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How Bridgerton Was Inspired by Its Gay Creator's Rainbow Family

Bryan and Chris Van Dusen and their kids

Bridgerton — Netflix's hit period production about upper-class courtship in England's Regency era — is a world populated with sparkling balls, intricate courtship rituals, extravagant attire, and insidious gossip. And, apart from the Julia Quinn novels, there's a surprising inspiration for it: West Hollywood. 

"Definitely,” creator and showrunner Chris Van Dusen tells Out with a laugh when asked about a connection to queer cruising. “When the lords and the ladies are meeting each other and they're literally swiping left and right on these people, it's very much like modern dating on an app."

"In the writers’ room, we always try to find modern touchstones and relate those things," says Van Dusen, including in how gossip is spread. “We think of social media kind of like a modern-day corset in terms of it feeling a little stifling and a little hard to breathe sometimes." He also points to the classical arrangements of hits by Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift played for the ballroom guests as other winks to the present-day viewer. 

Van Dusen is no stranger to WeHo. He's been a resident of Los Angeles since 2001 when he began attending the University of Southern California's Peter Stark Producing Program. Beforehand, the Maryland native studied at Emory University in Atlanta. Although he was not out in his undergraduate institution, he was determined early on not to live a conventional life. “I remember all of my friends getting jobs on Wall Street and in finance, and the thought of doing that was just so utterly depressing to me," he confesses. 

In L.A., surrounded by other creatives, Van Dusen was able to come out as gay and find himself, a journey seen in his Bridgerton characters, who in addition to searching for love are on quests of self-discovery. Moving to the City of Angels gave him the confidence "to really figure out who I was and also perhaps pursue my passions…. Prior to coming here, I had never been around people who were so unapologetically living their lives as their true authentic selves," he says. 

In 2005, L.A. led Van Dusen to a job as an assistant for Shonda Rhimes for a show that would become Grey’s Anatomy. And a writing career was born. Van Dusen worked his way through Shondaland in Private Practice and Scandal before creating the television company's most successful series with Bridgerton; prior to Squid Game, it made history as Netflix's most-streamed program. Especially during lockdown, the world couldn't get enough of the mysterious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown and a cast of characters that, unusual for period productions, teemed with diversity. Emblematic of this shift, the queen herself — played by out actress Golda Rosheuvel — is a Black woman. 

The importance of diversity — a key component to Bridgerton's success — was a lesson Van Dusen learned firsthand from Rhimes, a pioneer in pushing representation forward in Hollywood. (She also serves as an executive producer on Bridgerton.) “I've always been interested in creating shows…that reflect the world that we live in today," Van Dusen says. 

"Part of the fun of Bridgerton is being able to do things and explore stories and create characters that you haven't necessarily seen before in this particular space,” he says. "I think if you look at the period genre, it is white, it is straight. It is a little conservative and traditional…. We wanted to take the genre and turn it on its head."

Van Dusen cites the queer film classic Edge of Seventeen and The Real World as important milestones in seeing himself reflected in media. With Bridgerton, he wanted “to marry history and fantasy” to give that gift to others. That the show also includes LGBTQ+ actors like Rosheuvel and Jonathan Bailey — who is breaking ground portraying the straight romantic lead of season 2, out March 25 — is the cherry on top. 

This representation isn't superficial. "I wanted the show to be glamorous and lavish, and I wanted to celebrate the beauty of this world," he says. "But beneath all of that, if you look a little more closely, I wanted there to be a 21st-century commentary on all kinds of issues…like gender and class and race and sexuality."

Van Dusen recognizes the importance of his own visibility as a gay showrunner helming one of the world's most-watched shows. He cites out creatives Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) and Greg Berlanti (Riverdale) as possibility models for telling LGBTQ+ stories on TV. "It really is about showing the world who we are, and I think that's especially important now more than ever…. We as [LGBTQ+] people are just as interesting and complicated and flawed and, above all, human as everyone else," he says. 

Bridgerton's world does include queer people a priority for Van Dusen — although that visibility was contained to a minor storyline in season 1 around the character of Sir Henry Granville (Julian Ovenden) and his friendship with one of the Bridgerton brothers, Benedict (Luke Thompson). For Van Dusen, this relationship was “a very important story of tolerance in an intolerant time,” he says. “We kind of scratched the surface in season 1. And hopefully, we're going to be able to expand on that even more in future seasons." 

Van Dusen has always been drawn to stories set in the Regency era, which spanned most of the early 19th century; the oeuvre of Jane Austen is a classic example. "It’s such a magical period of time,” says Van Dusen, who loves “the dancing and the costumes, the jewels and everything. And it s about an escape…and I think it's something that the world is really, really responding to... considering the difficult times we're all living through." 

As for Van Dusen's own romance, he met his husband to be, Bryan, through mutual friends at a now defunct WeHo gay bar, Here Lounge, in 2005. (The site is now the Chapel, an extension of the neighborhood s most famous queer watering hole, the Abbey.) The queen of the scene must have approved of the match; the pair wed in 2017 and now have three girls — a four-year-old and twins born last year — through surrogacy. 

"It's a full house over here. It's a little bit of a girl gang, which is interesting. It’s a wild ride,” says Van Dusen. His four-year-old “has taken a real interest” in his show, he shares. Although she has not seen it, “she just loves the idea that there's a princess."

Family is important to Van Dusen. The creative moved his husband and daughters to England for the filming of both seasons. When asked how he finds the "balance" to juggle work and family, he pushes back on the term. 

"I feel less concerned with the word balance and more concerned with whether I'm as present as I possibly can be during the times I'm with my husband and with my children," he says. "I think that that's definitely been an evolution for me. And I think, as a gay parent, I used to feel pressure to be the best and excel at everything that everyone once said was impossible…. There was a little bit of a sense that I had to prove all the naysayers wrong in a way. Since then, I've really had to look at what parenting means for me, and for my family…and what I've found is that parenting, it looks different for everyone, no matter who you are."

In fact, it's Van Dusen's loved ones who inspire the stories of family in Bridgerton. “[It's] very closely related to what s happening at home for me, he confirms. He calls his husband an important “sounding board” for story ideas, particularly during lockdown. Their relationship is “within the DNA, definitely of Bridgerton," he says. 

Like the Bridgertons, Van Dusen's family is "not perfect by any stretch of imagination,” he says. “But I like to think, in a way, that we're living our own happily ever after." 

Photography Michelle Marie 

This article is part of Out's March/April 2022 issue, appearing on newsstands April 5. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. 

Related | Bridgerton Queen Golda Rosheuvel Loves Her 'Joyous' Gay Life

Tags: Print, Television

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