Ryan Murphy has never shied away from depicting LGBTQ storylines in his work, but American Horror Story: Cult might be his queerest season of TV yet.
It isn't just that the main character is in a same-sex marriage, or that there are multiple gay characters who engage in sometimes raunchy sex. Cult contrasts all of that with a Charles Manson-like leader who forces his followers to engage in hyper-masculine stereotypes and gender roles that read like they're out of an adaptation of The Stepford Wives on steroids.
Actor, LGBTQ activist and author Chaz Bono plays Trump supporter and fanatical cult follower Gary Longstreet. He noted the juxtaposition between the cast, its crew and the storyline, which drew inspiration from national fears regarding topics such as sexism following the 2016 election. For example, the antagonist Kai (Evan Peters) is so focused on enforcing a parody of gender roles that the women in his life immediately begin working in the kitchen and he eats "Manwiches" because they're just so manly.
"It was kind of a joke at times because it's so incredibly gay," Bono said in a phone interview with SYFY WIRE. "I don't think Ryan Murphy ever shies away from that stuff, which is kind of great."
In general, Cult is about dichotomies. The first time we see Bono in Cult, you don't even realize it's him. He's just a mild-mannered and unassuming grocery store clerk in episode 1 when Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) walks in following a disastrous election night. The store is empty, but the sounds of Donald Trump's voice linger in the air as a speech plays on the TV.
Things quickly take a turn when it's revealed that Gary is on the opposite side of the political spectrum, as he takes out his "Make America Great Again" hat and places it on his head, dignified in his presidential pick winning. Contrasted with Paulson's performance, which is erratic and broken, Gary's expressionless face makes for a darkly comedic and uncomfortable moment.
In episode four, we learn that Gary was locked up in a cellar after he harassed Ally's wife Ivy (Alison Pill) and Winter (Billie Lourd) at a rally. Winter's brother Kai (Evan Peters) comes to his aid, but instead of freeing him from the handcuffs, convinces Gary to saw off his own arm, which he does with little hesitation so he can cast his vote for Trump.
It's over the top and frequently ridiculous, taking the conversations from subreddits about Men's Rights Activists and putting them on display. The characters who espouse these beliefs say it with a horrifying degree of seriousness, but that's the fun of it, says Bono.
"I think, throughout the whole season, there's a tongue-in-cheek element to it and I think there's that real element that's scary," he said.
Take for example later episodes, when Kai is able to get actual followers to come live in his home. The group of young white men wear the same clothes and, for the most part, are willing to do anything to help their leader. When Kai goes to City Council meetings to enact his irrational and violent policies, his followers, including Gary, cheer.
"I heard a female extra, this woman, say 'those guys scare the s*** out of me,'" he recalls. "We would just get so rowdy and so crazy."
The hyper-masculinity becomes prominent to the viewer when compared to the cast and Murphy, who is outspoken about efforts to diversify television both in front and behind the camera. Bono is just one instance of that as a transgender man playing a cis Trump supporter. He doesn't see the role as political, which is part of his larger worldview.
"I don't think of the world in terms of being transgender. I think of myself as just a guy who just happens to have come into manhood different than most," he says. He also purposefully doesn't play trans characters: "I consider myself a character actor. I like playing characters as far away from me as possible."
However, it's hard not to see it at least a little considering the Trump administration's policies concerning the transgender community. Even Bono sees something in the dialogue compared to current events.
"There were times when I would be in a situation and stepped back and I would listen to Kai's line... and I would get a chuckle about that," he said.
Bono has been in the spotlight since early childhood thanks to being the child of Sonny Bono and Cher. He appeared on his parents' variety shows in the 1970s and went on to study acting in his teens, but moved away from it.
"I started studying acting when I was 14, but stopped when I graduated just because acting is one of those jobs that you have to be in the right body," he said.
Bono was a prominent LGBTQ rights activist beginning in the 1990s after his coming out. He's written two books and has worked with prominent organizations like GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign. He transitioned starting in the late 2000s and following that was around the time he got back into acting with guest spots on shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and small roles in films like Dirty. The latter performance is what convinced Bono that he should see about getting a role on American Horror Story, which is one of his favorite shows. This led to him getting a small role on Roanoke and then getting asked back for a meatier role this season.
Gary could've easily been a one-note character -- the epitome of a Trump supporter who's swimming in his own toxic testosterone -- but Bono said he didn't want him to be.
"I didn't want Gary to seem really nuts," Bono explained. "The decision I ended up making was that Gary cutting off his arm was him cutting off his humanity and giving it to Kai."
He also didn't need to be.
"I think of this season as there's this gasoline that we all are and the election is the spark that sets it on fire," he said. "This stuff resonates because it doesn't seem that completely far-fetched."