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Actor's life now scripted for reality

He doesn't really want to tell me about it.

But when you've spent a lifetime learning to love your life as a gay man, the last thing you want to do is start hedging with a reporter from your hometown newspaper.

So Robert Gant sighs, and tells me how his conservative mother discovered her perfect son's sexual orientation by overhearing a telephone call in their Tampa home years ago, while he was agonizing over a breakup with his first serious boyfriend.

"Let's say all hell broke loose," said Gant, 34, a hunky actor now earning raves playing Ben Bruckner, an HIV-positive literature professor on Showtime's explicit, gay-centered drama, Queer as Folk.

"For my mother . . . her greatest dream from the time she was a little girl, was to be a mother. I think she decided my being gay would constitute her failing at this," he added. "For me, I was violating the image of perfection I had been taught to uphold. The facade was gone."

Gant was born Robert Gonzalez in Tampa, to dad Bob, a lifelong Tampa resident, and mother Anne (he also has a younger brother, Tommy). Neither parent was willing to speak on the record with the St. Petersburg Times.

Driven to excel from an early age, Gant graduated from Chamberlain High School in 1986 with an impressive resume: Homecoming King, president of the Key Club, football player and an actor who had been appearing in commercials since the fifth grade.

But he had a secret. Since those middle school days, Gant knew he was romantically attracted to other boys: a fact he hid from his friends and family in Tampa for years for fear of being socially ostracized or worse.

And though he later decided to be open socially about his sexual orientation, as a TV actor and performer, he kept his status as gay man hidden _ building a career with work (often as a heterosexual romantic interest) on shows such as Ellen, Melrose Place, Caroline in the City, Friends and Popular.

But all that began to change after he landed the Ben Bruckner role on Queer as Folk _ a series critics have often called a dramatic Sex and the City for gay men.

Bruckner, described as a man just as comfortable on the dance floor as the classroom, seemed a perfect fit for Gant, a former English major who felt an instant connection with the character. Suddenly, keeping up the coy, "don't-ask, don't-tell" dynamic Hollywood often maintains with its gay performers _ sometimes referred to as the "Hollywood closet" _ didn't seem so appealing, anymore.

"When I first got the show, I really contemplated coming out right away," said Gant, who nevertheless sidestepped a question on his sexual orientation when the show's cast appeared on CNN's Larry King Live this spring.

"I felt it didn't make sense from a personal, political standpoint (to stay closeted professionally)," he added. "For a show that makes the kind of statement this one does, it seemed like it wasn't supporting the mission of the show not to be open professionally."

His decision made, Gant chose the route previously taken by stars such as Ian McKellen and Nathan Lane when coming out to the industry: an interview in The Advocate magazine.

Featured on the cover of the gay-centered magazine's August issue, Gant talked about everything from his first romantic encounter with a man (on prom night, with another member of Chamberlain's football team), to hanging out with fellow Caroline actor Malcolm Gets, another professionally closeted TV performer who later came out in an Advocate interview.

And though he hasn't yet determined how these revelations will affect obtaining the romantic lead parts that have often filled his resume _ "Definitely, a lot of professional Hollywood was surprised," Gant said _ one reaction to the magazine story was immediate and powerful.

"When I first told my mother _ she's going to kill me for saying this _ but when I told her I was going to come out in a magazine, she said, "Why don't you just shoot me through the heart with a shotgun first?'," said Gant of his mother, an area real estate agent.

"Just in the week prior to my telling her about the Advocate article, she had lunch with a good friend of hers who said, "I saw Bobby on that show and had to turn it off. I couldn't watch it'," he added. "It's that Bible Belt overflow culture. But my parents have been very good at challenging their views of the world and working to accept and love their son . . . despite the extent to which my choice violated their world views. (After reading the article) my mother said, "It's obvious you're really helping a lot of people'. To hear my mother say that was just astounding."

Indeed, while growing up in Tampa, Gant led several lives at once _ dating girls at school while meeting gay men in bars and on the beach in Pinellas. He indulged a love of performing by acting in commercials, appearing in school musicals, performing in the school chorale and taking dance classes, but never thought he could earn a living as an entertainer.

"I remember in chorale (practice), the director pulled me aside and said, "You should consider going for (a showbiz career),' " Gant said. "I remember feeling such a sense of sadness for him. My view of the world then was such that . . . (I felt) this is something that you love to do, but you could never earn a living at it."

Dance instructor Sandy Karl, who still teaches at the Karl and DiMarco School of Theatre in Tampa, remembers an energetic, charismatic Bobby Gonzalez coming to her classes when he was about 7 years old. Over the next five years or so, Bobby received regular instruction, joining other students in performing with Bob Hope at a local event.

Karl said she wasn't surprised that Gant later focused on a career outside performing. "I may have even given him that advice, or told his mother," said the teacher, an British-born performer who spent years dancing on the New York stage in the '60s and early '70s. "It's hard to do that kind of work without supplementing your income. It's a precarious profession."

Unaware of Gant's sexual orientation when he was at her school, Karl remained unfazed by the news. "It's of no interest at all. . . . That's his own personal thing. It's like voting. You vote privately. . . . It's his own choice."

That's the way Gant approached his life as well, earning an English degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from Georgetown University's law school, before snagging a job in 1994 with the largest law firm in the world, Baker & McKenzie.

He had all the things he was supposed to want in life. But his public life _ he wasn't open about his sexual orientation at work _ and his private life didn't match, and he was working a job for which he felt little passion, just for the money and prestige.

"I remember contemplating _ not seriously _ suicide . . . because I wasn't happy and I didn't understand why," Gant said, recalling a moment when he broke down in tears on the steps on his home, and decided to begin seeing a therapist. "Gays particularly live in such a well-crafted box of shame; they don't want to acknowledge it to the rest of the world."

When Baker & McKenzie closed its Los Angeles offices, Gant decided to take his severance package and try an acting career, winning a role on a commercial soon after.

As his acting career gained steam, so did his efforts to be more open about his sexual orientation in his own life. So when a monthlong audition process culminated in winning the Bruckner role on Queer as Folk just before the show's second season last year, Gant found a unique dovetailing of his personal and professional lives.

"It felt a little like doing a piece of my life's work, because of the nature of the show and what the show is doing to change lives," said the actor, who had always admired the in-your-face manner in which the series explored the lives of sexually active, gay urban males.

"We always joke, some of the cast members, about people who have such a problem with the representation of the party scene, or drug use," Gant said. "I've had so many people tell me that's not what it's like . . and these are the people who have lived those lives. It's people not wanting to handle the truth of themselves."

Currently filming the show's third season, which should make its debut on Showtime next March, Gant is enjoying the freedom of finally meshing the image he presents to the world and his own private life.

And while he has no idea what will happen to his career after filming of the show ends, Gant has few doubts about the happiness his revelations have brought to his personal life.

"I'm definitely the happiest I've ever been in my life," he said. "Hollywood tends to lag behind in realizing what people can handle or what they're interested in. I think people can handle more truth than they're given credit for."

To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail degganssptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.

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