Shawn Balentine, Hollywood’s first openly gay stunt performer, has gotten a lot of attention in the two years since he made the decision to come out publicly. Now, he wants to use his place in the spotlight to help create a safe space for others within the industry.
“I’ve started my own company, it’s called Live 4U Stunts. I wanted to have a platform to help others that are behind the scenes that are not getting the representation that they should have, and at the same time I wanted to have my own stunt company. I wanted to make sure that people just felt safe.”
As a professional stunt performer/coordinator in Hollywood, Shawn had worked on some very high-profile projects. Like most members of the stunt community, he worked side by side with famous people every day without achieving fame for himself; that changed, however, when he chose, on January 28, 2016, to become the very first openly gay stunt man in the industry.
His announcement quickly became a hot topic on social media, where every LGBT and LGBT-supportive news outlet shared his story and lauded him for his bravery; but in the closed circles of his Hollywood community, the reaction was not so universally positive.
Despite a public reputation for being liberal and aspiring to diversity, the entertainment industry is still shot through with lingering homophobia, a grim reality which had made the decision to come out one of the scariest things – despite being a military combat veteran and working at a job where he subjects himself to physical danger every day of his life — he has ever faced.
“I thought I was going to lose everything I had worked so hard to get.”
So why did he do it?
“It was time for me to come out because I’m clean and sober – and I felt like if I didn’t, I would drink or use. I was up against the wall about it.”
Nevertheless, he took others into account before making the choice.
“In the days before I came out, I contacted all the coordinators I ever worked for, to make sure it wouldn’t hurt them or their reputations. Last but not least, I contacted Patton Oswalt, the comedian/actor that I double, and I waited for him — he was the only person I truly waited for, and if he has said no, I would not have come out. I didn’t want it to hurt his career, because he’s really been good to me. But he said ‘I am there for you 100%. I am so proud of you.’
So the next day I put it on Facebook, so that I wouldn’t have to go around and to each person, each friend, and let them know – I didn’t think I had enough strength to do it that way.”
Almost immediately, there was blowback. He was bullied on social media with homophobic insults and even death threats.
Instead of being discouraged, Shawn found ways to forge a new path for himself.
“I started doing PSAs for anti-bullying, and people wanted to help me, to help change the narrative. I got asked to go and speak at my old high school, which really turned me around. I’m really proud of that, to be introduced in front of the entire school as an out gay stunt man – and an out gay man.”
There were other unexpected rewards as well.
“I got invited to the Human Rights Campaign Gala last year – I was one of their end-of-the-year “coming out” stories, alongside the Wachowski Sisters [directors and creators of “The Matrix” films and Netflix’s “Sense8,” among many other projects, who are both trans women]. I got to take my Mom; I got to fly her out here and get her hooked up with a hair and make-up squad, and we got to walk down the red carpet together.” [UPDATE: Shawn recently served as an volunteer committee member for this year’s HRC gala, where he also launched his new company by auctioning a workshop as a fundraiser.] “It was such an honor for me to represent the stunt community, and for them to say ‘it’s okay that you’re out, we got you.’
“I wish other organizations had been there to say that, for me to feel safer – but they weren’t.”
This is a topic on which he shows some reluctance to speak out, but he’s getting braver about it.
“I’m tired of being made to feel ashamed, or to be afraid, for being an out, proud, gay man, and I know others feel the same way. I don’t have any big organizations that I can go to for help. When any behind-the-scenes people who are LGBT feel that their life is in danger, or if they are not getting work because of their sexual orientation, or are called a ‘faggot’ on the set, who do we go to? We don’t have advocates the way that actors do.
It’s time for some of these larger organizations to start speaking for people like me, the behind-the-scenes people, the way they do for others who are more in the public eye. Everybody above the line gets protection, but we [behind-the-scenes personnel] do not, and it’s time that we do. We need protection from agents who drop you, or employers that let you go because you are openly gay.”
He’s hoping that Live 4U can help to close that gap.
“Our aim is to provide inclusion and representation for the LGBTQA community behind-the-scenes in the motion picture industry. I’ll also be offering mentorships for people who want to get into stunt work, and I’m hoping to launch a couple of partial scholarships within the next year or two, to help people who want training.”
“We’re not here to pressure or encourage anyone to come out, but when they are ready to do that, we are here for them.”
In other words, he’s trying to create something that wasn’t there for him when he made the decision to come out. Although he is reticent to name names (“I’m trying not to point any fingers, that’s my biggest thing”), he got some nasty treatment from inside the industry over his decision.
“Right after I came out – and right after I had been getting homophobic messages, and stuff like that – I went to a stunt workshop with my union, which is SAG, and at a talkback with the audience, one of the questions was ‘have you ever worked with an LGBT person?’ The VP of the union was there, and she started laughing when the panel said ‘yeah, a couple of hairdressers.’ Everybody in the audience went completely quiet and turned towards me. If it was just that, it would have been okay – but the next question was, ‘why are there not any openly gay members in any of the stunt associations?’ The answer, from someone who had just gotten through talking about how much diversity they had promoted within the union, was ‘you keep that shit to yourself, otherwise you’re never going to get work in this industry.’ Again, everybody shut up and stared directly at me.”
Does he think he was the intended target of these remarks?
“100 per cent.”
Though he tries to avoid negativity (“I’m just excited to keep moving forward, that’s what important”), he is still angry about the prevalence of these attitudes behind closed doors – but perhaps even more angry about the lack of action to do anything about it.
“Advocate and Out Magazine both put that story out there, but nothing has ever happened.”
Still, his professional career has hardly been destroyed.
Though he ended up losing several of his professional connections over his announcement, other doors began to open for him. He’s been given opportunities he never knew were out there, such as creating the first-ever live stunt show at a Pride event for last summer’s DTLA Proudfest. He also put together a moving video tribute for the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, with 49 different stunt performers from all over the world paying tribute to each of the 49 victims.
He will soon begin work coordinating stunts on a feature film (Scott Bloom’s “Raceland”), and of course there is now Live 4U Stunts.
“It hasn’t been the easiest, but I have a lot of friends. And some of the people that were giving me a really hard time are now apologizing for their actions – and I think it’s really cool to see the growth in people. The way I look at it, as long as one person evolves, then I’m doing the right thing.”
So two years later, does he regret coming out?
“No, because now I can breathe. I can look into the mirror and like who I see.”
The Live 4U website (still a work in progress) is here: https://www.live4ustunts.com/
Or you can connect with them on Instagram: @live4ustunts