Daniel Franzese played one of the most memorable queer characters in teen comedy history — and the role actually helped him embrace his own sexuality.
In 2004’s Mean Girls, Franzese played Damian, Cady (Lindsay Lohan) and Janis’s (Lizzy Caplan) gay best friend who was responsible for some of the film’s most beloved quotes, from “You go, Glen Coco!” to “I want my pink shirt back!”
But while he portrayed an out and proud gay man, Franzese didn’t come out publicly until 10 years after the movie came out. And his role in the movie played a part in his coming out.
“I think part of the reason it took me so long to feel comfortable with who I was, was I didn’t have the same referential point,” Franzese, now 40, tells PEOPLE. “What Damian did for a lot of queer people and people of size — which I found out later on — it gave them an identity in pop culture where they weren’t made fun of. He’s never made fun of for being big or for being gay.”
Over the years, Franzese learned how many people the movie helped own their sexuality.
“In 2014, I got this fan letter — it said, ‘I don’t know if you’re gay or not; it doesn’t matter.’ It totally matters. We were dealing with Prop 8. We were dealing with marriage equality. All these other issues. And I was on the frontline of all those issues. I had not shied away from being out. I just never really said it professionally,” the actor recalls.
“Then I got this letter, and the guy was like: ‘I’m a grown man now, but I was beat up for being a sissy, I was beat up for being chubby in 8th grade, then you’re movie came out. And in 9th grade, on the first day, the popular senior girls came up to me and said, ‘You’re like Damian. Come sit with us.’ He was like, ‘I know you drastically changed my high school career,'” Franzese says.
That fan letter encouraged the actor to acknowledge his sexuality publicly.
“It just moved me beyond words,” he says. “It was very complex human emotions to feel. And I know that I affected a lot of people’s lives in that movie. I think that that’s such an honor and something that I don’t take lightly.”
After coming out, Franzese took on another complex gay role, playing an HIV-positive man in HBO’s Looking. And these days, Franzese has ventured into standup comedy. He’s currently on the road for his “Yass! You’re Amazing!” comedy tour and is set to headline the Burbank Comedy Festival this weekend.
“Once I came out in 2014, I had the itch,” Franzese says. “I’ve always wanted to do standup my whole life. I attempted to do it early on in my career, but I felt inauthentic — I always trying to change my voice so I wouldn’t sound gay or not say a gay thing. It was so stupid. Now that I feel so comfortable in who I am, I’m able to talk about anything I want freely.”