For eight years, Jesse Tyler Ferguson has played type-A lawyer Mitchell Pritchett on Modern Family. Fans of the ABC series have watched Mitch build a family with his partner, Cam (Eric Stonestreet), and their adopted daughter, Lily. While Ferguson's role as a gay character on a hit sitcom has undoubtedly opened many viewers' minds, it's off camera that the actor really focuses on creating visibility for the LGBTQ community.
Back in 2012, he and his husband, Justin Mikita, launched their non-profit organization, Tie the Knot, to raise funds for marriage equality. But while Tie the Knot's goals have shifted since same-sex marriage was legalized, the sentiment of its mission remains the same. “When we started the company, our objective was to be put out of business,” Ferguson told InStyle. “We wanted marriage equality in all 50 states. We have that now, but protecting the rights we've earned so far is still important, especially under the current administration. When people at the top are actively un-supportive of the LGBTQ community, it sends the message that it's okay to bully a minority group, and that’s dangerous. It's an ongoing battle. Ultimately, we’d like to see more global support of marriage equality and support the trans community and women’s rights.”
Those long-term goals are major, but this week, Ferguson is focused on celebrating the organization's five-year anniverary. In honor of the benchmark, he's unveiled a limited-edition collection of bow ties available at The Tie Bar (a portion of each purchase is donated to Tie the Knot). In addition to designing a “sparklier and more dressed up” version of the organization’s signature bow tie, Ferguson tapped the stars of Will & Grace—Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes—to create designs of their own. (Pictured below, from top to bottom: the styles designed by Ferguson, Messing, and McCormack).
For Ferguson, collaborating with the foursome was the perfect fit. “Will & Grace really paved the way for shows like Modern Family to be on television,” he said. “I’ve always been an openly gay actor, but there was a fear of doing something outside the safety net of New York City and theater. Seeing gay characters embraced widely on TV was inspiring for me.” When the series returned to NBC this fall, Ferguson was as excited as any other fan. “I was thrilled,” he said. “Will & Grace is unafraid to embrace our current culture in a very witty, smart, and funny way, so it’s great to have it on the air right now.”
The series’ return—combined with Tie the Knot’s fifth anniversary—presented the opportunity for the group of actors to come together for a good cause, said Will & Grace star Eric McCormack. “We've always felt that we have a very unique pulpit,” the actor, who plays lawyer Will Truman, told InStyle. “We’re the show that brought ‘gay’ into a lot of living rooms that would never have had it otherwise, and we got people to listen. Maybe a lot of moms wouldn't have handled their son or daughter coming out as well as they did, but they were used to seeing Will and Jack on the screen.”
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Signing on to collaborate with Ferguson was a no-brainer for McCormack. “My wife and I were always very involved in the Human Rights Campaign, and it matters so much to me that stigma and hate can be fought," he told InStyle. "I love the idea that Tie the Knot creates something positive that you can see.” When it came to designing his own bow tie, McCormack had a vision. “I’m Canadian, and Canada has always been so advanced in terms of marriage equality and gay and lesbian rights,” he said. “We have this fantastic new prime minister that is leading the way in so many social rights areas, and I thought it would be great to apply my roots to this.” As for whether or not his character would approve of the final product? “I think Will would definitely wear this,” he said. “I also think he wants to date a Canadian. That's what I keep pitching: I want to set up a story where he and Justin Trudeau meet at a fundraiser.”
While McCormack is waiting for Will to find love, Ferguson’s Modern Family character has already found it. And thanks to shows like Will & Grace before it, Ferguson’s first kiss with co-star (and onscreen husband) Eric Stonestreet back in 2010 was focused on the characters’ personal issues with affection, rather than their sexual orientation. “What I loved most about that episode was that it centered around a fear of PDA, which is a very relatable thing for both straight and gay couples,” said Ferguson. “When the kiss finally did happen, it was in the background in a very real moment between Mitch and Cam. It wasn't this big, sweeping thing. There’s less of a fanfare around it now, and I think that’s a positive thing.”
McCormack also appreciates how the series has handled storylines surrounding its gay characters. “I absolutely think that Modern Family took the ball from us and just kept running with it,” he said. “It's not essentially a gay show the way ours had to be, but that’s the point: it took a gay couple and treated them just the same as the other couples on the show. And that was the next great step forward.”
With both shows currently on the air and continuing to make strides for the LGBTQ community, McCormack has already thought about the potential for future cameos. “We're hoping to get Jesse on our show,” he said. Turns out, he's not the only one hoping a guest spot opens up. “Selfishly, that’s what I was most excited about when I saw that Will & Grace was coming back,” Ferguson admitted. “But I want more than a cameo—I would love to do a role. I’ve definitely put my name into the ring.”
And don't you worry: If the worlds of Modern Family and Will & Grace were to magically collide for a crossover episode, Ferguson has a few ideas in mind. “The sky's the limit, but I think it would have to involve a dinner party,” he said. “It would also have to include Nathan Lane—maybe one of his character's wild theme parties that we're always discussing on the show. The characters are all so different and entertaining that I think you’d want to let the scene play out for a full 30 minutes of just watching them interact.”
Um, when can we confirm an air date?