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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tired Old Queen at the Movies: The Boys in the Band

It's June 26, a very gay day indeed: the anniversary of the Lawrence, Windsor, and Obergefell decisions.

Steve Hayes reviews the groundbreaking film version of the 1968 play, which portrays gay life as it was fifty years ago (OMG has it really been that long?):  before Stonewall happened, when the closet doors were still shut tight, "gay pride" hadn't been thought of, AIDS was nonexistent, and gay marriage was an entirely whimsical thought, as unreal and implausible as time travel.

As it happens, a summer revival of the play, with an all-gay cast, is running on Broadway now. I have no desire to go to New York, but I hope somebody films that production - it would be fascinating to see what the current generation does with it.

I was in high school and had only recently put the words homosexual and me together when I first heard of this film.  I think it played a single week in the city where I lived, but I would have sooner jumped off a cliff than go see it back then:  both for the fear of being seen and identified as "one of them" as well as the fear of actually meeting "a homosexual" - homo, homo, homo - I actually used to pray that God would never, ever let me meet one of those awful, horrible, depraved people, who would surely tempt me to sin, and ruin my salvation (already in tatters due to my constant, ever-failing battles with - oh woe is me! - the deep, dark, godless sin of masturbation).

Sounds so silly now, of course: but at the time, it was a deadly serious thing for a young, isolated gay boy who knew what he was and hated it with every breath.  That kind of fear and self-hatred is something straight people never go through - and I have yet to meet one who really "got it."  It does bad things to you inside.  Really bad.  Some guys didn't make it.  That could have been me, too.  Or you, perhaps.  But as my truckbuddy Frank remarked to me the other day, we managed to live thought all that, we are survivors - and that is surely something to be glad of.

I finally came out a decade later in college, and yes of course I had already shed all that fundamentalist crap - but between all that and the bullying in school, and the constant fear of being "found out" I was badly injured - as I know so many of my truckbuddies were too.  A stupid, awful, inhuman thing to put people though - for no good reason whatsoever.  I was about to rejoice that all that is history - but is it really?  We only had to deal with bullies in person back then - now there are cyberbullies and all sorts of public invective on the airwaves that wasn't possible in those days.

And the scars still hurt.  They will always hurt.  Like the pain of losing a loved one.  But life goes on, regardless of all your hurts, and in time you just learn to make the best of things.  Nobody gets through life unscathed, though some work really hard at hiding the fact.

One more note: when I finally got to see the video, say around 1985, and also found a copy of the play in a used book store, I was struck with how true to life it was, and still is - kudos to playwright Mart Crowley, a fellow Southerner, now 82 - a microcosm of the gay world that still rings true to me. I don't mean the clothes and the music and the slang, which are ever-changing, but the way gay people talk and act among themselves, when there's no need to "butch it up" or mind your manners or pretend to be straight - which for the men of my generation and before was, and still is down here in the provinces, our automatic default mode in public.

I saw the video again a few years ago, and while this time I didn't see the ending as being quite so bleak and depressing as I had the first time, I still thought the dialogue, the essential gayness of the characters was spot on.  Because human nature in general does not change, and by corollary, the sub-category of gay nature does not change, either - that's my view of things. (If human nature were not a constant, we would have changed into some other kind of critters long ago. But human nature is the same from age to age - just as is dog nature, cat nature, monkey nature, etc. - all capable of infinite outward variations, yet inwardly still the same.) But another thing that straight people don't get, unless they are very wise indeed, is that gayness is not only about who you sleep with - there's a nature, a character, a spirit, a whatever-you-call-it that comes with being gay, that is part of the package.

No, I don't mean effeminacy, necessarily - oh stop it, Mary - I have known (in both senses of the word) bricklayers, truck drivers, doctors, lawyers, football players, and Marines, none of whom had a touch of nelly queen about them, though they probably thought I had more than a touch, sometime or other.  But there's a certain beingness, for want of a better word, that I recognize in other gay men, butch or femme, or somewhere in between.  I mean a certain ambiance, if you will, a certain way of encountering the world and looking at it.  A certain attitude and rhythm of being that is neither straight-guy nor straight-girl but something else again - a third mode of being that partakes of both the others, but is itself, by itself, complete, and not merely an imitation of the other two:  something else again.  Something that is neither good nor bad but just IS - and is no strange thing, but simply belongs here in this world, like any other part of nature, human or otherwise.  We just are.  No explanation or justification needed.

At least that's how it seems to me, but I'm afraid I have neither the vocabulary nor the patience to write out a full exegesis of gaiety at this time.  Instead, why don't you fellas just go watch the video again, and I dare you to come back and tell me you don't see yourself in at least one of the characters, or several, or maybe all!  At least, you'll be reminded of one important thing - it's so so so important in this preachy, self-righteous, broomstick-up-the-ass modern world to be able to laugh at ourselves.  That too is an essential part of the human condition, and one we disown at our peril.

PS - I don't presume to speak for all the other letters of LGBTQIXYZ and whatever - they can certainly speak for themselves if they please.  I can only speak of what pertains to my existence and experience on this planet.  And of course my existence, my beingness, does not in any way preclude theirs.  I really, really don't want to run anybody else's life; I simply want everybody else to leave me the hell alone and let me get on with mine, on my own terms, and not those of some puritans of the left or the right.


Davis said...

A remarkable film. I enjoyed it a great deal when I saw it in the theatre when it opened. It was unforgettable. It was exactly - exactly - the kind of banter that I was accustomed to hear from older friends - some of whom became my mentors. Good people. While many see it in an entirely negative light I found some joy in it as well.

Russ Manley said...

Yes, Crowley exactly caught the dialogue of real life - a remarkable feat of verisimilitude, as anyone who has ever tried to write a story will recognize.

The first time I saw it, years later, I thought the ending was quite dark and despairing. But of course, gay lib had not yet happened when the play takes place. I now think it ("no matter what you do, you will always be a homosexual") can be seen as a spur in the direction of gay pride (you're gay, we're all gay, and there's nothing wrong with that).

Had the play been written just a couple of years later, I think it would have had rather different ending. But the characters did not know what was just around the corner, and it's a valuable record of the time before Stonewall - also great fun, for the most part.

Oh Mary, don't ask!

Davis said...

I appreciate your thoughts being a bit younger than I. Everyone comes to this and most everything with their own backgrounds and upbringings. Your point about it being different were it made a few years later rings quite true. Alas many young folk can't see beyond their enlightened would views. I know enough that my own perspective isn't anyone else's.

Russ Manley said...

I hear you. Alas, how often does today's enlightenment become tomorrow's dogma, and then dogma is apt to become unthinking tribalism. A universal tendency, I'm afraid, in our flawed, fractious human race at all times in all places, as history has shown repeatedly.

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