What You Missed at the Lamdba Awards

Both [Terrence] McNally and Albee spoke of what it means to be a gay author. In accepting his award, Albee said, “I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay … I’ve written a number of plays with gay characters in them, but I have never written a play that could be considered a ‘gay play’ because I consider that a lessening of the creative act, to limit oneself to one’s own sexual practices as subject matter for one’s work.”

In the less then 48 hours elapsed since these words were spoken, I’ve already noticed a growing flurry of response to Albee’s commentary on his life, which by extension feels like a commentary on the Lambda Literary Foundation, and further by an extension a commentary on writing and identity–our associations, allegiances, and, ultimately, our communities.

I received in my inbox a letter from a colleague who bemoaned Albee’s stance, feeling in many ways slighted by this attitude. On the one hand, Albee’s comment seems unnecessarily sharp, more a criticism of others than a statement of self. The statement, while brief, is bloated with connotation and assumption; that is what I think provoke confused and angry responses to his words.

On the one hand, Albee is prioritizing his own identities, putting his creative identity ahead of his sexual identity. Albee seems to imply his goal is to transcend self in his writing–that being gay is no more important to him than being straight might be to another playwright. I don’t think anyone assumes that heterosexuals write more “legitimately” or more “honestly” about other heterosexual people or experiences. Or do they?

At its core, Albee’s position takes up an ongoing tension in the community of gay writers and writers who happen to be gay. Writers in the first camp don’t feel like homosexuality “happened” to them; instead, they may feel as if their sexuality provides a lens through which they view the totality of their lived experience. Writers in the second camp may not deny the lens is there, but might say the lens doesn’t limit or dictate what they look at through it. There may be a misperception that “gay writers” use only their own “gay experience” as subject matter, but this is untrue. Some writers who self-identify as gay writers may use their own experience, but I would hazard to say this ratio is probably equal to the number of heterosexual writers who use their own life as subject fodder. We don’t discount these straight writers, but we also don’t consider them brave or trailblazing, either. In either case, disparaging the choice probably doesn’t help.

The deep tension here, though, seems to be the break between gays who are fundamentally assimilationist and gays who are separatist. A gay writer is more likely to consider him or herself as separate from the dominant literary community–specifically from both heterosexual writing and heterosexual culture. A writer like Albee seems more assimilationist in approach, gaining–and then perhaps being scorned for gaining–wider appreciation for work that is generally more inclusive of different kinds of people. Almost in every case, a writer who takes Albee’s position has a greater chance of success in the literary world, partly because his or her stories will have a wider audience and partly because segments of that wider audience don’t want to encounter gay people in the work they read.

Futhermore, Albee is also ascribing to the word “gay” a simple idea–that being gay is a behavior, not an identity. Part of the gay rights movement has been dedicated to reserving the notion that what separates gays and straights is what happens under the covers (although, trust me, it’s different). But amplifying gay behavior into a gay identity is a fallacy. Our world is full of otherwise heterosexual people who, either temporarily or on an ongoing basis, love having same-sex sex partners. It doesn’t affect their overall identity to do so. This is because being gay is really something else. If it weren’t, I would spontaneously revert to being a heterosexual whenever I’m not having sex–which, honestly, is most of the time. If I were to consider the only gay thing in my life to be the sex I was having, obviously “gay identity” overall would take on a much smaller part of my overall identity. This may be the case for Albee. For those who perceive their gay identity as having wider repercussions, for touching on most or all aspects of their life, a perspective like Albee’s feels reductionist and oversimplified.

And this is perhaps the concerning implication of Albee’s statement: is he, by virtue of this attitude, contributing to the “recloseting” of homosexuality? By not taking a stake in being a gay writer, Albee, from some vantage points, is able to “pass.” In the entire history of oppression, those who pass are met with resistance and disdain from both the people like them who cannot or choose not to pass and those for whom they seek to pass. Writers like Albee ultimately end up alone, outside of the dominant community and unwelcome in their marginalized community. Aspiring to pass can be read as a desire not to be seen as gay, which is fundamentally the same as desiring not to be gay in the first place. Aspiring to pass, then, can be perceived as a rejection of this marginalized identity, a yearning to be accepted by the majority as “one of them,” undifferentiated–equal.

Are gay writers responding to this aspect of Albee’s speech? Yes. Is this implication troubling? Hells yes. Because of our current complicated moment, when gays and lesbians had their marriage rights revoked in California, when our rights are debated in front of us in coffeeshops and on news programs, it is very troubling. In fact, more than that, it almost seems antiquated. But perhaps this is because of our current moment, when LGBT writers who are invested in the furthering of our rights are the ones holding the microphones. It is unlikely that Albee’s words will turn back the clock (or, as a gay writer might say, “turn back time”). It’s interesting that Albee was introduced by McNally, who wrote one of the most incendiary gay plays ever (Corpus Christi), which was so controversial McNally received death threats after it premiered. There, in a nutshell, were two very unique approaches to work in American theater.

Gay literature/literature by gay people still has a lot of issues to work out in this area. I know this debate–are you a gay writer or writer who is gay?–is one that has come and gone a few times on blogs and elsewhere, but sincerely, these ideas bear repeating. I will never forget a moment in a workshop with C. D. Wright during my MFA program. One of my classmates, who was raised in South Carolina, asked C. D. Wright about how people try to classify her as a “Southern writer” and whether or not that label was helpful. Wright very plainly said when people want to classify you, “don’t sign up.” Don’t sign up. Don’t sign up. I keep repeating it to myself. It seems like she’s saying don’t classify yourself, but I don’t think that’s it.

I think she’s saying, “Don’t let other people determine who you are.”

And, fundamentally, that’s the debate here. Albee doesn’t want to sign up. There are those in our community who are desperate to place him in our community, and maybe that impulse is even part of what prompted him to receive this award right now. And it’s Albee’s option not to sign up.

I think Albee’s done nothing wrong in making this statement. It is his own prerogative to define himself, just as those with an opposing viewpoint want the same luxury, to define their creative identity as being inextricable from their queer identity. For every Michael Cunningham, there’s a Bret Easton Ellis. The argument on both sides is flawed: both camps want to limit the kind of definitions that can take place, but by doing so, they negate their own right to self-define. What we need to do is give each other permission to self-define, even when those definitions don’t jibe with our perception of the greater issues at stake. Albee’s stance won’t single-handedly roll back LGBT visibility or progress.

Imagine if we never knew Albee was gay. We wouldn’t have experienced any sense of loss. But what might have been in bad taste was saying this while accepting a prestigious award from an organization that fosters and promotes writing by LGBT artists.

But even then, no one wins a Lammy for being a good queer, right?

Why Wonder

To all the people feeling shock and anger over the five suicides by bullied gay youth, I ask, “What took you so long?”

I also wonder where you have been. You’ve been thinking about other things. The media hasn’t reported on suicides like this before, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been happening. Talk to a well-adjusted adult gay person and you’re probably talking to someone who, at some point in their adolescence, considered suicide. Perhaps he or she didn’t act on the thoughts. Perhaps he or she made attempts, gestures, warnings. Perhaps he or she had close friends, trusted family members in whom he or she could confide these thoughts, fears, feelings. Likely not.

It seems like it should have been more likely in another decade. In the 1960s, when gay people appeared in a film, they experienced only torture and anguish until they, too, took their own lives. This didn’t really change until Making Love appeared in the early 80s. But by then we had HIV/AIDS and everyone had new reasons to hate gay people, to want them quarantined in camps or simply exterminated.

Even as a (fairly) well-adjusted adult, it’s unnerving to sit in my living room, zip onto the Internet, and encounter major news outlets engaging in debate over whether or not I deserve the same rights and privileges as people who are otherwise just like me.

Once, when I was about 13, my dad told a really offensive gay joke at dinner. A debate ensued in which he claimed homosexuality was wrong and that it said so in the Bible. I had never before seen my dad even glance at a religious text, much less read the Bible. And even then I knew that something about me was different. I let that night convince me that difference was wrong. Years later, my father would no longer resemble that man at dinner. He has blossomed into an amazing parent of a gay child.

Only because I afforded him that opportunity. Which I nearly didn’t.

Now that I’ve reconnected with 90% of my high school on Facebook, I realize that the majority of people who knew me then have no idea the impact the constant bullying and teasing I suffered had on me. In fact, probably no one knew.

I spent my entire freshman year of high school looking for a place where people wouldn’t find me. Every day when I sat in band, the kids behind me taunted me and taunted me to no end. I used to pray they would skip class. I used to pray no one else would point out it was happening. I had to ensure–every single day–that I was never alone, because as soon as I was cut off from everyone else, they would descend upon me and I knew I would be pushed deeper and deeper into hating myself. It was like being the captain of the Titanic, running around, trying to convince everyone else a disaster was certainly not afoot.

For a long time I resented everyone I grew up with. But I realized, after quite a long time, that nobody really knew the impact they were having on me. They were all going through their own shit, probably hoping nobody was seeing them suffer. I don’t know what they were going through because I was hiding amid my own fear and shame.

Ask yourself now how many teenage suicides might be linked to this problem. Last month, more than five teenagers killed themselves because they were afraid they were gay or, worse, afraid someone would find out. America is doing this to its own children. And while the majority of Americans–I’m looking at you 50 Cent and Andrew Shervill–who hate gay people really only hate gay adults, we certainly can’t bring ourselves to hate our gay children.

The funny thing is, you can’t get to being me until you’ve been him.

Summer’s here and it’s pissed

It must be summer in Maryland, because it’s either raining, hailing, or sizzling outside. I just walked the dog and felt like my skin was simultaneously peeling away from my body and developing blisters.

What does this mean? Well, it means this past week was DC Pride. It’s important that this festival occur at a time of year when everyone smells awful and every enclosed gay space smells like a locker room with broken bottles of Abercrombie & Fitch cologne littered about.

Such was the case on Friday night when I took in the drag show at Town, which featured some very special guest ladies: stars (and losers) of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 2 Morgan McMichaels, Tatianna, and Sahara Davenport.

Here’s the skinny on these skinny ladies:

Sahara Davenport had clearly just invested in a new Bedazzler, as just about every stitch of clothing on her body (which wasn’t much to begin with) was encrusted with shiny glass and beads. It was like Britney Spears in the “Toxic” video, if you could retroactively subtract 9 cheeseburgers. Her performances weren’t great. She was clearly not America’s next drag superstar. C-

Tatianna was, I thought, really unpleasant on the show and I had given her low marks on the internal scoresheet I maintain in my head. Although RuPaul often lauded her for serving up Real Girl action, I was like, meh. Drag’s more fun when it’s bawdy and inappropriate, not aiming for realness. After all, these are men in dresses. But let me say that having done drag from the age of 14 on, Tatianna she was the hell she was doing. She was a fantastic performer, great dancer, and–yes, girls, this matters–knew the words to her songs. A+

Morgan McMichaels was also really good. She was fun, had great songs that suited her, and she was gabby on the mic, which I like. But she was definitely lip synching in Tati’s shadow, unfortunately. A-

I wish I could write more, but honestly, they were serving $2 rail drinks and I’m not proud.

The regular ladies of Town were, I think, subdued a bit as a tribute to their guests. We got a little Tina Turner medley and “Barbie Girl” starting with the queen in a foamcore Barbie box that she broke apart. The production values are definitely going up.

It took about five minutes of dancing for the entire lower level of Town to smell like a dirty gym sock. The humid air was thick like cashmere–so at least it felt expensive. We danced for a while, but honestly, neither my heart nor my nose was really in it.

The 2010 Lammys

I’m late posting my eyewitness account of this year’s Lambda Literary Awards. Chalk it up to the holiday weekend, which I spent with my Nofriendo Wii or watching the worst movie on Netflix ever, or my day in NYC (forthcoming), or the fact that Beau spontaneously decided Monday night was the night we should rotate our artwork and reorganize some parts of our apartment (which looks fab, by the way).

I got to the Lammys late because my publisher, Steve Berman, took the Lethe Press nominees (Dan Stone, Tom Cardamone, and me, and Beau) out to dinner at a very nice restaurant. We had a nice bottle of wine and Steve urged to me to try foie gras for the first time, which I did. Beau whispered to me, “What does it taste like?” I told him it was like that weird wine-cheese dip you can get–oddly salty and rich at the same time. He agreed with my assessment. It wasn’t bad, but probably not something I’ll ever crave, like Skittles, cigarettes, or a Craftsman-style home.

After dinner, we jetted over to the theatre just in time. I bumped, almost literally, into David Groff and said hi and then skittered into a seat last row center, next to the video camera. I felt like a seat filler at the Oscars, but my outfit was cuter.

The ceremony itself was long, but I valued it. The address by Larry Kramer is something I am so grateful to have experienced. He’s one of my heroes. I think he’s amazing, and to see him recognized with a Lambda honor and to hear him talk about his career and his forthcoming book was–without sounding corny–really special to me.

I won’t lie and say I was supercool when my category came up halfway through the event. But I will say that I wasn’t disappointed my book wasn’t chosen. Part of me thought I could win; the rest was sure I would lose to one of the other very talented writers in the pool, and was happy to lose to any of them. I hadn’t prepared anything to say, if that tells you anything. And neither had Benjamin Grossberg, whose book was honored, but he gave one of the cutest and most genuine comments of the whole night when he took the podium. Congratulations, Benjamin!

The other highlights for me were Rakesh Satyal’s long but inspired acceptance speech, sung to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (only at a gay event would this not only be tolerated but valued), and the woman who described how fate tried to ruin her day: “I woke up with a pimple under my nose. Then my first flight to New York was canceled. Then, on the flight I did take, the flight attendant spilled Diet Coke all over me. So you know what? Suck it, fate!” Awesome.

Beau and I each picked up a gift bag as we left, just like we were at the Oscars, except instead of gadgets and gizmos, our bags were full of books and grassroots calls to activism. My bag had the RuPaul beauty book in it, which I was really excited about because I also love some RuPaul (“Good luck, and don’t fuck it up” might be the best advice ever). Beau got four books, which made this whole experience oddly reminiscent of Christmas with my family, where gifts for Beau outnumber my own by 2:1.

We ended the night in our closet of a hotel room, eating delivery pizza while watching Zack and Miri Make a Porno on cable. It was perfect.

Angels in America

I caught part II of Angels in America at Forum Theatre this weekend, and collectively, the two parts of the show represent the best theatre I’ve seen so far in DC. The acting was really, really phenomenal almost without exception, and the set and costume work was spare, interesting, innovative.

I think it’s such an interesting piece of theatre. What I love about what Kushner did–and what I strive to do in my own work when appropriate–is that he doesn’t shy away from the complexity of the issues in the play. Of course, Roy Cohn is as close to an Iago as you’ll get this side of Shakespeare and he seems to have few if any redeeming qualities (witness his duping of Ethel Rosenberg just before he dies, and then his delight at duping her). But Roy Cohn is also a character with a clear and consistent moral compass.

It would have been easy to write Joe, Harper, and Hannah Pitt off as fruity Mormon stereotypes, but I think he really gets into the struggle in Joe’s coming out. But Hannah Pitt is a tougher character. Becaue Kushner was pushing an agenda in the show, and because Hannah really stood outside of the agenda, he could have written her as a real unfeeling villain. But he gets inside her skin, understands what her values are and why she believes what she does (without judging the beliefs, as she so sternly reminds Prior Walter not to do when he criticizes her).

It’s a really long show. But I’ll tell you, it moves so quickly and doesn’t have 1 extra word in it, 1 extra gesture. It needs to be six hours long. It’s doing something. And it does it perfectly.

The Phenomenology of Anger

I realized, about a day after the fact, that last week represented a passage of 14 years since I first came out to another person. It happened at college. I’d been out to myself, somewhat, for a few months before, but I don’t really count that time because it was a tentative, exploratory, uncertain kind of growing-towards being an out person.

How can I recall the date? I told my best friend right after she’d opened the birthday present her family had mailed to her. Kind of sticks in your mind.

After feeling sort of stunned by the amount of time that has passed, I started remembering other people I came out to after her. I remember being really excited, but also nervous. I’d grown up in this little town and I’d gone through a few really difficult years of high school–years that I think most people in my life, including my friends, had no realization of just how difficult they were.

Almost all of my friends were supportive, and I’ll never forget my best guy friend’s response: “Actually, Charles, I’m not all that surprised.” He said that while we shot some pool in my parents’ basement. I was sort of offended. Hadn’t I been just sooo in the closet that nobody could tell? Ha. Good god, no.

I told one friend when we went ice skating. I loved to go ice skating even though the closet rink to my town was 40 minutes by car, in an outer ring suburb of Milwaukee. We’d driven out together, and skated around the rink during open skating, and as we sat on the bench unlacing our skates afterward, I told her.

This was a girl who I’d known for years. For most of my life. A girl who had sat next to me in band as people threw shit at the back of my head, who teased me mercilessly because they thought I was a fag, who had seen me humiliated in the lunch room by kids in my school on more than one occasion. I’d driven her to school in my little car and forced her to listen to Ace of Base, Madonna, etc. And when I told her, her face went pale. It crumbled with disappointment. She had a hard time keeping eye contact with me. Me? I sat there, smiling dumbly, thinking she was just surprised.

“You know what? I’ll pray for you,” she said finally. It was the conclusion of a long internal monologue that apparently ended in my favor. She put her hands on her thigh decisively. “I’ll pray that you won’t end up in hell for this.”

Naturally, an awkward silence opened up between us.

She said, “I want to tell you something, since you shared a secret with me.” She went on to explain how she’d been away from home, involved in a group that required her to be out of town for training and preparation purposes, and she explained that she’d gotten romantically involved with a man in her group. “He really wanted to have sex,” she said, “but I want to be a virgin when I get married, so I let him have anal sex with me.” She started crying a little bit. “And it was awful,” she went on. “It hurt so bad.” I could tell she was embarrassed and ashamed. I comforted her. I told her it was okay, that it was nothing she couldn’t or shouldn’t move on from.

It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized she had thought me coming out = her dirty anal sex secret in her mind.

And this week, I finally got angry about it.

Poets Repeat Themselves

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet,”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has even been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. (Langston Hughes)

Replace Negro with queer, white with straight, see also discussions on various blogs about this context.