Ryan O'Connell Hopes to Destigmatize Gay Sex With Netflix's Special

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Taylor Henderson

There's something quietly revolutionary about Netflix's newest comedy series Speciala story about a gay man with cerebral palsy, actually played by a gay man with cerebral palsy. 

"For me personally, coming out was never a big deal. It was always my disability," writer and star of the series, Ryan O'Connell, told PRIDE. "In a way, I feel like we've come further in gay rights in our country than we have with disability rights, I think that there's still a huge level of discomfort around disability. I think that...I don't think that people know how to treat disabled people. I think that they're nervous. I think that it's not out of malice. I think it's really mostly out of ignorance."

You could say O'Connell quite literally wrote the book on the subject: the series is based on his 2015 autobiographical book, I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.  

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You might remember O'Connell's work from the early days of Thought Catalog. Many moons ago, O'Connell went viral over and over again with a handful of really personal stories. But throughout his soul-bearing career and virtual notoriety, he kept his cerebral palsy hidden.

When he was approached by Simon and Schuster to write an autobiography, he was forced to confront his fear of sharing his disability with the world.

"At that point, I'd been living life as an accident victim quote unquote and I had thrown cerebral palsy away and really never thought about it again. But I knew that that was damaging me. I knew that was hurting me and I knew that this was my opportunity to be honest about who I was with the pressure of a contract looming over me."

O'Connell was forced to face the part of himself that he was holding back and it was difficult to root through his baggage. "I felt like I was kind of going through a whole dumpster full of like repressed memories," he says. 

"Writing the book and talking about the C.P. was really hard because I really wasn't even there yet and making sense of what it meant to be positive about your disability and harm that was doing to yourself."

But with time and maturity and therapy, O'Connell says he was better prepared to share his story on the small screen.

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The plot of Special mirrors many of the significant moments from O'Connell's own life. When Ryan starts his new job at millennial blogging site eggwoke, he is ashamed of his disability and he lets everyone believe that his limp is from a prior car accident. He struggles to overcome his own self-loathing while dealing with the typical identity crisis that a lot of us experience in our twenties. 

Ryan also desperately wants some dick.

He lets his C.P. hold him back from dating, so to get over his anxiety, Ryan hires a sex worker to dick him down scratch that itch.

The air is tense as he makes the decision. It's hilariously uncomfortable to watch Ryan march up a staircase in a full suit and tie to meet the man who'll take his virginity. O'Connell hopes the subversive scene's candidness helps destigmatize sex work and normalize gay sex on television. 

"I've been very, very frustrated and annoyed and quite frankly confused as to why there hasn't been more gay sex representation in film," he began. "I think people are still really uncomfortable with the visual of a guy getting a penis in his butt. I'm just over that, I'm just over it. I think if you have a problem with it, that's just something for you to unpack with your therapist, not me honey. I have been having gay sex for 14 years now. It's just like any other kind of sex where it can it be funny, it can be sexy, it can be warm, it can be disconnected, it can be awkward, and it can be all of those things in the span of two minutes, you know? Girls really kind of normalized sex in a way, bad sex or good. I don't know why that hasn't happened to gay sex yet."

It was important to O'Connell for Ryan to share his virginity with Shea, the sincere prostitute played by Will & Grace star Brian Jordan Alvarez. After the two do the deed, Shea tells Ryan that he's seen many clients with cerebral palsy and, for the first time with someone that's not his mother, Ryan openly talks about his disability with another person.

"There's a huge stigma around [sex work] still and so I feel like the people that are doing it maybe aren't even talking about it," O'Connell explained. "I think there's still a level of shame with using a sex worker and this idea of feeling like you have to pay for it and I think that that's just inaccurate. I think that ya know, do what you gotta do and don't feel any shame in doing it. It is what is it."

"I've had really positive experiences with sex workers and I feel like they provide an amazing service and I just feel like it's important to show them in a kind light, cause they are by and large a great group of people."

Watching the series is a bit of a full circle moment for us at PRIDE. Almost four years ago, we interviewed O'Connell about his book and he vowed to bring the first gay character with cerebral palsy to television

Now, it's actually happened. And O'Connell hopes Special will help change the tides and inspire many more film and television characters with disabilities.

"I feel like the TV show I made was pretty conventional; there's an A story, there's a B story," he points out. "But the things I'm talking about, the package that it's coming in, it's unconventional. Quite frankly, it's embarrassing that it's groundbreaking for 2019. It should have been normalized a long time ago."

O'Connell adds with a laugh, "But better late than never, honey!"

Special premieres on Netflix April 12. Watch the trailer below!

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