Ryan O'Connell

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Ryan O'Connell
Born1986/1987 (age 32–33)
  • Writer
  • actor
  • activist
Known forSpecial

Ryan O'Connell is an American writer, actor, director, comedian, LGBTQ activist, and disability advocate.[1] He is known for his 2015 memoir, I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,[1] about his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy, which he adapted into television series Special for Netflix, which premiered in April 2019.[2]

Early life[edit]

O'Connell grew up in Ventura County, California with what he described as his "liberal" family.[3] He has a mild form of cerebral palsy (CP) since birth, which affects the right side of his body with a noticeable limp.[4] Because of his CP, he had ten or eleven surgeries as a child, spending time in the hospital,[5] and went through lots of physical therapy.[6]

Growing up, O'Connell requested TV scripts for Christmas, and watched shows with the closed captioning on to learn more about writing.[3] He would watch shows and attempt to figure out the A-Plot versus the B plot, and the structure of the script.[5]

On discovering his sexuality, O'Connell said,

The moment I realized I was gay was, truly, [seeing] Ryan Phillippe's ass in Cruel Intentions. I remember seeing Ryan Phillippe's ass and being like, "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life." And then being, like, "Oh, fuck me. I'm gay and disabled, this is so rude."[3][7][8][9]

He remained closeted until he was seventeen and felt he needed to come out to pursue a boy who was already out.[3] His family was supportive when he came out; his sister, uncle, and grandfather had previously identified as LGBTQ.[6]

When O'Connell was twenty, he was hit by a car and required four hand surgeries.[10][11] The accident resulted in compartment syndrome, and affected mainly his left hand.[3] Nine months later, he moved to New York City to attend The New School. There, peers assumed his limp was from the car accident, and he chose not to correct them.[3] He described feeling in limbo about his CP, not really fitting in with disabled or able-bodied people.[6] Additionally, disabled representation in popular culture was nearly non-existent.[6]


Early career[edit]

O'Connell worked as a blogger for three years, first serving as editor of Thought Catalog in 2011.[12] He contributed to Vice, BuzzFeed, and other publications including The New York Times and Medium.[13][14] Some of his writing went viral and when he was 25, he was offered a book deal from Simon & Schuster.[3] At the time, he kept his disability private.[3] In 2015, he wrote a column for Thought Catalog called "Coming Out of the Disabled Closet" about hiding his disability with the car accident. He later expanded the article into his book,[15] which he used to publicly reveal his disability.[3] While writing the book, he moved to Los Angeles and at 27,[11] started his television writing career with MTV's Awkward.[14]

Just as his second season with Awkward wrapped in 2015, his memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves was published.[3] That same year, Jim Parsons, who had read O'Connell's Thought Catalog article, optioned the book through his company That's Wonderful Productions which he runs with husband Todd Spiewak.[3][16] In late 2015, O'Connell was named to the Out100 honoring LGBTQ icons.[17]

2016 and Special[edit]

In 2016, O'Connell received a go-ahead from Stage 13 to develop a script for Special, based on his memoir, with eight 15-minute episodes for Netflix.[18][3] In December 2016, he completed the writing but still had obstacles getting it produced because of the disability angle.[2] He started doing media work for Special while writing full-time on BH90210, a Fox comedy-drama reboot of Beverly Hills, 90210 set to air in August, 2019.[19][20] He noted it was hard to launch a show with a gay lead character, let alone one who was also disabled.[2] He stated, "I think Hollywood is largely not interested in disabled people because they don't view us as 'sexy' or 'cool.'"[2] He lamented, "1 in 4 people identify as disabled and there are only two shows (me and This Close) on the air from disabled people."[2]

In Special, the lead character Ryan misleads his coworkers that his limp was the result of a car accident instead of his cerebral palsy.[1] The show is largely based on O'Connell.[20] He uses the show to "explore his own internalized ableism and insecurities of being in the gay community".[20] A 2016 Ruderman Family Foundation study found found that "about 95% of characters with disabilities on television are played by able-bodied actors".[21]

Although he looked for an actor to play the role, ultimately he took the role himself due to budget constraints.[3] He found in particular the sex scenes were emotionally taxing but also rewarding as disabled people having sex is rarely seen, and among LGBT people even rarer.[3] O'Connell also "set out to depict onscreen sex in an authentic way, something rarely shown with LGBTQ people".[22] He said, "I also want to live in a world where it's not groundbreaking to show an accurate sex scene between two men."[23] Special also shows the lead character Ryan losing his virginity to a male hustler in what O'Connell characterized as "a beautifully honest and sweet sex scene".[23] Digital Spy noted "it's probably the first-ever TV show to tackle gay, disabled sex with authenticity, while destigmatising sex work at the same time."[24] USA Today called the episode a landmark for disability representation and noted "O'Connell hope(s) to destigmatize sex work with the graphic scene, but also normalize gay sex for mainstream audiences who aren't used to seeing it in Hollywood movies or popular TV shows".[25] O'Connell and the show were commended for his "standout performance and quippy prose".[24]

2017 to present[edit]

O'Connell wrote for a season of Daytime Divas in 2017.[15] He then worked as executive story editor on the 2017 reboot of Will & Grace, which taught him to keep stories grounded in the characters even if the action gets "wacky".[20]

In May 2019, O'Connell was honored with the HRC Visibility Award by the Human Rights Campaign at the 2019 HRC Atlanta Gala Dinner.[13] In June 2019, O'Connell was the celebrity grand marshal for the LA Pride Parade.[14] That month, Queerty named him one of the Pride50 "trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people."[26][27]

Personal life[edit]

Since 2015, O'Connell has dated Jonathan Parks-Ramage.[3] They met at Grimes' birthday party in Los Angeles.[4]


  1. ^ a b c "#Pride50: Actor, producer and disability advocate Ryan O'Connell". www.nbcnews.com. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  2. ^ a b c d e Galassi, Josh (2019-06-15). "Ryan O'Connell has received a "surplus of DM's from hot men in Brazil" since becoming a Netflix star". www.queerty.com. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Fernandez, Maria Elena (April 12, 2019). "Ryan O'Connell on Special, Gay Culture, and Cerebral Palsy". Vulture.
  4. ^ a b "Has Ryan O'Connell got cerebral palsy?". PopBuzz. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  5. ^ a b Fernandez, Maria Elena (April 12, 2019). "Ryan O'Connell on Special, Gay Culture, and Cerebral Palsy". Vulture.
  6. ^ a b c d "Monica, Ryan O'Connell". RuPaul. Season 1. Episode 8. June 19, 2019. Fox.
  7. ^ Romano, Nick (April 11, 2019). "Ryan O'Connell on Netflix's 'Special' and the importance of his sex scene: 'Gay sex is a TED Talk'". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  8. ^ Li, Shirley (March 21, 2019). "Exclusive: 'Cruel Intentions' cast spills all the details on making the seductive teen drama". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  9. ^ Grant, David (2019-03-22). "Ryan Phillippe is the latest celeb to flex 'power bottom energy'". www.queerty.com. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  10. ^ Y, Krystie Lee; Reporter, oli BuzzFeed News. "Ryan O'Connell From Netflix's "Special" Revealed The Terrifying Pressure He Felt Representing Gay People With Disabilities". www.buzzfeednews.com. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  11. ^ a b "'Special's' Ryan O'Connell Talks Centering a TV Series on Character With Cerebral Palsy". Variety. 2019-04-05. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  12. ^ "Ryan O'Connell on Thought Catalog, trolling & the Millennial angst tipping point: "The more you write about your personal life, the less you have one"". Salon. 2015-05-23. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  13. ^ a b Campaign, Human Rights. "HRC to honor Ryan O'Connell with the HRC Visibility Award". Human Rights Campaign. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  14. ^ a b c "Ryan O'Connell, Star of Netflix 'Special', Will Be LA Pride Parade Grand Marshal". WEHOville. 2019-05-30. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  15. ^ a b "Ryan O'Connell on Netflix's 'Special' and the importance of his sex scene: 'Gay sex is a TED Talk'". EW.com. 2019-04-11. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  16. ^ "Ryan O'Connell on Why Jim Parsons is "Revolutionary" in Hollywood: "He's America's Sweetheart and Gay"". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  17. ^ "Out100: Ryan O'Connell". www.out.com. 2015-11-09. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  18. ^ "Ryan O'Connell on his new Netflix comedy series 'Special". KCRW 89.9FM | Music, NPR News, Culture Los Angeles. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  19. ^ BH90210, retrieved 2019-05-29
  20. ^ a b c d "Ryan O'Connell Is Having a Gay Ole Time with 'Special'". Awards Daily. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  21. ^ "'Special' Creator Ryan O'Connell Is Changing Hollywood (Video)". TheWrap. 2019-04-12. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  22. ^ "Special's Ryan O'Connell Wants to 'Show the Humanity in Sex Work'". www.advocate.com. 2019-05-14. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  23. ^ a b Sarachan, Risa. "Ryan O'Connell's 'Special' On Netflix Is A Relatable Story Told By A Never-Before-Heard Voice". Forbes. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  24. ^ a b Phillipson, Daisy (2019-07-01). "Great LGBTQ+ TV shows that may have gone under your radar". Digital Spy. Retrieved 2019-07-02.
  25. ^ Ryan, Patrick (April 12, 2019). "'Special' creator on show's gay, disabled sex: 'People don't acknowledge we're sexual beings'". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2019-07-02.
  26. ^ "Queerty Pride50 2019 Honorees". Queerty. Retrieved 2019-06-18.
  27. ^ Galassi, Josh (2019-06-04). "Ryan O'Connell disables our stereotypes and swells our pride in 'Special'". www.queerty.com. Retrieved 2019-06-18.

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