I think the answer to these questions can be yes. Excavating lost queer history provides me with meaning, a sense of purpose, and joy, even when the stories are painful. But my students were reluctant to see these plays this way.
As a white gay man in my early forties, I do not know what it is to walk through life as a lesbian, or a trans person, a nonbinary person, or a person of color. Many of my students fall into those categories, and I don’t claim to have answers for them as to how to process their lived experiences. I am also something many of my students are not—a queer person who risked losing everything when he came out and who put himself at risk of HIV conversion with every sexual encounter before the advent of PREP. I am glad that so many of my students now come out into the open arms that I did not find and can live lives less fettered by sexual anxiety. But I am afraid that these strides have stolen from my students the opportunity to connect with the long history of queer liberators that came before us.
My students’ dedication to bashing binaries is creating not only a more just world, but a more nuanced and interesting one. So when I pointed out to them that, in some ways, they’d created a binary—traumatic or joyful?—I invited them to see past that construction. I asked them to investigate if the spheres of contemporary queer joy and queer histories might intersect in a fruitful middle ground. Together, we found that while that middle ground includes trauma, it also includes not only a processing of that trauma, but a translation of that trauma into artistic product. By investigating our queer theatrical history from a contemporary lens, including investigating plays that tell the tragic ends that queer people sometimes met, we can not only process that trauma, but we can find joy and meaning in the ways that excavating queer histories allows us to make better queer theatre as future-facing artists.
I came to our Indecent class ready to invite my students to embrace the paradoxical joy that can be found in dramatizing queer history by introducing them to an element of my personal history. I told them about a gay bar I remember existing in my hometown of Methuen, Massachusetts, in the late eighties. It closed when I was a child, but I know this building was there. I know its windows were blacked out. I know it was sometimes crowded, and I knew from its design and decor that it was specifically built to keep out the conservative, Irish-Italian-Catholic residents of my hometown. Like most small-town gay bars that didn’t hang signs, it was gone by the mid-nineties, a victim of the AIDS epidemic and the draw of increasing tolerance in urban areas. Few people in my hometown today remember this shuttered business. Like many gay bars in the eighties, it wasn’t marked and it had to stay hidden, so people could easily erase them from memory. But it was there.
These writers put on stage everything that was real, and they let that reality—warts and all—shine bright and burn a hole into history that proclaims that not only were the queers always there, but the world was better for them.
I walked my students in that first lecture through some other parts of queer history that had been lost. The homoeroticism of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that their AP English classes skipped. The well documented—and well photographed—lesbian lives of Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, and countless other grand dames of old Hollywood that the studios paid thousands of dollars to hide. Alan Turing, Sally Ride, Michelangelo, Lorraine Hansberry… All these icons are part of a queer narrative, but the queer parts of their identities are so often omitted.
Why? Because history erases the queers.
I asked them if these facts made them feel hopeless, and their heads nodded “yes” in unison. I then argued to them what I now argue any time I am told to stop focusing on histories of queer trauma and instead only tell stories of queer joy: we have muscle on our side, and to stop telling these stories abandons this power. We have our queer grandparents, like Paula Vogel and Harvey Fierstein, who have been fighting for us for decades with no sign of stopping. We have the imaginations of Hansol Jung and Ty Defoe and many others looking to our queer histories to create our queer futures. These writers put on stage everything that was real, and they let that reality—warts and all—shine bright and burn a hole into history that proclaims that not only were the queers always there, but the world was better for them. Holding on to this history gives me joy, and I hoped it could do the same for my students.