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'Fellow Travelers' depicts gay love during the Lavender Scare

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

On election night in the 1950s, an ambitious, cynical State Department employee named Hawkins Fuller and an earnest political science nerd named Tim Laughlin meet at a bar in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FELLOW TRAVELERS")

MATT BOMER: (As Hawkins Fuller) What do you want?

JONATHAN BAILEY: (As Tim Laughlin) What?

BOMER: (As Hawkins Fuller) To drink.

BAILEY: (As Tim Laughlin) A glass of milk.

BOMER: (As Hawkins Fuller) What?

BAILEY: (As Tim Laughlin) Milk.

BOMER: (As Hawkins Fuller) Milk?

RASCOE: They couldn't be more different, yet they are instantly attracted to each other. But it's a dangerous time to be gay. McCarthyism is raging, and the Lavender Scare is in full swing. Despite it all, that chance meeting is the beginning of a relationship that will span decades. Their story is at the center of the new miniseries "Fellow Travelers." The show stars Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey. The cast also includes Jelani Alladin, Noah Ricketts and Allison Williams. And just a warning to listeners - this conversation will talk about sex. Ron Nyswaner is the creator of "Fellow Travelers." You might know him as the screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated film "Philadelphia." And he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

RON NYSWANER: Thanks, Ayesha. I'm really happy to be here.

RASCOE: What drew you to this project? Why did you want to make it now?

NYSWANER: Well, 11 years ago or so, I read Thomas Mallon's book "Fellow Travelers" and have tried and waited to get it made for all those years. That - the central relationship between Hawk and Tim, as you very well described it, to me is the essence of a great love story. People who sort of really are not meant for each other, and they're going to probably cause each other a lot of discomfort and pain, but they can't keep away from each other.

RASCOE: Well, let's talk about that because Tim and Hawk, they meet at the height of the Lavender Scare, when LGBTQ employees in the federal government were fired or forced to resign because of their identities. But both of them react in very different ways. Hawk chooses to keep his identity as a gay man hidden, and Tim wants to embrace their relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FELLOW TRAVELERS")

BOMER: (As Hawkins Fuller) Tim, what do you want?

BAILEY: (As Tim Laughlin) I want to be with you.

BOMER: (As Hawkins Fuller) OK, let's go inside.

BAILEY: (As Tim Laughlin) No. No, I want to be with you, sleep in the same bed with you all night, not get kicked out at midnight so the neighbors won't see me leaving in the morning. I want to eat a meal with you like other couples. We have never eaten in a restaurant. And men do eat in restaurants.

RASCOE: How do you balance that tension and, really, that pain, right?

NYSWANER: In dark times, my community, LGBTQ people, have found a way to have joy and pleasure. And in "Fellow Travelers," a lot of that pleasure comes from sex...

RASCOE: Yeah.

NYSWANER: ...And from connection. And I think that in the - certainly in the '50s and in the '40s, gay people were hiding themselves before the Lavender Scare. It's not as if they went into the closet when the State Department and the government started investigating and purging them. It was just that it was heightened because then it wasn't just sort of disappointing your family or maybe getting arrested. It was your career and your life would be ruined.

RASCOE: You mentioned finding connection through sex. And let me tell you, this show - it's not for the children. It's not for...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Not the literal children. It's quite steamy. You went there.

NYSWANER: Yeah, we did. We really did. And Mr. Mallon's book actually features sex in the same way that we do, which is that our rules about the sex scenes were that they always had to move the story forward. So we didn't say, hey, we're 20 minutes into an episode. Let's show some beautiful bodies. You know, that wasn't - it was never like that. And also, you know, Oscar Wilde said, everything in life is about sex except for sex. Sex is about power. And one of the rules that we had is that every sex scene is about power, is a power dynamic.

RASCOE: It is 2023, but even now, I think TV has come a long way in their depictions of gay romance and LGBTQ romance. But was there any, at all, pushback on the idea of like, we are going to show men having sex and doing what they do in the same way that we show heterosexual couples all the time?

NYSWANER: There was no pushback, I have to say, from the studio or network. As a matter of fact, there was encouragement. And the president of the studio, Fremantle Studio, said, let's make the sex between these guys so hot that straight men watching it will want to have gay sex.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

NYSWANER: Now, I have to say, I haven't yet been approached by a straight man who says...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

NYSWANER: ...Hey, I'm one of those guys. But anyway, if there are any out there listening, you know, I'm available. But for me, when I came out of the closet in 1977, '78, you know, sexual connections to another human being was much more than pleasure, although it was pleasure. It was, I am finding myself. I am finding joy in connecting to someone just like me. This thing that I have hidden - I'm opening it up so thoroughly that I can have this powerful, intimate connection with other men.

RASCOE: I mentioned earlier Jelani Alladin and Noah Ricketts. They play a Black newspaper reporter and a drag queen who fall in love with each other.

NYSWANER: Yes.

RASCOE: What did you think about depicting their relationship?

NYSWANER: Well, you know, I wanted there to be Black characters in this story. And so they are invented for the show. But everything in the show is meticulously researched. So, you know, how do I sort of have a Black character be part of Hawk and Tim's world? The Black press was really very vital and active in the '50s. And so we found models for a character of Marcus, who is played by Jelani Alladin. But, you know, I wanted all my characters to be flawed and have dilemmas. One of the other rules on "Fellow Travelers" was there are no noble victims in "Fellow Travelers." It's not just about the oppression from the government. It's about the oppression that we put on ourselves. And Marcus' ambition is in conflict with his gay self. And then when he falls in love with Frankie, who is a drag queen - and we follow them for the same 33 years that we follow Hawk and Tim. And it was just joyful adventure.

RASCOE: There are younger generations who maybe don't know about the Lavender Scare or don't realize the impact of the AIDS epidemic and what that did and what that was. Did you think about those younger generations who would be looking at this and don't know this?

NYSWANER: Well, of course. I mean, every writer in my writer's room was younger than I was, some by at least a generation. And all of the actors who play LGBTQ characters are LGBTQ people. So I actually - there was education from my lived experience to impart to these younger people. When we're in dark times - and it feels like a dark time right now - we often feel despair. And we hear people say, like, nothing has improved. We're just right where we always were. It's - this is worse than ever. Well, it's not in terms of LGBTQ history. It's not darker than it's ever been. And there have been dark times before. And not only did we survive, but we - like, in the AIDS crisis, we changed medicine. We changed the world through that crisis. But in all these dark times, LGBTQ people have found a way to have joy, to have pleasure, to dance, to sing, to make art and to make love. And that's what I really want people to remember. Don't sink into despair. Struggle with joy.

RASCOE: That's Ron Nyswaner. He is the creator of "Fellow Travelers." The series is available now on Showtime. Thank you for joining me.

NYSWANER: Really my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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