Dr. Brad Schaeffer never anticipated having to come out again, because for the last decade, he has been out in his personal life.
But in 2020, the New York City doctor's life entered the spotlight when he joined the cast of “My Feet Are Killing Me," a TLC show that follows three podiatrists.
The series focuses on Schaeffer's patients and their problematic hooves, not his personal life, so he never had the opportunity to open up about the subject during the show's four seasons.
Still, given that he's the center of the show, there was undeniable interest in Schaeffer's life off-camera. A quick Google search is enough to show that audiences are interested in details about the New Jersey-based doctor’s marital status.
While promoting the show in interviews, radio jockeys assumed his sexuality and pressed him about his dating life. “You must be crushing it with the ladies in New York,” they said.
He shrugged off the questioning because he knew that this quick, somewhat impersonal setting wasn’t the place to publicly share, for the first time, that he’s actually crushing it — with dudes. But where was the place?
The 38-year-old was still trepidatious to “come out” publicly — not because he’s ashamed of his personal life, but because he just didn’t know where to begin. Silence can be perceived as shame, and even though this wasn't the case, something recently changed in him.
In short? Schaeffer is ready to share his story, and he's about to do so here.
When I signed on to the Zoom call for this interview, the doctor had showed up 15 minutes earlier than me, a rarity for subjects. I was phoning in from the shores of Fire Island, still enjoying my days off, while he was in a fresh pair of scrubs in his pristine Upper West Side office. The two of us couldn't be at more opposite ends of the gay spectrum: him a masculine former baseball player and me a flamboyant former drag queen. He was nervous, with a stack of notes out of camera’s view to help him tell the story he’s been waiting to tell the public for some time.
“I don’t want the question out there. I don’t want any confusion out there.”
Dr. Brad Schaeffer
“I just finally felt like it was time to do something and say something,” Schaeffer told TODAY via Zoom. “With the success of the show, it’s been going now for a bit. When you Google yourself, you look up the questions that people are asking. I don’t want the question out there. I don’t want any confusion out there. If I’m perpetuating that ... I’m never secretive on what I do. I’m very out there, but I’m not draping myself in a rainbow flag toga and running around Fire Island.”
He quickly added, "But if someone wanted do that, whatever!"
In honor of LGBTQ pride this month, Schaeffer sat down with TODAY to share his coming out story for the first time publicly, and how he hopes to inspire others to not only accept, but more importantly understand, the LGBTQ community he belongs to.
A 'slow burn' toward understanding his sexuality
Growing up, Schaeffer was aware of the "boxes" he fit into.
“My whole life, I was viewed as a straight-acting, athletic Christian guy,” Schaeffer told TODAY. “That’s a role that I played growing up. I grew up in an athletic family. We went to all kinds of sporting events together. Christianity played a huge role in my life, too. I wanted to conform to all of those boxes."
Around the age of 12, Schaeffer began to feel he might be gay. Given his religious upbringing, he tried to “pray the gay away." He explained, “I didn’t necessarily have a moment in time when I knew I was gay. It was just a slow burn, where it just kept eating at me and churning.”
"It was just a slow burn, where it just kept eating at me and churning.”Dr. Brad Schaeffer
Schaeffer even struggled to be supportive of his uncle, who was out to his family, because of his conditioning.
“I just wanted God to take this trial away from me,” he added. “I wanted to be part of this world where I didn’t have to deal with this trial that was being placed on me. But at the end of the day, I was like, 'OK, I’m strong. I can take care of this. I can win this battle.'”
The 'beautiful people' he met along the way
Schaeffer married his college sweetheart, Cara Cohen, almost immediately after they finished their senior year. In medical school for the majority of his 20s, Schaeffer used his schooling as an excuse for why he didn’t want children.
Really, though, Schaeffer's hesitation about having a family came down to "the burn" about his identity, which "became prevalent" into his mid-20s.
"You hear the stories all the time — depression, anxiety and suicide," he said. "It’s something that we’ve all probably dealt with because this journey can be depressing a lot of times. People can spiral and get out of control."
After five years of marriage, his wife was ready to start a family but he wasn't because of his secret. They grew apart and soon separated.
Reflecting, Schaeffer said he was on a "messed up path" in those years, and ended up "messing with other people's lives" as a result.
“These beautiful people that we meet along the way. We put them in our boxes, and they don’t belong being in those messed up places with us — but that’s exactly what I did," Schaeffer said.
After trying to reconcile things from afar for a few months, Schaeffer came out to his wife in 2012. She was shocked, thinking the tension in their marriage was because of challenges at school and not because of his sexuality. Her reaction was emotional — she cried — but supportive.
“'I’ll be with you,'” Schaeffer said Cohen told him afterwards. “'You’re always gonna be a part of my life. So this next chapter, I’ll be there for you, any way I can.'”
“I cried, not because I was sad because he was gay, but because he had lived with this stress for so long."
Cara Cohen, Schaeffer's ex-Wife
Speaking to TODAY, Cohen recalled her reaction to her ex-husband's coming out. "I cried, not because I was sad because he was gay, but because he had lived with this stress for so long," Cohen said. "This feeling of really not being able to come out or being ashamed and to feel like he couldn't be who he was. It just saddened me that he had been going through this all this time in his life."
“I was blown away, literally dropped to my knees in tears,” Schaeffer said, recalling his admission to her. “But one thing she said is, she knew this wasn’t anything she could change. She immediately had an understanding — and there’s a big difference between understanding and accepting.”
Going from 'accepting' to 'understanding'
From there, Cohen stuck to her promise. She stayed by his side to support him through this next chapter of his life, which entailed another series of coming outs — this time, to his family.
He told his dad at a Phillies game while tailgating. There were more tears, but his dad was supportive. He already has accepted his brother for being gay.
Schaeffer said that, in line with his dad's character, he wanted to handle telling the rest of the family. As a result, Schaeffer doesn't know his mom and younger sister's knee-jerk reactions to the news. But over the next few weeks, they all had conversations separately and together as a family.
"I love that you accept and love me for who I am, but honestly, why don’t you just take the time to understand it a little bit?" he remembered telling his family. "That took my friends and family a while — to go from accepting to understanding."
'We just have a very nice, modern family'
Stepping into his own sexuality, Schaeffer began going out in New York City more. It's there he met his current partner of 10 years, Sean. Like Schaeffer, Sean had previously been married to a woman and shared two kids with her.
As Schaeffer's follower count began to grow with the success of the show, his partner was wary of attention — and the potential focus on their relationship.
"Although he is a big part of my story and journey, it's definitely not something that he wants to be a part of. He doesn't want his story to be told totally," Schaeffer said.
Still, Schaeffer sees this as a chance to celebrate the partnerships of his life and the "modern family" they form when put together.
Cohen remarried a few years after their divorce and has two kids now — Mason, 3, and Max, 5. She recently called on "Uncle Brad's" babysitting skills in the middle of the night when she and her husband were sick and needed to go to the hospital.
"She’s still my best friend," Schaeffer said. "To this day, we have an extremely solid relationship. She has two beautiful boys I watch every now and then. We just have a very nice, modern family."
"Usually when you get divorced, you lose that person, but I still had my best friend and I still do have my best friend," Cohen said. "We're just as close today as we were when we were married, maybe even closer. Obviously it's in a very different capacity, but I feel lucky to have him in my life."
Cohen is proud of Schaeffer for coming out on this scale.
"He doesn't hide (being gay) but now that he has this platform, maybe his story will help others who are struggling to come out feel like it's OK," she added. "Like, if he can do it, so can you."
Life after coming out of the box
In anticipation of this interview being published, Schaeffer introduced subtle hints to his Instagram profile. He added a rainbow border to his profile photo, and added a rainbow heart sticker to a photo shared on his Instagram story.
Pride has different ways of being lived in and expressed. This doctor seems ready to stand in his truth in a whole new way, on a whole new scale. (What's next? A rainbow toga?)
"For a while there, I didn't think I would fit in," he said. "We've all struggled with fitting in in some way — but there is a place for you. It took time, but I'm happy and so confident and excited to openly discuss this in a public forum."
"Once the boxes get completely blown up, we're all going to thrive so much more."
To celebrate LGBTQ pride, TODAY is sharing this community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and special features throughout the entire month of June.