Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

Warren Allen Smith

Gossip from Across the Pond

by Warren Allen Smith

Two works featuring gay freethinkers are currently wowing Broadway: The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, the Tony-winning drama by Edward Albee; and Hairspray, in which Harvey Fierstein plays Mrs Edna Turnblad in John Waters’s camp classic about teen angst.

A nominal Quaker and pacifist but not a Trinitarian, Edward Albee writes about an architect with a secret. The secret is not that the architect has a (handsome) homosexual son. It’s that he has fallen for Sylvia because of “those eyes of hers”. His wife reacts by throwing furniture all over the place, and the son as referee in one scene attempts to get close to his father, then draws back as if it would be inappropriate to kiss a father who knows his son is gay. So is it The Two Gentlemen of Verona’s Sylvia “that all our swains commend her?/Holy, fair, and wise is she;/The heaven such grace did lend her”? No, the architect has fallen in love with a goat. Whatsay? Posing such a question is analogous to asking if Hamlet’s is a real or a figurative ghost.

The audience never really gets to see a physical goat, so whatever is contained in the cloth bag dragged in during a final scene could be explicated in different ways. For one, the architect appears to be highly moral but is experiencing something in life that he feels should not be, and Albee is clever enough not to provide a clear meaning of what that something is. At the play’s conclusion, the real play continues as theatergoers speculate concerning Albee’s purpose or message. If we can’t absolutely figure it out, so much the better – that’s Albee. If we think the “sin” is that the architect has fallen for a prostitute, a transsexual, an effeminate gay, or the neighbor’s wife or daughter, are we simply revealing our own Sylvia? Whatever or whoever Sylvia is, the solid marriage described at the beginning is in trouble.

Meanwhile, the play has many funny moments (starting with the outrageous title and the play’s premise). Ideal family life is satirized, and disillusionment with people in power is developed. Upon leaving the theater, playgoers feel they have seen a cutting-edge Greek tragedy. The problem is to try to put into words what has excited the feelings of pity and terror. A lady I conversed with afterwards detested the very idea of a man’s having sex with a goat, so Sylvia will be interpreted literally by some, depending upon whatever evolutionary level they’ve reached.

In my Celebrities in Hell (Barricade Books, 2002), I quote Harvey Fierstein as saying on the Public Broadcasting System that he is both a cultural Jew and an atheist. In one of the gayest of all plays, Hairspray, he also is one of the funniest women ever to appear on a Broadway stage! He doesn’t play the role as if he were a man pretending to be a woman. In his own hoarse voice (related to a childhood accident), he openly plays a woman, the one Divine played in the 1988 movie on which the musical is based.

Fierstein adroitly dances in and wears a wig that weighs almost 3 kilograms, a dress that weighs 4 kilograms, padding that weighs over 16 kilograms, and says, “the lashes alone can kill you!” The setting is Baltimore of the 1960s, home of the movie’s author, John Waters (“the king of bad taste”, who still delights in bragging that he was arrested in 1965 for smoking pot in his New York University dorm room). It comes lovingly alive in this bawdy old-fashioned musical that praises fat girls (much as George Bernard Shaw praised Gladys Homfrey in 1894) and has led to department stores featuring Hairspray-like bouffant wigs and iridescent paisley clothing with feathers for chubby gals. The dancing, by a troupe of blacks and whites that includes a boy with a duck’s-ass hairdo, is outstanding. The story involves a fat girl’s success in show business, racial integration being promoted, and the humanistic message that we all need to have pride in who we are. On their cutesy homepage, you can see and hear the stunning cast.

Martin Duberman is the non-believer and humanist who wrote “Gayness Becomes You” in The Nation (20 May 2002). Author in 1996 of Stonewall, one of the better works describing the 1969 riots on behalf of human rights by homosexuals, he is a distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York and founder of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS).

Dr Duberman explains that, despite enormous variations in their lifestyles, gays view gender, sexuality, primary relationships, friendship and family quite differently now from what they did fifty years ago, when Herbert Marcuse suggested they (the term then was homosexuals) might provide a cutting-edge social critique of vast importance one day. Today, one hears that gay differentness is not just a defensible variation “but a decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range of human possibilities for everyone”.

That is, if the mainstream were listening, but it isn’t. It isn’t because the mainstream’s antenna “remains tuned to a limited number of false frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics) is rooted in biology”. The mainstream persists in thinking that gays need to be barred because they consist of overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers, dickless “men” and surgically created “women” delusionally convinced that they’re part of some non-existent group called the “transgendered”. In other words, the more different the outsider, “the greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves that they prefer to keep under lock and key”.

Dr Duberman differs entirely, of course, but makes it clear what gays are up against these days. Despite the mainstream’s view, he advises that gays continue being themselves because “gayness becomes you”. One of his personal heroes is Emma Goldman, the anarchist, advocate of birth control, and fellow non-believer. She also believed that each generation needs to discard “the burdens of the past, which hold us all in a net”. Or, as the humanist Somerset Maugham advised in Of Human Bondage, determine what your bondages are and discard them unless they are physical.

Alan Riding, writing in The New York Times about a Michelangelo exhibition at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, tells about The Rape of Ganymede, which Michelangelo gave to twelve-year-old Tommaso de Cavalieri in 1532 when the artist was 57: “Letters between Michelangelo and Tommaso hint at no particular anguish. In early-16th-century Florence, it seems, intimate relationships between men and boys were not uncommon.” Riding makes no mention that Michelangelo was rumored to have had sex with Pope Julius III.

A little-known Manhattan theophagist, Allen Windsor, has been advising theists how they should sip wine at their monotheistic Eucharists. “Swallow very, very quickly,” he says, “before the miracle of transubstantiation takes place. Otherwise, I hope y’know what you’ll end up swallowing”!

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Created : Sunday, 2002-11-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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