shirt (; LEVI’S Jeans; PAUL SMITH Foster Shiny Silver Glasses; DIOR Chelsea Boot; OMEGA Watch

Bomer says they were able to explore that because they had conversations throughout filming the scenes. “We could call audibles on the fly or really communicate with each other or say we wanted to try this or that, so it all felt pretty free,” he says. “And in terms of the story, all those scenes really carry the story forward. Their relationships are not the same after those above scenes as they were before. So they’re all intrinsic and inherent to the story.”

“I think it’s so nuanced and personal, isn’t it? The way that people have sex is so presumed,” Bailey says. “It definitely was the first time that I’ve seen a light being shown on the roles within a gay relationship and power and status with being submissive and dominant.”

“But to me, what I find interesting, it’s a give and take between the two,” he continues. “So actually it’s not one person going, ‘I’m now going to do this.’ It’s like they move as a unit. And I think that’s beautiful. And I feel like it always is negotiation, and I’m always interested in people who identify as one role, and I would wonder what that is.”

Matt - KING AND TUCKFIELD Collar Trim Open Placket; CATHCART HERITAGE Olive King Cole Trousers and Peak Lapel Jacket SEBAGO Shoes // Jelani - ELANI PRONOUNCE Camel Overcoat; RALPH LAUREN Knit Polo; RICHARD JAMES Pants; MAXIME Shirt; EDWARD SEXTON Tie; GRENSON ShoesJonathan - JOHN LAWRENCE SULLIVAN Long Lavender Corduroy Overcoat; EDWARD SEXTON Shirt and Tie; POLO RALPH LAUREN Pants; CROCKETT AND JONES Shoes // Noah - DIOR Full Look; HERMES Lug Sole Boot; PANTHERELLA Laburnum Merino Wool 5x3 Ribbed Men’s Socks

He points to the first time Hawk and Tim have sex, where Hawk takes on the dominant (top) role, and the last time, when Tim takes charge. “Literally, it’s a complete reversal,” he points out. “It’s a love story. So that bleeds into these scenes. So even in the way they have sex, it’s always about generosity and communication. And that is essentially how I feel how this whole show was made on generosity and communication and truth.”

While the sexual intimacy is groundbreaking in the show, the intimacy is there for the characters in other ways too. Because the actors played the characters throughout four decades of their lives, they were presented with a unique opportunity to showcase development — especially for Alladin and Ricketts, who know the importance of showing Black queer love on screen.

“There’s also something so powerful in telling this story to the world right now in hope of either educating or simply revealing to those who don’t understand that love can happen in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and be inside of all people,” Alladin says. “And that it should not be something that is limited by law or limited by the venom of segregation.”

“For me, some of the intimacy that I enjoy the most in this series is when we’re all old,” he continues. “Because they’re still caring for one another. I’ll never forget shooting that scene in the bedroom in one of the later episodes where we’re at age 80 and we’re still connected, we’re still loving each other. That’s something I’ve never seen — caring that lasts through decades.”


For Ricketts, playing the role of a Black gay man who is a drag performer in an illegal gay bar in the ’50s and then becomes an activist and organizer throughout the rest of his life, caused him to look at his own life and priorities.

“I think there’s something so beautiful and beautifully hard about being yourself in a world that is determined to hate you,” Ricketts says. “And playing Frankie, a character that was out and loud and proud with a glossy lip and a painted nail. It really forced me to look inward at the way I moved through the world and see if I’m coming out authentically, if I’m moving in the world authentically. And so I hope that as people watch this, they ask themselves that question so we can break down these barriers of hypermasculinity and feeling like we have to change who we are to subscribe to societal norms.”

“I think living out loud and living as an effeminate person in the world, you put on a type of armor,” he continues. “There is a lot of fear underneath that. And even though to the external world, you’re going out there being brave, what I tried to show was that it’s actually a really difficult thing to stand up and be yourself. There’s a lot of emotion underneath that. And so I think throughout the years, you beat someone down one time and you get stronger the next time. And I think that’s what you see in Frankie’s evolution.”

“It’s amazing to see how much [Frankie’s] priorities shift as the world shifts through the decades. And I think that’s what I responded to so much, is that my character Frankie gives up, puts his heels away to fight the good fight and to make a better existence for the people that come after him,” he says. “And I think that’s something that’s so real for queer people that it’s a call to action. We don’t have the luxury of hanging back. We have to fight for everything that we have.”

DIOR Full Look; HERMES Lug Sole Boot; PANTHERELLA Laburnum Merino Wool 5x3 Ribbed Men’s Socks

That fight became even more real for each of the actors the more they learned about the real Lavender Scare — the aforementioned persecution of queer people in the U.S. government — a history lesson that’s not taught in most schools. “I had no idea it was a thing, and I was embarrassed by that,” Alladin admits. “I was ashamed of that. Why was that chapter skipped in the history books? Why not in social studies class? It is 101, and here we are staring in the mirror being like, Well, did anything change? Well, no. Because we didn’t teach it. We haven’t taught it. So therefore, how can you learn the lesson?”

“I think there’s so much erasure that happens of queer history in general that I’m happy this exists because it forces people to ask the question, Did this really happen? And to seek out answers for themselves,” Ricketts adds. “And the answer is, ‘Yeah, it’s real.’ And it’s happening again today. So yeah, call to action, babies!”

“A lot of the transformations that we’ve seen in the community come from Black and brown bodies that really put themselves out on the street and out on the front lines to fight the fight. And so that’s something that I knew, but it’s amazing to see that it didn’t just happen at Stonewall, it happened in San Francisco and other places with the street queens, that they were out there really going to jail, fighting for their lives so that we could have what we have today,” he says. “And I just think it’s so beautiful to show that. I’m happy that it’s represented.”

Before the July photo shoot for this article, Alladin and Bailey had the chance to go to London Pride together, something both actors say they’ll never forget. “I think it was really crazy to have to experience Pride in New York City and to land in London and experience Pride in London and feel that it’s almost exactly the same,” Alladin says. “There’s a need to release joy. There’s a need to feel that. The world is trying to squish it out of the community with every law that’s being passed, every kind of denial of existence. And you’re like, I just want to enjoy one day.”

Bailey says that working on the show has made him more aware of the political fervor at Pride than any time he’s been previously, and it’s causing him to examine how he uses his platform to fight for LGBTQ+ rights. And Bomer also felt that this year’s Pride was a special one — particular in the wake of Supreme Court decisions that struck down affirmative action and opened the door to businesses discriminating against LGBTQ+ people.

“In light of the past week in all the Supreme Court rulings, it was so important for me personally yesterday just to go out into the streets and take in the Pride celebrations and the sense of community and hope and joy and love that everyone was feeling,” he says. “And to allow that to fill my cup a little bit and inspire me to educate myself and form myself to do what I can and keep moving forward and in the most productive way possible for our community.”

Jelani - MAXIME Coat and Shirt; GIVENCHY Shorts; DIOR Socks; GRENSON Shoes // Matt - VALENTINO Coat, Shirt and Tie; FENDI Pants and Shoes; MATT’S OWN Sunglasses Noah - GIVENCHY Full Look // Jonathan - GIVENCHY Coat; RICHARD JAMES Suit; PEOPLE OF ALL NATIONS Shirt; HERMES Tie and Shoes; GENTLE MONSTER Sunglasses

Bomer also wants to make sure he honors those who fought to get us where we are today. “I was fortunate enough to be in Houston last week for the 20th anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas [the SCOTUS ruling invalidating U.S. sodomy laws], and it was so profound for me to meet members of the community in Houston who I was totally unaware of,” he says. “There are generations of heroes who are doing the real grassroots behind-the-scenes work who don’t want accolades, who don’t want awards, who are doing the real work that’s changing all of our lives. And I think I value that today more than I ever have before.”

“For me, I think Pride is always a time to reflect on how far we’ve come but also to realize how much further we have to go,” Ricketts says. “And I think that’s what I’d say to the younger communities, is really understand and know how we got here in the first place and figure out what your form of fighting is. If it’s just showing up in the world authentically as you, that’s wonderful. If it’s getting on a podium and preaching until midnight, that’s wonderful too. But we all need each other and no one can sit back and rest. We have to keep fighting in the fight.”

Talking about queer joy as a form of activism at Pride makes Alladin think of a note he was given during filming from series creator Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) about the balance of difficulty and joy found in the series.

“Ron gave me a note one day,” Alladin recalls. “I texted him being like, ‘I’m watching all this research on the ’80s and the AIDS crisis and I’m just sitting here crying.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, but Jelani, I still went to birthday parties. I still found a way to play games with my friends. I still found a way to have a beer and enjoy that.’ So there is still some semblance of light being found in darkness and chaos.”

“When I was in Houston, I was at home with one of the activists and he was showing me pictures from the time period,” Bomer contributes. “And obviously, there was so much heartbreak and loss, but there was also so much celebration and so much joy. It’s really the balance.”

Fellow Travelers premieres October 27 on Showtime. This cover story is part of the Out September/October issue, available on newsstands August 29. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

This interview and cover shoot were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Cover Image Credits: Jonathan - MAXIME Suit; EDWARD SEXTON Shirt; MANOLO BLAHNIK Shoes; THE LONDON SOCK CO. Socks; SCOTCH AND SODA Sunglasses; JONATHAN’S OWN Necklace // Noah - GIVENCHY Vest; SIMONE ROCHA Pants; MAXIME Shoes; ROCKINS Scarf // Jelani - TORON Shirt and Pants; MALONE SOULIERS Shoes; A SINNER IN PEARLS Necklace // Matt - KING AND TUCKFIELD Knit and Pants; HERMES Shoes

Lead Image Credits: Noah - GIVENCHY Full Look // Jelani - MAXIME Coat and Shirt; GIVENCHY Shorts; DIOR Socks; GRENSON Shoes // Matt - VALENTINO Coat, Shirt and Tie; FENDI Pants and Shoes; MATT’S OWN Sunglasses // Jonathan - GIVENCHY Coat; RICHARD JAMES Suit; PEOPLE OF ALL NATIONS Shirt; HERMES Tie and Shoes; GENTLE MONSTER Sunglasses

photographer JASON HETHERINGTON at Serlin Associates @jasonhetheringtonstudio
photographer’s assistants ALFIE BUNGAY & ADHAM ELNASHAI @alfie_bungay
digi tech ANDY MAYFIELD @andy__may_
stylist MICHAEL MILLER at Stella Creative Artists @millermode
stylist’s assistants LACIE GITTINS @laciegittins & ALANA NEWTON @alananewton_
matt bomer groomer CIONA JOHNSON-KING using Armani and Kevin Murphy @ciona.johnson.king
jonathan bailey groomer LARA PRENTICE using Emma Hardie & Oribe
jelani alladin & noah ricketts groomer MAARIT NIEMELA using Amika and Augustinus Bader @maaritniemela_hair_
maarit niemala’s assistant LACHLAN WIGNALL @lachlan_hair
videographer OMARI BRYAN

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Mey Rude

Mey Rude is a journalist and cultural critic who has been covering queer news for a decade. The transgender, Latina lesbian lives in Los Angeles with her fiancée.

Mey Rude is a journalist and cultural critic who has been covering queer news for a decade. The transgender, Latina lesbian lives in Los Angeles with her fiancée.