The Extinction of Gay Identity
Mart Crowley, author of the groundbreaking gay play “The Boys in the Band,” lives in a Manhattan apartment building that he used to visit frequently, for parties, in the late 1960s, when “Boys” had its theatrical debut. It’s on East 54th Street, No. 405, and its nickname, he told me, used to be “four of five,” because that was supposedly the ratio of gay residents.Posted — Updated
Mart Crowley, author of the groundbreaking gay play “The Boys in the Band,” lives in a Manhattan apartment building that he used to visit frequently, for parties, in the late 1960s, when “Boys” had its theatrical debut. It’s on East 54th Street, No. 405, and its nickname, he told me, used to be “four of five,” because that was supposedly the ratio of gay residents.
That is not the ratio now. “It’s all yuppies and kids in strollers and all of that — and a few old codgers,” Crowley, 82, said over a recent lunch. The gays have scattered, not just from that building but from others, and we’ve distributed ourselves throughout the city — and throughout society. Gay sanctuaries are vanishing.
Is that true of gay culture and gay identity, too? I increasingly get the sense that gayness itself has scattered, becoming something more various and harder to define. “Gay” tells you about a person’s lusts and loves, but it used to tell you more — about his or her boldness, irreverence, independence. It connoted a particular journey and pronounced struggle, and had its own soundtrack, sartorial flourishes and short list of celebrity icons. Not so anymore.
These thoughts came to mind as “Boys” comes back into view. For its 50th anniversary, it’s getting its first-ever Broadway production, with an all-gay, all-star cast including Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto. Previews begin Monday; the show opens May 31. I’ll be fascinated to see what audiences make of this campy, catty portrait of a group of gay men who talk in code, traffic in secrecy and have carved out something separate that is not exactly peace.
The play is a postcard from an era that we have thankfully moved past, a point of reference for our hard-won success over the last half-century and our arrival in an infinitely better place. But it’s also a reminder of a glue that has gone missing among many gay men. Among many lesbians, too, though for them the lingo was different, as were the wardrobe, songs and patron saints. We were tribes in a way that we no longer are, with rituals that we no longer have, and with a shared story.
What’s that story now, and what qualifies as a gay play, if such a thing still exists? Jesse Green, one of The New York Times’ theater critics, wrestled elegantly with that question in T magazine in February, noting that for him, the gay theatrical canon — or, rather, the gay male theatrical canon — ends in 1993, with Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” That play followed “The Normal Heart,” “Torch Song Trilogy” and, decades earlier, “Boys.” All were born of the bigotry that gays endured and the grace that they forged in the face of it. The plays since, according to Green, are “grayer, more tasteful.”
“Sometimes, to judge from what’s onstage, I have to conclude that Crate & Barrel is sponsoring the new gay agenda,” Green writes, adding that he no longer hears “a gay voice,” which he defines as “quick-witted, protean, emotional.”
That voice rings loud and clear in “Boys,” which debuted in 1968 and went on to become a movie in 1970. It captures the flair for melodrama, appetite for mischief and exaggerated sense of humor — alternately self-lacerating and self-lionizing — that constituted a gay armor, worn because we lived in a sort of exile. I donned it myself in the 1980s, from my late teens through my mid-20s, as I took the temperature of the country around me, wondering exactly how cold to me it would be.
To illustrate what America was like when Crowley wrote “Boys,” he recalled a screenplay that he also worked on in the late 1960s. It was an adaptation of the novel “Cassandra at the Wedding,” about identical twins — one straight, one lesbian — and the friction between them when the straight one is about to be married. Darryl Zanuck flirted with producing it, his interest piqued by the actress slated to play both twins.
“He hated the script, but because Natalie Wood was attached, he kept going along with it,” Crowley said. “I’d constantly get memos from him: ‘Too many dyke-isms! Cut the dyke-isms!’ He finally canceled.”
Crowley said that if someone had told him then that the U.S. Supreme Court would someday legalize same-sex marriage, he would have responded, “That’s rather insane.” It happened in 2015. But there had been enough progress toward the acceptance and integration of gays by 2005 that Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay in The New Republic titled “The End of Gay Culture,” which he imagined would “expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that ‘gayness’ alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual.” We’re there.
Gays aren’t yet on an equal legal footing with straight people. We’re frequently derided (I’m looking at you, Mike Pompeo) and assaulted. How gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people are treated hinges on where we live, what color we are, how much money we have and whom we work for.
As a gay white man employed by a progressive-minded company in New York City, I’m ridiculously lucky. I’m aware that too much of the past conversation and art about gayness focused on and was dominated by people like me. (Among the nine men in “Boys,” only one is black.) And I’m glad to witness the spread of a more diverse vocabulary that pays important heed to the distinctions between us.
But while LGBT spells out those differences, it also mashes everything together in a manner that deprives some of the consonants of their particular history and legacy. So does the catchall “queer.” Bonnie Morris, a women’s studies professor who wrote the 2016 book “The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture,” pointed out that the designation lesbian is viewed by many queers as too restrictive. There have been “a lot of attacks on lesbians as vagina fetishists,” she said.
“'Queer’ includes everybody,” she told me, “but it sure doesn’t specify where you’re coming from, what your experience is.” When Morris, 56, came out, in 1980, “lesbian” did have discrete, distinctive associations, and it mapped out physical territory that is increasingly difficult to find. “Bars are disappearing,” she said. “Bookstores are disappearing. Women’s centers are disappearing.”
I’m 53, I came out a few years later than she did, and I remember that simply telling someone that I was gay made me interesting at a time when most gay people weren’t forthcoming about that. I remember that visiting a gay bar or resort had an electric charge, because I was traversing forbidden ground. No matter how open I was about it, being gay felt a bit like belonging to a secret society.
But we didn’t want to be consigned to the margins and forced into hiding. For our safety and survival, we couldn’t afford to be. So we fought for the visibility that we cherish today. Along the way, the clubhouse was shuttered, the special knock was abandoned, and a certain spirit went away. When a culture is shaped by fear and discrimination and they fade, so does the culture.
“Everything costs something,” Crowley told me. “Gay culture is so diffuse now, where it was once so cloistered and clandestine. It was like our own world — the world was inside out.”
“I wouldn’t trade any of the progress,” I said to him. “And yet.”
“And yet,” he agreed. But, he added, with no equivocation, “You wouldn’t want that world back.”
“Boys in the Band” makes that clear, while also making sure that a lost world is remembered.
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