fbpx Examining White Gay Responsibility in Our Theatres | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Examining White Gay Responsibility in Our Theatres

First: positionality. I am a man (though a distinctly genderqueer one), I am gay, and I am white. I am cognizant of the hypocrisy that comes with being a white gay man taking up space to talk about white gay men taking up too much space. However, I believe it to be wholly irresponsible to place the burden of dismantling oppression solely upon those it most affects, and I hope white queer communities, especially my fellow white cis gay men, will be able to better internalize it better coming from an insider.

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.

Three women sit in a restaurant booth on-stage.

Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson, Carlo Albán, and Alison Wright in Sweat by Lynn Nottage at Studio 54. Directed by Kate Whorisky. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jennifer Moeller. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Hair and makeup by Leah J. Loukas. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

Paula Vogel tweets "Brantley&Green 2-0. Nottage&Vogel 0-2. Lynn, they help close us down,&gifted str8 white guys run: ourplayswill last.B&G#footnotesinhistory."
Lynn Nottage tweets "The patriarchy flexing their muscles to prove their power."

A 2017 twitter exchange between Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage.

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.

On stage, a performer dressed as an angel holds another performer's limp body.

Stephen Spinella and Ellen McLaughlin in Angels in America by Tony Kushner at the Walter Kerr Theater. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Scenic design by Robin Wagner. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Jules Fisher. Hair and makeup by Jeffrey Frank. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

A performer grasps onto his backpack straps and smiles wide.

Jaquel Spivey in A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson at the Lyceum Theatre. Directed by Steven Brackett. Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume design by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

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.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

This is great advice but does not apply to all gay white cis gendered theatre artists. I do not align with many practices and behaviors of this population in other aspects of life either, yet here I am being in some ways punished for the sins of others. I have uplifted BIPOC voices as much as someone with extraordinarily little power can, I have spoken up and shut down micro aggressions. I have become one of two things. Difficult to work with or the same gay white man who has always been ingrained into the theatre. Now I admit, although theater has always been my passion and my heart and soul, I gave up on a professional career years ago. It was not until I was 43 that I decided to return to school and finish a degree. I graduated just in time for the pandemic to hit and by the time things were back to normal a cultural shift that cheered for and was much needed had taken place. As I began to venture out and look for work or more education, it quickly became apparent that I was obsolete and unwanted. I was able to teach some intro classes at the small college I finished my degree at until they did away with the theatre major there. It is over 30% first generation American and first-generation college students. It has been the most rewarding job I have ever done. It is certainly not for the money, but exposing young people to mostly contemporary stories that have them represented on stage is like magic. However, I am so in debt and unemployed and all due to timing. After seeing what the cultural, anti-racist shift can be in the industry, I would not want to work in the previous space I experienced. I have gone from acknowledging my privilege, being inclusive and speaking up and continuing to learn and put into practice anti racist structures, to being an outsider. There are few examples of people who crave the change I do, yet I am lumped in with those who are scared and hanging on to their positions and who continue to use practices that are shown to be damaging. However, there are some who have tried and the support is then taken away. These nonprofit theaters cannot afford to change without destroying themselves. Williamstown theatre festival, Victory Gardens Theater, the list goes on. The theaters that say they are doing the work, I have yet to see true change, but they say they are doing it, and they hire two white women then they are given a pass. It is sad to give up the same dream twice. The first time I was not financially able to continue my education, and this time there is no more space for me. What were my choices? If I had continued, then I would be complacent in the practices and structures that we now want dismantled but avoiding them has also landed me in the same place. Where I sit, lose hope, passion and watch the art I love in turmoil.