“A Gay” in Every Play ?
“A Gay” in Every Play “?
It feels like every play (and film) I see these days has a gay or a lesbian character. And this is not counting the Shakespeare productions that camp up or make effete a clown or a fool. I am trying to decide if this is cause for celebration–because it represents progress, more accurate representation of 21st century life in all its diversity–or cause for concern–because it represents a new brand of cultural tokenism that is empty-hearted trend-following commercial-minded opportunism. Perhaps, it’s a combination of both.
I am also trying to decide why I am becoming more suspect lately of the inclusion of gay or lesbian characters in contemporary plays by straight authors. For example, I was surprised to find non-straight characters in two of the four plays in Sarah Ruhl’s Clean House and Other Plays: Red and Mary in Late: A Cowboy Song and Tilly, Frances, and Joan in Melancholy Play. Ruhl is not a lesbian playwright, just a non-discriminatory playwright, and she wrote those roles from an earnest place, right? Her mentor, Paula Vogel, however, is a lesbian playwright who has written plays with lesbian characters, such as Myra and Sarah in The Mineola Twins. Our mentors influence us, obviously, and, they inform our sensibilities in positive ways, and it’s that simple, hopefully. But then I saw a production of Theresa Rebeck’s one-woman show Bad Dates. The lead Haley gets set up with a man whom she realizes is gay when he shows more interest in the male waiter than in her. Afterwards Haley goes home and calls her…yep…gay brother.
Of course, to be suspect of straight playwrights creating queer characters is also to tread on shaky ground. It brings to mind the ongoing debate in academia about who is ‘most’ qualified to teach, say, a black history course: a black person? or a non-black person with extensive background in black studies? A queer theory course: a gay or lesbian person? or a straight person with extensive background in gender studies? For those who argue that a person who physically embodies the race/gender/sexual orientation of the subject she teaches is more qualified to teach or write about it, I’d point to someone like Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick, a pioneer scholar of queer studies who was married to a man.
The bottom line–it’s complicated. Nonetheless, it seems these days you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t have ‘a gay’ in your play, destined to incur some degree of ridicule either way.
It occurs to me that it is also a quantity versus quality issue. More gay and lesbian characters doesn’t necessarily mean better representation of diversity if every embodiment is a walking stereotype. It’s only been 3 years since Will & Grace wrapped up, and while I still love Jack, I don’t want to see Jack on stage, play after play; I also don’t need to see (or have described) more lesbians in plaid flannels who drive jeeps with labrador retriever passengers. The stage needs more diversity in its diversity.