John Wesley Shipp Made Me Gay

I didn’t come out until my late 20s. A gay trailblazer, I most certainly was not.

But I pretty much knew I had a potential preference for dudes in my burgeoning pre-teen years. If truth be told, there was a defining moment that pretty much clinched it for me. (Fact: ask any gay guy of a certain age and they can clearly—and distinctly—remember their first 80s TV man crush. Think Magnum P.I. meets Bo Duke meets Erik Estrada meets Lorenzo Lamas meets Harry Hamlin.)

For me, it was a studly soap star—specifically John Wesley Shipp who played Dr. Kelly Nelson on Guiding Light from 1980 – 1984.

To set the stage, I was at my babysitter’s house. She never missed an episode of that show—and, thus, I became a pre-pubescent fanboy by proxy. In 1980—in an episode entitled “Summer School”—Shipp emerges from a pool dripping wet. And towels off. In a maroon Speedo.

As I was snacking on vanilla wafers, an unexplainable electrical current zapped my nether regions. Or as a drag queen once deftly explained to me, “You got all tingly in your no-no place, didn’t you?”

Yup—and then some.

And, keep in mind, this was at a time when I was attending a holy roller, fundamental-esque Christian academy. At the corner of repression and obsession, I’m surprised I didn’t spontaneously combust due to my lustful nature. (Sidebar: that year I practically demanded my parents get me a subscription to Soap Opera Digest for Christmas.)

And now thanks to the glory and wonder that is YouTube, I stumbled across that clip recently in all of its tame glory and benign splendor. (Look close and you’ll spy a dorky Kevin Bacon trying desperately not to be dorky.)

What was it about JWS that flipped my switch, so to speak? It’s probably two things: 1) his character towered over everyone and seemed imminently likeable and 2) despite being a doctor on the show, he always seemed like a dolt.

He imprinted on me like a new hatchling to its mama bird.

To this day, I’m perpetually attracted to big, tall, stupid men. (Sorry, not sorry, Mensa members!)

A few years ago, I spied JWS would be appearing at Planet Comicon here in Kansas City. I have never put so much energy into meeting anyone as I did with him. It was comically stalkerish—and I am both impressed and appalled at my efforts to get a behind-the-scenes meet-and-greet. (To this day, countless apologies to the media reps at Planet Comicon who had to accommodate my near daily press requests. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.)

The thing about meeting your idol in person is that whatever pedestal you’ve put them on doesn’t translate in real life. JWS was polite and pleasant and flashed this mega-watt smile when we met. He was gracious and complimented my shirt—which I had purchased mere days before so I’d look absolutely on point. (Uh, I did not. I looked a chubby geometric rainbow.)

In our momentous backstage tête-à-tête, did I tell him he revved my adolescent engines? Did I mention he made me have countless impure thoughts? Did I point out that if loving him was wrong, I didn’t wanna be right?

No. No. And no.

But, in my heart of hearts, he knew that I knew that he knew that was the case.

I then watched him flash his pearly whites to jovially accommodate, like, 25 more people. (These, of course, were pedestrians who paid to be in his presence. As an esteemed member of the press, I was practically his new BFF.)

As I walked away, I found myself chuckling a bit. Who gets to meet their childhood crush and share a bro-hug? I can’t be sure, but I may have heard a brief clap of thunder as we embraced. I’ll guarantee that was a shift in the gay time-space continuum.