Examining White Gay Responsibility in Our Theatres
Theatrical practice has a long and storied history with queerness worldwide, that much is evident. Many on the fringes of society have found an affirming home in theatre, and many of us have come to find community and family through theatre throughout our lives. Theatre has not, however, been completely free of the pervasive hegemonies that seep into every facet of society. Hegemony refers to the (often) invisible systems of domination or control that one social group with more power exerts over other groups with less power. The ongoing pressure of settler colonialism creates a multitude of hegemonies in American culture that wiggle their fingers into everything from the most minute of zoning codes to the massive systems of inequity that allow the climate crisis to continue. If left unchecked, unhealthy systems will develop hegemonic elements, upholding patterns that privilege the same individuals repeatedly. As the conversation about effective inclusive practice in mainstream theatre in the United States becomes more complex and intersectional, the group that is most often able to utilize positions of power unchecked is white gay theatremakers and administrators.
It’s essential to acknowledge and accept how a person’s individual combination of identities can levy or revoke privilege within a system. To account for this complexity, sociologists use the term “one up, one down” identity—a group of identities within an individual that hold social capital through some traits and lose it through another. The idea is that an oppressed identity (i.e. a person’s queerness) offers safety from the power and responsibility inherent in a concurrent dominant identity (i.e. a person’s identity as white, cisgender, male, able-bodied, etc.) when both are present in the same individual. In American theatre, the idea that every marginalized identity translates into an equal share of the oppression faced by every other is irresponsible and reductive of the large-scale structural inequities that limit the voices of thousands of brilliant artists. It allows the notion that pieces of theatre by, about, for, directed by, designed by, and/or produced by cis white gay men are enough queer representation to fill a company’s season to persist and dominate. Recognizing and rejecting this assumption is a vital part of intersectional feminist and anti-racist practice.
Because cis gay men hold a “one up, one down” identity, discussing their roles in perpetuating misogyny is, frankly, complicated. Much of the rhetoric of modern homophobia is rooted in misogyny (violence at expressing feminine traits, etc.). As a result, queer men have undeniably complicated relationships to patriarchy and privilege, and their oppression isn’t to be denied. However, these complicated relationships are frequently used to excuse their misogyny at a multitude of levels that include the performing arts industry. I’ll frame what I mean through a 2017 Twitter exchange between Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel. That year, each of their Broadway plays (Indecent and Sweat, respectively) were panned by the New York Times as compared to plays written by and centering men. Subsequently, both lost the Tony award for Best Play to Oslo, a political drama that received raves reviews from the same critics that Vogel cites as prejudiced against the work of her and Nottage, both of whom are white, cis, and gay.
Vogel and Nottage illuminate a vital point: regardless of their shared position as individuals holding a marginalized identity, the gay male critic still holds the power of his status as a man over the women that he critiques, and therefore there is no practical difference in his ability to perpetuate misogyny. This is a prime example of a “one up-one down” identity complicating a moment of social inequity, and the community response was fierce. The same year, advocacy group Critical Mass wrote an essay entitled “A Collective Call Against Critical Bias” which addresses this incident, community response, and steps for moving forward towards more equitable structures of criticism.
In the comment thread on that essay and in Twitter threads that Vogel’s original tweet inspired, people argue that the critics deserve a more forgiving eye. As a result of their identities as gay, the argument goes, they have a “more complicated relationship with the patriarchy” (from Chris Jones, the longstanding chief theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune). Chris Jones’ comment, though thoughtful and by no means antagonistic, highlights the thinking that runs up and down our theatre ecosystem: that a queer man’s positionality alleviates their responsibility to further anti-misogyny practices in their spaces.
It’s a golden age for fresh, joyful, critical, and intersectionally-minded storytelling that centers marginalized experience, which should not be overlooked in favor of work that fails to ask bigger questions about queer experience.
Men being the dominant voices in every room, regardless of their sexuality, presents a hurdle for equity that the industry repeatedly ignores. Men still held more than a 60 percent share of design and directorial roles within the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) network in 2020, according to Porsche McGovern’s “Who Designs and Directs in LORT Theatres by Pronoun.” That number cannot simply be written off as arbitrary or as indicative of applicant pools. According to “The Count 2.0,” only 28 percent of plays produced in the 2016-2017 season were written by women, and to date, only five Tony awards for best play have been awarded to plays written at least in part by women, with only two women having won for a sole authorship (though Yasmina Resa has won twice). The last time a woman won the Tony Award for Best Play was in 2009. This is all to say: the inequity exists, it is glaring, and there is no looking the other way.
This critique is not meant to diminish the value of performances about gay experience throughout history. Recent history has offered us a flourishing of brilliant queer art in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, one that was explosive to the social politics of the time. Plays like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, as well as work by visual artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres gave the world a window into the layered oppression that gay communities were facing, paving the way for more widespread recognition of the massacre within American society. Yet in the 2010s and beyond, it’s hard not to feel as though gay-led shows on Broadway has become more sanitized, with shows that heavily feature white gay characters. Broadway is not the be-all and end-all of American theatre, but it’s a good metric for the culturally prevalent work that reaches the largest audience. Let’s take three musicals on Broadway from the last decade: The Prom, Be More Chill, and Mean Girls. These works all contain major queer characters but fail to stage meaningful conversations about how their identities affect the lives of their characters. Mean Girls relegates its queer characters to a sidelined friend role, and Be More Chill upholds the harmful stereotype that those perpetuating violence against queer people may just be in the closet themselves (so therefore deserve more grace). The Prom, arguably the most progressive of the three, never addresses wider-spread inequities that affected, and continue to affect, the people involved in its feel-good plot. All three are white-led and center on suburban teenagers. They do not aim to interact with anti-oppressive practices in a way that reaches beyond a sort of blanket statement that homophobia is bad. None of this is to say that the work is not good or valuable, only that it can’t be the single narrative of queer experience on our stages.
The good news is this: nuanced, diverse queer work is constantly being written by progressive creators in our industry. People like Michael R. Jackson, Jen Silverman, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, Antoinette Nwandu, and a thousand more are creating theatre that connects to and builds upon ongoing queer dialogues. Their pieces push the audience to look between the cracks of queer inclusion into spaces that aren’t highlighted as regularly or vividly. The messages and issues have changed from the age of Kushner, Haring, and Basquiat, but the effect remains the same. Their work, created by insiders in the communities it represents, archives the living moment of a diverse queer experience in a way that humanizes and introduces itself to the world on its own terms. It’s a golden age for fresh, joyful, critical, and intersectionally-minded storytelling that centers marginalized experience, which should not be overlooked in favor of work that fails to ask bigger questions about queer experience. For further reading, I recommend David Valdez’s in-depth discussion of this shift his 2022 essay “The Queer Theatre We Need Now.”
The responsibility for this change will fall to those currently in positions of power, many of whom are white queer administrators.
Furthering this more equitable representation will require a shift towards “cultural strategy,” a framework for creating socially conscious art that is people-centered and recognizes the massive power and responsibility to transform. In a 2021 essay for HowlRound, critic and artist Regina Victor discusses cultural strategy with regard to the performing arts, defining it as “ethically responsible storytelling.” Victor discusses the use of imagination to build new structures for theatre that actively change long-standing rules, addressing hegemony, oppression, and the ability to create change. They write that the work produced through cultural strategy “acknowledges responsibility for the impact of a story on individuals and society as a whole, and actively curates a desired impact throughout the process of creation.”
This shift can, and should, occur at every level. The responsibility for this change will fall to those currently in positions of power, many of whom are white queer administrators. It is vital for these administrators and the larger white queer community to recognize that responsibility and embrace it, rather than shying away from it. By implementing these strategies without putting pressure on marginalized communities to do the brunt of the work, theatremakers can make a more ethical future for our stages; but it will only come through a distinct willingness to accept and embrace change.
I call on my fellow white gay creatives to re-examine our relationships to racism and misogyny. We must ask ourselves big questions: where am I complicit or culpable? How do I repair that harm? What can I do to build a more equitable future? When the answer to these questions is, “it’s out of my hands,” or when these questions are not being asked at all, the result will be a continuation of the trends that we’re seeing, a lack of true equity in these spaces. There is no strength in a system that cannot change. A theatre economy that skates over this unequal distribution of power while claiming to be completely and totally equitable is doomed to fail. It is vital to the theatrical ecosystem that ideas shift and change, and, without a redistribution of this power, change is functionally impossible.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that many of the systems that we hold dear are rotten to the core. This fact is undoubtedly tragic and difficult to navigate, but if the next few years are going to require the level of rebuilding that they’re shaping up to, we should rebuild them to be every bit as inclusive and anti-oppressive as our wildest imagination allows. It is a constant push and pull to create more inclusive creative spaces in our industry, and we can each help to facilitate a more intersectionally-minded queer ethos that decenters cis white gay men as the central pillar of the theatrical industry, both onstage and off.