Our Love Is Here To Stay VIII

AIDS and Beyond

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, last revised 2008)

(All the images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)


A poster for the 1983 Fighting for Our Lives 
    MarchA poster for the 1983 Fighting for Our Lives March, one of the first public AIDS demonstrations.

For those who worked in the theatre, AIDS brought personal and professional devastation. Friends, lovers and co-workers died in soul-numbing numbers. I recall comforting a friend who had to stage manage a performance after returning from the sixth memorial service he had attended in two weeks. This was the sort of non-stop grief one expects in wartime. The infuriating thing was that most of America refused to know or care about any of it. In May of 1983, I and many other theatre people joined in a candlelight march on New York's Federal Building, one of the first major public rallies calling attention to the AIDS crisis.  The press stayed away, part of the mainstream media's ongoing refusal to cover the "gay" epidemic.

From early on, the theatrical community organized all sorts of fundraisers, including all-star nights at Lincoln Center, Easter Bonnet competitions and "Broadway Bares" strip shows. Actors on the Tony Awards broadcast were the first to give the red AIDS awareness ribbon national exposure. In time, Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS joined forces to help those living with the disease. Their collections increased from year to year, topping the $2 million mark in 1999.

Out of the Shadows

Most gays in the entertainment industry had always done their best to keep their sexuality to themselves. Such gay comics as Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly might "camp it up" to get laughs on game shows, but in the years before AIDS no one on show business dared to discuss their preferences in public forums. I know of one gay Tony nominee who was warned by his agent to bring a female date to the ceremony "or else." When he appeared on the air seated beside his male lover, his agent dropped him and smeared his professional reputation. More than a decade passed before this talented actor worked on Broadway again.

It took the deaths of two major celebrities to blow the closets open. Screen actor Rock Hudson and pianist Liberace had always denied their homosexuality, but as David Ehrenstein points out in Open Secret (William Morrow, NY, 1998) the press and a substantial segment of the general public had known better for decades. Desperate attempts by Hudson and Liberace to keep their battles with AIDS secret proved fruitless, and their deaths opened long-feared floodgates of press coverage and public discussion. To the surprise of many, the collapse of the old "don't tell and we won't ask" hypocrisy did not infuriate the public. Bit by bit, gays and lesbians in the entertainment industry began to come out. Homosexuals were such a vital part of show business that disposing of them en masse was impossible. A few pioneers took the greatest risks. When John Glines thanked his gay lover during a Tony acceptance speech in 1983, it set off a firestorm of controversy, including death threats. Within two years, similar speeches on awards shows caused no fuss at all.

As someone who worked both on and Off-Broadway during the 1980s and 90s, I can verify that the ongoing nightmare of AIDS did not prevent those years from being exciting ones for gays and lesbians in the theatre. While fighting a seemingly unbeatable foe, we gained a new sense of our place in the theatrical community. We were no longer on the fringes or banished to the chorus. Gays and lesbians were finally demanding and getting recognition as a visible and vital part of the entertainment industry.

Musicals in the Age of AIDS

Gay playwrights began to create the believable, three dimensional characters that the public needed to dramatize and define the AIDS nightmare. Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, Terrence McNally's Love! Valor! Compassion! and Tony Kushner's two part play Angels In America led the way.

The musical stage was part of this trend. Beginning as two separate installments of an acclaimed Off-Broadway musical trilogy, William Finn'sMarch of the Falsettos and Falsettoland depicted gay men facing life, love and AIDS with the support of family and friends. That circle of friends included the first openly lesbian couple to appear as featured characters in a major Broadway musical. Combined into a two-act evening, Falsettos (1992) surprised everyone by winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Score, running for more than a year and turning a solid profit. From The Black Crook to Falsettoes, the musical had come a long way. But that progress would face some surprising twists in the decade that followed.

Rent: AIDS as a Marketing Ploy

In an ominous trend, plays and films of the mid to late 1990s began to put forward a straight-authored view of AIDS and homosexuality, one that condescended to gays but reassured straight audiences. In a blatant flight of fantasy, straight characters were depicted as the real heroes in the battle against AIDS and homophobia. Instead of being ridiculed, films like Philadelphia and stage musicals like Rent (1996) won acclaim and box office success. Novelist and critic Sarah Schulman decries this commercial "commodification of homosexuality," stating that Rent depicts "basically straight-made homosexuality for predominantly straight audiences."

. . . the existence of homosexuality is no longer being denied. Instead, a fake public homosexuality has been constructed to facilitate a double marketing strategy: selling products to gay consumers that address their emotional need to be accepted while selling a palatable image of homosexuality to heterosexual consumers that meets their need to have their dominance obscured . . . While fake stories about AIDS that make straight people feel good are the most public narrative, reaping huge financial rewards, Oscars, Pulitzers and whatnot, real gay people and real people with real AIDS are on an entirely different consumer pipeline, invisible to straight people . . .
- Stagestruck: Theatre, Aids and The Marketing of Gay America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), pp.146 & 151.

Another appalling problem with Rent is its ending. Because the heroine-addicted heroine Mimi is gratuitously kept alive, someone must be disposed of to give the final scenes dramatic impact. The result? A queer is killed off instead – so much easier for general audiences to accept, no?

Many gay theatre lovers had hoped that killing off a fag before the final curtain was a thing of the past, but it was still acceptable enough to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Musical. Pity. After it became clear that Rent was not the beginning of any sort of theatrical trend, other musicals pointed the way to a less manipulative use of gay characters, but that didn't make such cynical pandering any less upsetting.

In The Full Monty (2000), gay playwright Terrence McNally upped the ante by having straight characters contend with a budding gay romance in their ranks. While attending a co-worker's funeral, two unemployed steelworkers realize their love for each other in the song "You Walk With Me." They join hands – a daring gesture at a steelworker's funeral. Instead of condemning them, their butch friend (the lead character in the show) remarks, "Good for them," providing a watershed moment of quiet affirmation and understanding.

A Woman, Pretending To Be a Man, Pretending To Be a Woman?

Despite the dwindling number of musical films in the last decades of the 20th Century, several dealt openly with the topic of homosexuality –

Even Disney's animated musicals made an oblique reference to homosexuality when Robin Williams' Genie in Aladdin (1993) assured his master that their warm relationship did not mean he wanted to "pick out drapes or anything." Of course, I've always wondered about Jacques and Gus-Gus, those two buddy-buddy mice in Cinderella (Disney 1950) . . .

In the years following Stonewall, gay piano bars became a popular home away from home for showtunes and those who love them.

Next: What is This Thing Called Love?