It was my junior year of college when I finally figured out, in my head at least, who and what I really was (or who I hoped to be). I was a theatre major and had become a member of a sort of underground group of gay guys who hung out together. I say underground, because not many of us were officially out, nor had we fully come to terms with what was simmering deep inside us. We might have had sexual experiences, but most often they had to be done covertly; certainly not in the open like our straight friends. We socialized with the entire theatre department and despite what you may have heard, not all theatre people are gay. In fact, there were far, far more straight people than gay in our department.
Regardless of our sexual proclivities, we all of us enjoyed the same things: (1) doing theatre, (2) getting together to celebrate theatre that we had done and (3) smoking dope. We did a lot of all three things and some friends actually also found time to go to classes as well. At this point, I was not one who put in much classroom time, unless it was theatre class. I was having way too much fun playing onstage and off to care about mere academics. I did just enough to keep my draft deferment status, because this was 1970 and thus Vietnam, you see.
We did a lot of theatre in a school year. Besides the University main stage shows, there were several very good student theatres where we were beginning to stage productions that would sometimes draw bigger audiences than the University shows. Early this particular school year, auditions were announced for The Boys in the Band. It was still running in New York and the movie had just been released the summer before. It was difficult to get the rights, but the student director managed and Boys was all the buzz in the halls of the theatre building. There were more guys auditioning for the nine roles than I had ever seen before, especially for a student production. It was the most grueling and drawn out audition I ever went through, but I got the part I so badly wanted.
The play deals with thirty-something-year-old gay men struggling with aging and dealing with the futility of a homosexual lifestyle. It is a very dark and dismal take on being gay, but at the time very true to the reality of the generation before ours. Here we were, all of us boy-men, barely twenty and most of us just discovering and experimenting with our own sexualities. It was an amazing theatre experience, but more so a personal psychodrama for me and many of my fellow actors. Of the nine of us, six were gay. Of the six, three came out during the course of the production.
It was a huge success. All in all it was a damn good production with some really fine acting. Audiences were huge and receptive. We actually sold standing room tickets and had to turn people away. If memory serves, we added extra shows. We were performing in a make-shift theatre space in the Newman Center. Can you imagine the Catholic Church giving a home to a production of a gay play? But it was the 1970s, when even the Church had a heart, I guess.
It was an example where I saw, first-hand, how theatre could move people-not just an audience, but everyone and everything around it. Bringing the play to our University changed that little world for the better. It forced people who had no idea that homosexuals were a part of their world too, to sit up and take notice. It put a face on what had been, for so many, just this idea out there that they knew existed, but was not yet a reality for them. And our straight peers in the theatre department looked at us a bit differently too, even though they had always been accepting of us, even when they didn’t know exactly who/what we were either. It was as though a huge theatre curtain rose, and a gay world was exposed in all its glory to everyone all at once. Now people could begin putting two and two together and realize “Oh, that’s why my cousin….” or “Do you think Uncle Whoever never got married because…” and “I always thought maybe Mrs. So-and-So my eighth grade English teacher…”
And the best part, selfishly for me, was that the closet door that had only been open a crack here and there, on and off for what seemed a lifetime, opened wide and blew off its goddamn hinges.