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Sparking Creativity Through Activism: Actor Jonathan Del Arco

How can you channel passion for creativity with the fight for civil rights into a successful career? Actor Jonathan Del Arco shares his story.

How can you further your career? First, try becoming an "interested person" and devote yourself to a cause other than you, advises Jonathan Del Arco, who plays Dr. Morales, the medical examiner on the critically acclaimed "The Closer," and who also is the West Coast development consultant for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Del Arco spoke to an audience of CEOs and senior executives at our event in Washington, D.C., about how philanthropy can spark innovation and creativity.

Del Arco's early acting career was held back by Hollywood's homophobia—coming out could end an actor's career. He didn't hide his orientation, but he didn't promote himself as earnestly as actors often have to. Ironically, his career took off when he focused more on advocacy. Eventually, Del Arco began working as a consultant for GLSEN, which works to create safe school environments for youth regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Never did I imagine that working for a nonprofit organization would have such a great effect on me personally," Del Arco says. "It's changed the structure of how I use my career as an actor because now I have a reason beyond entertainment to promote something other than me."

Being Bullied

Del Arco was born in Uruguay, a country in southeast South America. As a child, he played with dolls and was often mistaken for a girl. His parents took him to a therapist to get him to act more like a boy, to no avail. Later, when he was 10, his family left their home for America. His first plane ride was a 15-hour trip to New York's John F. Kennedy airport. At first, he was excited to be in America because he thought life would be like the TV show "The Jetsons."

"I thought there would be big TV screens in everyone's house and we'd eat pills instead of food," he says. "I thought we'd have cars that fly."

Instead, his family moved into a two-bedroom, "rat-infested" apartment in Port Chester, N.Y., furnished by the Salvation Army. School was no respite. He couldn't speak English so he was put in a class with many poor, Spanish-speaking Latinos. The class "reminded me of steerage in the movie 'Titanic,'" he says. "If something bad were to happen, we'd be the last rescued or, worse, locked in that room, left to die."

The Latino students did not accept Del Arco, calling him "white" and shunning him. The teasing that began in Uruguay followed him to the United States. Students called him names and physically threatened him.

Once he was in junior high school, the bullying became relentless. Del Arco talked about one bully whom he called Bruce, who tormented him at school and often followed him home and terrified him. "I was sure he would kill me," Del Arco says.

Del Arco told his tormentor a clever lie, about "contagious nose cancer," that frightened the bully enough that he left Del Arco alone for the remainder of junior high school and all through high school. "That is how I learned to outsmart the bullies and not get injured," he says. "I had my imagination and my creativity and that was an asset, a way to navigate a lot of these obstacles."

A New Passion

After high school, Del Arco moved to New York City, where he landed a role in a Broadway play. Right at the beginning of his budding acting career, the AIDS epidemic ravaged the city's gay community. "I lost my first partner to it," he says.

At 24 years old, Del Arco moved to Los Angeles, living with survivor guilt and still trying to find his place as an actor. He learned quickly that coming out as an actor would be the end of his career, but he refused to lie about his orientation. "I didn't bring fake girlfriends to parties," he says. Instead of lying, he hid. He didn't go to events and didn't socialize. After four years, not coming out didn't help his career. "I had no career to speak of," he says. "I had no job. I had no agent."

While on his way to an interview for a job as a waiter, Del Arco got an offer to work on a campaign that director Rob Reiner was launching. He was hired and worked on five campaigns in the course of 10 years. "I found a new passion, which is political activism and social change. Of course, the minute you do that, the acting jobs start coming."

Del Arco had roles on TV shows including "24," "The Sopranos," and "Dollhouse." He is best known for his roles as Hugh Borg on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," as the transgender character Sophia Lopez on "Nip/Tuck" and four seasons as Dr. Morales on "The Closer." Del Arco is celebrating 19 years with his partner.

Becoming an "interested person" changed more than the course of his career. Del Arco says that juggling full-time activism with full-time acting made him a new, more confident person.

"I think I became a braver actor because of all that," he says. "I was myself."

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