The Extinction of Gay Identity By Frank Bruni Opinion Columnist, 04/28/18

Mart Crowley, the 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 Times’s 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 United States 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 L.G.B.T. 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.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter (@FrankBruni) and join me on Facebook.

25 April 2018

To: The Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S., Parkland, Florida

Dear Students:

It has taken me some time to compose this message, as I feel that I have so much to say but must keep my message to one page.

Born exactly one week after D-Day, I am old enough to be your grandfather. While “being old” is seen as a detriment by many, for us elders it is not so bad. Staying active, alert and aware keeps one’s mind relatively young even as the body ages.

I am writing to you today to cheer you on! With a carefully focused leadership you can become a formidable force for America. In some respects, you have become that force already. But, a word of caution if I may, using my own mother’s words: Do not become too full of yourselves. If your enthusiasm overrides your reason, your message will be lost in a cacophony of ideas and mixed metaphors.

The United States of America today is in deep, deep trouble. This is not the nation I grew up in, in the 1950s. It is not the nation I returned to as a young Air Force Sergeant in the mid-1960s. While so much progress has been made in these remaining, years, a lot also has been given up. For the average politician, including your very own Marco Rubio, the party and self have become far more important than country. That fact is both a travesty and a tragedy. The soul of America has been sold out.

In order to resurrect our nation’s soul, and to redeem our Republic, will require young folk such as you to work diligently, vigorously and even militantly to bring us back from the breach. Our nation is owned by corporate interests and special interests that all too often do not hold high the value of our nation: The people. We the people, you and I and all the rest, form this great Union. Our Union has been under massive assault for several decades. I am among the first to admit that my generation has created a bit of a mess.

I urge and encourage each of you to stay your course. Organizations such as the NRA and certain corporations await the day when your interest and enthusiasm wane. They look forward to the day when your priorities change; when your desire for a better and more reasoned America gives way to your education and your careers. That is precisely how my generation got seduced. All the while we were following the “American Dream”, they were assuring that dream would never be fully realized.

By and large, the people of our nation are truly good people; no matter their race, religion, nationality, color or sexual orientation. America has long been called the “melting pot” of the world. There are those who want to reduce that to one race, one ethnicity. That is NOT who we are. I am asking each of you to seize the day, “Carpe diem!”, and restore our great nation to her rightful course!

“Every Man of Courage is a Man of His Word.”
Member, National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution

Post on HuffPost re Michelle Wolf’s Roast of Correspondents’ Dinner

Trump’s entire mission is to suppress and destroy. The fact Michelle Wolf has created a wedgie for Trumpty Dumpty is in fact a good thing. Did Wolf cross the line a couple times? Yes. Perhaps Wolf’s “shock therapy” has ignited a fire among members of the press corps who have become too lax, too easy and so protective of their station in the media world they are failing at harsh criticism and critique. Except for Trump’s minions, the rest of us know all too well that Trump sees himself as an American emperor/dictator wannabe. He wants to rule with a stiff hand, perpetually flashing a mirror in from of himself to suggest he is such a beautiful lad. Well, he isn’t. In fact, Trump is ugly on the inside and the outside. He is a Machiavellian Frankenstein who should in fact be forced to eat his own excrement. Thank you, Michelle Wolf!!

Response to del Percio Commentary on Criminal Republicans

Susan del Percio: “I guess it’s a different political norm we are facing today.” In other words, there is no MORAL norm today. Grimm is a thug and a bully. The videotape of his threatening to throw a reporter over a balcony puts Grimm in status with crime families. The Republican candidate from West Virginia believes “coal is coming back” and can care less about what has happened to the lives of his own coal miners.

The average American among the 70% (discounting Trump’s 30% following) simply want to see our country run with a clear sense of direction and decorum; not as a goddamned slugfest. We the people gave away our voices long ago when that Huckster Reagan took office. “Aw shucks” Ronny was the genesis of a nation now reaching the status of shambles. There is no moral culpability; or, liability. Just keep on robbing the public largess while seeing who can tell the next best lie. We want better. We deserve better. But, the fact is our country is run and ruined by corporate moguls who have every Member of Congress in their hip pocket

Email Letter to Frank Bruni, NYT, re “Extinction of Gay Culture”

Thank you for your commentary! I came out in 1968 at age 24, two years after my honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force. Right around Memorial Day weekend of that year, I met the man who would become my first partner. We remained in our relationship for eight years; bonded as close friends until he died from AIDS in 1996.

In the late seventies I joined Gay Activists Alliance, DC, when Frank Kameny was still a very strong presence in our “community”. Anita Bryant’s assault on gay men, asserting that we all were child molesters, sent me over the top to become an activist of sorts.

I served on two separate gay rights boards in the very early1980s; wrote columns for gay rags in the early nineties, always using my real name. I contributed as effectively as I could while building a successful career in the private business sector.

I have seen how our “movement” has gone forward. I am still very close to the vest about being gay. “None of their business” is how I have kept it throughout these many years. In some respects, I believe our “blending” into the various neighborhoods has been a very positive step forward. Yet, at times I become anxious over the fact that we gays are not as mysterious as we once were. “Familiarity breeds contempt”, and we certainly see that in the current White House administration.

I guess I have been fortunate in that I ‘pass’ as straight to most people. I do not put any energy into that; it just happened. I love sports of every kind, especially Euro rugby and soccer; ice hockey; football. I was a bit of an enigma to those who “suspected” because I liked so many of “those guy things”. Sad, isn’t it!
Thank you for your article! It took me back to somewhat more perilous, and terribly sad times. I remember the fear we had. I remember how in the late sixties we could be arrested in DC’s gay bars if we were caught so much as holding hands. Yep! Even inside the gay bar! And, I must admit that I do get a bit uneasy when I see two lads walking down the street holding hands. It is an adjustment!

I have watched “The Normal Heart” at least 3 times and manage to cry during various scenes along the way. “Call me by your name” is awesome; so tender and truly loving — a time now past for me. At the end, the father’s speech to Elio was so profound. I thought to myself, “if only all parents were so perceptive and understanding!”

Best regards, Mr. Bruni, and bless you. By the way, you are one VERY handsome man. Yes, I can say that. I am old enough to be your daddy. LOL.

Comment on WaPo responding to Michael Gerson’s column on today’s vile rhetoric

Quote, “And the repair of our public life will eventually require a restoration of rhetoric.” End quote. Good luck with that one! I have watched with considerable sorrow over the years how our nation has been sliding into a national sewer. Trump calls it a “swamp”, but Trump replaced the swamp with his own style putrid cesspool.

Those things once treated as “best left unsaid” now are the sayable. The boundaries have been broken down in multiple venues. The ‘in your face’ mindset is killing us from within. If I think it, I will say it. Right out of the Trump playbook. But, Trump does not get all the credit on this. Somehow, the art of the insult has become far more powerful than the art of the deal; any deal.

I catch myself using profanity and expletives where even just a few short years ago I would not have. That is especially true when posting comments online in certain venues. I strive to avoid personal attacks, despite the fact having come under some pretty nasty ones.

Decency and dignity, truth and honesty have become the victims of society’s villains, villains who believe anything goes and there should be no holds barred. Being “gentlemanly” and “ladylike” seem almost vulgar in concept in today’s world. License to be vulgar and thoughtless has pushed aside the idea of being thoughtful and compassionate. As a friend said to me years ago, “We are like rats. We eat our own.” It appears there is no toxin or poison potent enough to kill that.