My girlfriend, Jackie, looked at me perplexedly when I explained where I had just been-a lecture at UCSB by Felice Picano, one of the leading historians on gay culture in the 1970s and ’80s and author of the recently published Art and Sex in Greenwich Village.
“He talked about a lot of things, but mostly about gay theater,” I said.
“Is there any other kind?” Jackie deadpanned.
Well, it just so happens that there was, at least before Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, according to Picano. Before this, the theater may have been filled to the brim with gay actors and/or playwrights, but the story of what it really meant to be gay was never told.
Trilogy, which started a run of performances in Greenwich Village and went on to Broadway (and won two Tony awards in 1983), starred, among others, a 17-year-old Matthew Broderick, who had to get his parents’ signed consent to perform in it. According to Picano, when his Gay Presses of New York published Trilogy, it “kept us in the black in the years after,” thus allowing the company to work with and publish more unknown authors and playwrights. And it was through Gay Presses that Picano was able to facilitate the creation of gay culture-he published what gays and lesbians were writing about the current gay experience, and this helped to shape it into what it is today.
Many people, theater aficionados or otherwise, argue that Angels in America, which premiered publicly in 1991, was the first true piece of gay theater and that it paved the way for other such works. But Angels, which tells the story of a man who gets AIDS and subsequently is left by his boyfriend, flies in the face of what was actually happening at that time, according to Picano. Although that era of gay life was defined by “open relationships,” couples usually stayed together if one person contracted AIDS, explained Picano, so one lover leaving another did not accurately describe what really took place. Picano also revealed that Angelsplaywright Tony Kushner “wrote it for a straight audience,” suggesting that its skewed plot may have been to keep mainstream readers comfortable with a lifestyle and disease no one knew anything about.
In a weird, twisted way, the fact that Kushner skewed his plot to keep heterosexuals comfortable seems to describe the gay experience accurately. I obviously can’t speak for all my fellow gays, but I know that I often sugarcoat or tweak my conversations with many heterosexuals because I don’t want to force them out of their comfort zone. Although this may be a deficiency within me and only me, I think I may be speaking for more than one gay or lesbian person who, after listening ad nauseum to the details of a straight friend’s sex life, is told, “I don’t want details!” or “Geez, you don’t have to get graphic.”
The truth is, the gay experience-although the same as the heterosexual experience in that we have relationships based on love-exists within a predominantly straight world, and, therefore, we have to define things according to the realities based on this heterosexual paradigm. It’s a complicated idea, if you think about it; being gay inherently makes us different, no matter how “normal” or “regular” life in the everyday seems to be. It’s why this column is called “Gay Girl/Straight World”: My experience as a gay woman is, simultaneously, uniquely my own while also constantly reflected within the heterosexual model.
Although Picano did not say this outright, I think this reality-gay people are part of a straight world-is one of the things that led him and his contemporaries to galvanize a gay cultural movement. In 1971, there was no specific “gay theater,” yet, by 1981, there was a thriving gay theater community. This “gay cultural explosion,” which Picano likened to the Big Bang theory, was largely because of a deliberate, conscious attempt to spur a cultural identity for gays and lesbians. “Any gay culture you see around you has been constructed in the last 30 years, and by people my age,” Picano said.
But like many others before and after him, Picano didn’t want his work to “interfere with my active social/sexual/romantic life.” After a pause, he chuckled, “And I didn’t let it.”
Cheers to that, Felice