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How Sean Hayes Came Out to His Family and Overcame His Mom’s Painful First Response

People logo People 1/10/2018 Jess Cagle
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Sean Hayes stars as the hilarious and confident gay man Jack McFarland on NBC’s Will & Grace. In the sitcom’s second go-around, his character attempted to break out his gay grandson from conversion camp, and coached the child on embracing his true self.

But growing up, Hayes didn’t always have that kind of support from his own family.

Sean Hayes wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera © Maarten de Boer/NBC/Getty “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,” the actor, 47, tells PEOPLE’s Editor-in-Chief Jess Cagle in the latest episode of The Jess Cagle Interview (streaming now on People TV). “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.”

It wasn’t until Hayes was 18 that he told his family he’s gay.

“It was 1988 when I came out,” he recalls. “It’s so cliché that it was during Thanksgiving weekend. My mom said I needed to go see a therapist. She wrote me a 10-page letter, both sides on legal pad size paper. ‘This is not what God …’ You know, the whole uneducated view of it.”

But eventually, she came around. “She became educated and had friends who [were] gay people,” Hayes says. “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.”

Now, Hayes — married to composer Scott Icenogle since 2014 — feels glad that LGBTQ youth can use his show as a frame of reference.

a man wearing a suit and tie © Neilson Barnard/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

“If you don’t have the words to explain it to your family, you can say, ‘Like Will & Grace,’ or ‘Like Ellen DeGeneres,’ ” or whosever out in a public,” the Chicago native says. “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.”

Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

Related slideshow: Stars who have come out (via Photo Services)


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