One probably shouldn’t call Neal Baer a late bloomer. In 2014, while in his 50s, the television writer and producer came out as gay, but he already had nearly 25 years of preparation behind the scenes.
A pediatrician by trade, the Harvard Medical School graduate is credited with writing some of the first queer and HIV narratives in television history, all of which, he says, “gave me a platform to do in fiction what I struggled to do in my own life: to come out.”
Above: Baer’s ER character, Jeanie Boulet (played by Gloria Reuben) was one of the first poz characters on TV who didn’t die in the end.
Baer was instrumental in creating the storyline for ER’s Jeanie Boulet, one of the first nonstigmatized HIV-positive characters on television (who wasn’t eventually killed off). He also wrote the episode where Laura Innes’s character, Dr. Kerry Weaver, came out as a lesbian.
During his tenure as showrunner of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, not only did Baer give Ice-T’s character a gay son, but he also created the first storyline of a young trans teen who takes hormone blockers. His work on Under the Dome also broke ground as one of the first shows to introduce a biracial lesbian couple, played by Aisha Hinds and Samantha Mathis.
Baer’s evolution as a writer beautifully reflects his own journey. And he's continuing to blaze a trail on Designated Survivor, which premiered on ABC and ran for two seasons before transferring to Netflix.
This season, Baer is determined to tell the story of Dontae Evans (played by Benjamin Watson), a young Black man who is HIV-positive but undetectable. In the arc, Dontae chooses not to disclose his status to his partner, Troy, until after they have sex. For the writer, discussing HIV disclosure requires more than simply talking about what undetectable means to a mainstream audience — it’s about tapping into deeply ethical questions.
Baer is continuing the HIV narrative with Dontae Evans (Benjamin Watson, above and below with Eltony Williams) in Designated Survivor on Netflix.
In the episode, Troy is furious with Dontae, even though Dontae points out that they used a condom and that there’s never been a case reported of transmission from someone who is undetectable. The stigma that Dontae feared is realized when Troy says he’s “clean,” to which Dontae angrily responds, “And what, I’m dirty because I’m positive?”
“We all had an honest conversation about how we would feel if we had a partner who didn’t disclose his status to us until after we had sex,” Baer recalls of early discussions with the writers. “The room had a lively conversation, and there was disagreement among us about what we thought Dontae should have done. Neither he nor his partner asked the other about their status. If they had, we all agreed that Dontae would be ethically bound to tell the truth. But since there has been no case of transmission from someone who is undetectable, some of us thought it was not harmful or unethical not to volunteer one’s status, but others disagreed. We all agreed that it’s incumbent on each of us to take precautions to protect our own health — even though at times we don’t.”
Baer says these behind-the-scenes debates lead to better TV: “Disagreement over our characters making tough ethical decisions, I’ve found when writing and producing ER and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, always led to lively, complex shows that raised questions for the viewers and opened discussion.”
Baer’s interest in telling stories about HIV is twofold. As a physician, he’s well aware that a cure for HIV has yet to be achieved. Thanks to modern medicines, the virus has become a manageable condition, but in terms of the media, he says the nuances have been “woefully ignored not only by the press, but also by our government at all levels.”
“In Los Angeles, for instance, 40 percent of African-American men who have sex with men are HIV-positive; for Latinos, it’s 20 percent,” notes Baer. “With PrEP and [antiretrovirals] available, but too often at an outlandish price, we should have conquered transmission. And yet, for many reasons — including access, stigma, and cost — people of color are still suffering from a disease that’s preventable and treatable. And as a gay man who’s personally had to deal with the fear of contracting HIV and the stigma it poses to those who are HIV-positive, I wanted to write, as they say, from the heart and tell our stories.”
“We all have struggles that are particular to our own circumstances,” Baer continues. “I hoped that telling Dontae’s story would dispel the misinformation and depict his success in overcoming stigma and shame that we still place on those who are HIV-positive. … If we’re fortunate enough to return for another season, I’m sure we’ll see Dontae and how this part of his life is continuing — successfully.”
In retrospect, even though Baer had been struggling to define his sexual identity since “about 4 or 5 years old,” he was comforted by writing characters who reflected his battles, eventually leading him to find the courage to come out in his 50s.
“My characters were honest, and I felt it was time for me to be honest with myself,” he confesses.
Baer credits Netflix with giving him the freedom to introduce three LGBTQ characters for season 3, including a storyline about President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) coping with the political fallout after his opponent publicizes that he has a trans sister-in-law, played by Sense8’s Jamie Clayton.
The newfound creative freedom also helped Baer learn more about the many degrees of being LGBTQ. “I owe a lot of gratitude to Jamie Clayton for opening my eyes to trans issues and telling her character’s story with honesty and dignity,” says Baer, who makes it clear that his queer characters are not an attempt at “being PC” or “liberal,” but rather a targeted focus to achieve what his writing has always done: to tell real stories.
“Back in the days of writing and producing ER and when I was running SVU, we could take on topics like abortion, gun control, violence against the LGBTQ community in ways that I think aren’t as possible now,” he says. “That’s because streaming services like Netflix and Amazon offer a wide range of programming and are not dependent on advertising dollars. Broadcast networks need to recruit viewers. Streaming services need to recruit subscribers, and that makes a profound difference in the artistic chances streaming services take in the wider range of programming they offer.”
“It’s our attempt to present in a thoughtful and in-depth way the broad spectrum of characters who often have not received attention on broadcast networks, but whose lives are very much a significant part of the fabric of our country,” he adds. “That our show is about an American president grappling with the struggles and social and cultural upheavals facing the world today makes it essential, we think, to tell stories about gay African-American men, trans individuals, as well as those struggling on the edge of society — particularly with opioid addictions. These stories are rich, complex, and pose tough ethical issues—and we’re fortunate to have a platform on Designated Survivor to tell them over 10 episodes.”