The phenomenal success of "Modern Family" has been a game changer for its entire cast, including actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
The show's high ratings, three consecutive Emmy wins for outstanding comedy series and broad fan base have given all its stars a massive platform. Ferguson is using his for a cause that's both political and personal: the fight to legalize same-sex marriage.
The 37-year-old Montana native doesn't just play Mitch, a gay man in a loving, committed relationship on TV; in a way, he is Mitch. After dating for more than two years, Ferguson and his boyfriend, Justin Mikita, decided to take the next step. During a recent trip to Mexico, Ferguson "popped the big Q." Mikita said yes.
After much consideration and debate, the newly engaged couple decided to go public with their private news, not because they don't enjoy their privacy -- they certainly do -- but because in doing so they knew they could shine a light on a cause dear to their hearts.
Ferguson and Mitka started the Tie the Knot foundation. Its mission is simple: sell bow ties to raise money for marriage equality. The "Modern Family" actor recently spoke with CNN about his organization.
CNN: When you go to www.tietheknot.org , the first thing you see is a hilarious video of you and Justin announcing your engagement.
Jesse Tyler Fergusson: I feel like when you tackle any subject with comedy, humor and wits, you're going to get a lot further than if you just give the dry facts of the cause.
CNN: It definitely gets your attention. It couldn't have been an easy decision to put your private life out there like that.
Ferguson: We kind of felt like the only way to legitimize why we wanted to do this was to announce that we were actually engaged. It made me very nervous; I didn't want to exploit something that was very personal and private between Justin and me. But, in the context of our foundation, it felt like (it was) the right time to tell people.
CNN: My favorite part was your struggle with labeling your relationship.
Ferguson: I hate "lover"! I think it sounds so pretentious and like that "Saturday Night Live" skit with Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch in the hot tub eating turkey. I've always found the term fiance in gay or straight relationships to be completely strange. It doesn't sound English or American at all. I love calling Justin "the lover I've taken on," but he doesn't care for that. So I just say "boyfriend." I think there's something really sweet and innocent about it.
CNN: A lot of boyfriends, and girlfriends in Maine, Maryland and Washington got some good news on Election Day when same-sex marriage was legalized in those states by popular vote.
Ferguson: I have such mixed feelings about it. Obviously, I'm so happy these states won marriage equality. It's also very tough for me. I went through it with Proposition 8 (in California), seeing the majority vote on the minority's rights. It's incredibly hard to swallow. I just feel like it shouldn't be up to the majority to vote on a minority's civil rights.
I'm thrilled that we are slowly making progress, and we have to make progress however we can. But I do look forward to the day we stop putting it in the hands of the states and make it a national thing. This is America and (marriage equality) should be part of the "United" part of our country.
CNN: What do you see as the biggest challenge between where things are now and the protection of same-sex marriage under federal law?
Ferguson: We're in a great place. There's a forward movement on this issue, and for many young Americans it's a nonissue. But one stumbling block is the lack of education about marriage equality.
I feel like there's a fear that the definition of marriage will be changed. Nobody's looking to change the meaning of what it means to be married. We just want to add to who has the right. It's the same thing as women wanting the right to vote. They weren't going to change the meaning of going to the polls and putting the card in the ballot; they just wanted the right to vote.
CNN: And whether you're voting or getting married, who doesn't like to wear a nice bow tie, right? Why did you pick this accessory as the cornerstone of your foundation?
Ferguson: I selfishly wanted to get involved in the fashion world anyway, but in a way that didn't feel like a huge undertaking. So I thought about what I like to wear and also what is literally the smallest piece of clothing I could possibly design. So we came up with the bow-tie line. It was Justin's idea to incorporate it into the foundation. We thought -- why don't we kill two birds with one stone? We'll start a bow-tie line and funnel the proceeds into a foundation for marriage equality. Then Justin came up with the idea of Tie the Knot, which just perfectly marries those two ideas.
CNN: I think people will appreciate the symbolism. Also, it matches your character in "Modern Family." I imagine your cast mates have been supportive.
Ferguson: I mean it really is. People are always trying to test us and break us and find out the darkness, but there's really nothing to tell. We're kind of on this roller coaster together, and it's a very bonding experience.
We're watching our families grow. I've gotten engaged since meeting these people. Ty (Burell) has had two kids. Julie (Bowen) had twins. Sofia (Vergara) got engaged. We'll go to a birthday party or get together at someone's house and bring our husbands, wives, fiances, boyfriends and girlfriends, and it feels like a huge extended family.
CNN: I bet when one of your family members finds themselves at the center of a crazy headline or serious crisis you all react. Do you turn into Papa Bear?
Ferguson: There's obviously some sense of protection because we know being (in) the media's eye how vulnerable that can be when you're going through something. So we all rally around one another and protect one another. We're always checking in with one another, and some walls definitely go up to protect some people. It's exactly what you would expect from people who have your back.
CNN: I can only imagine what a "Modern Family" gay wedding will be like. I bet you and Justin get asked a lot when the big day is.
Ferguson: About once a day! We're in the process of planning it. It could be as early as this spring, and it could be the following spring. We're kind of waiting for some pieces to fall into place and to see what my work schedule is like next summer. I'm also really excited to be married. I don't want to have a three-year engagement. I proposed to Justin because I wanted to be married. I don't want to be a professional engaged person.
CNN: Are you planning something more traditional or, dare I say, modern?
Ferguson: Well, we're not going to be redefining the marriage ceremony. I grew up Catholic but don't practice any longer. I haven't been to the Catholic Church in years so I would feel really weird to try and bring in those traditions -- it's just not us. It's going to be a very nontraditional, very organic, very simple ceremony. We're not going to have a wedding party or try to find someone amazing to officiate. I think it will be a very short, very sweet and simple and hopefully beautiful ceremony. I don't even have any gay friends who have gotten married, but several of my straight friends had very untraditional weddings, and those have always been my favorite.
CNN: Have you decided about starting a family?
Ferguson: It's something we've talked about. It's one of those early date questions. "Do you want kids?" And we both do. But I'm just excited to get married and sit in the marriage place for a little while. I don't want to jump into kids right away. But, yeah, we both really want kids very much.