The political thriller series, which premiered on Showtime last week, stars Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer as two gay men who have steamy romps in remote cabins and swanky apartments, as well as on a sun-drenched Fire Island beach, over the course of eight episodes. Among the more titillating moments is a toe-sucking scene that makes other on-screen portrayals of same-sex love, like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Call Me by Your Name,” seem chaste by comparison.
But Rogers, an executive producer on “Fellow Travelers,” is hopeful audiences will take time to contemplate the rich, LGBTQ-inclusive history that the show depicts, too.
“For a lot of people, the LGBTQ+ community started with Stonewall, and that’s actually not correct,” the former athlete told HuffPost. “There are other stories and other uprisings and other marches that we should be exploring and talking about and be aware of. It takes some effort beyond what’s being taught in schools.”
Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, “Fellow Travelers” follows a decadeslong romance between a newly minted college graduate, Tim Laughlin (played by Bailey) and a State Department official, Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (Bomer). Their relationship begins in secret during the anti-LGBTQ “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, during which thousands of U.S. government employees lost their jobs because of their sexuality or gender identity, and continues through the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the ’80s.
In addition to Bailey and Bomer, the show’s cast includes Allison Williams as Lucy Smith, a senator’s daughter who becomes Hawk’s wife, and Jelani Alladin as Marcus Hooks, a Black political journalist whose love interest is a drag queen, Frankie Hines (Noah J. Ricketts).
Rogers said he first picked up Mallon’s book at the suggestion of series showrunner Ron Nyswaner, with whom he worked on the 2022 film “My Policeman.” There were elements of the novel that reminded him of his own trajectory as a professional soccer player who, in 2013, became the first openly gay athlete in a major U.S. sport. Mostly, he found himself rapt by the forbidden love story at its center.
“I’m very lucky to be a gay man in this time, and I’d never want to compare my time as a soccer player to the ’50s,” Rogers said. “But as a gay man in sports, I felt like an outsider my whole life. Professional sports have been incredibly homophobic in the past, and you’re scared you’ll be outed and that your teammates who’ve become your family won’t embrace you anymore.”
He continued: “I’m interested in history when the stakes were high. I knew nothing about the Lavender Scare ― obviously, I knew bits and pieces about the AIDS epidemic ― but I loved the idea of telling a love story when it’s dangerous for two men to love each other.”
Rogers said he and Nyswaner approached Bomer for the role of Hawk almost immediately. As for Bailey, the “Bridgerton” actor had remained on the producers’ minds after trying out for a role in “My Policeman.”
Given the shifting time frames and varied locations, “Fellow Travelers” presented its creative team with a fair share of challenges. But as for those sex scenes, Rogers said he and the rest of the creative team “never set out to be salacious or push the envelope.”
“When you’re dealing with internalized homophobia, religion and other things that are very oppressive ... if you’re able to express yourself through sex and through love, it can be very, very emotional,” he explained. “These sex scenes are very much about power.”
Though he’s best known for his years as an athlete, Rogers is no novice to television production. He and husband Greg Berlanti ― the Emmy-nominated screenwriter and director whose Hollywood résumé includes “Dawson’s Creek” and the 2018 film “Love, Simon” ― shared producing duties on the 2018 series, “All American.”
But Rogers is especially hopeful that the success of “Fellow Travelers” will pave the way for future projects. At present, his goals include bringing a queer story set in the world of professional sports to the screen.
“I lived in that world for so long, and I’d love to figure out a way to tell that story and tell it in a big way,” he said. “Maybe it’s a biopic, or maybe it’s taking bits and pieces of different people’s stories. Obviously, there aren’t many gay athletes, and I’d love to give people an insight into what that world looks like and why it’s still so difficult for athletes to come out and continue to play.”
Watch the trailer for “Fellow Travelers” below.