Many who could gather together enough money to leave came to America, resulting in nearly a million poor Irish immigrants arriving on American shores during the famine years alone. These huge masses of desperate, often uneducated Irish made up the first large migration of poverty-stricken people to the U.S. This caused an upswelling of nativist hatred, bigotry and violence toward the Irish that took decades to abate.
We often see photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looking serious, dignified, even dour. But he was a man who loved to laugh and who had great joy in his heart. His short, determined life involved constantly facing down injustice and living with fear and struggle, sure—but he loved laughter and fun, good food and good music as much as anyone. He was a real, flesh and blood human being, not a stoic saint immune to the pain and difficulty around him. And I think that makes his devotion, determination and persistence all the more extraordinary, don’t you?
Happy MLK Day, everyone.
Yes, it’s true: Trump’s failure to plan ahead and provide hot food for the visiting Clemson Tigers last night is just a distraction. The fact that he had piles of stale, cooling food sitting on the table and as the White House butler lit candelabra around them is as nothing to the horrid things he does each day. The ridiculousness of having staff portion French fries out in tiny water cups with the Presidential seal on them is laughable, but not earth-shattering. The fact that this billionaire was so cheap that he wouldn’t even spring for a hot catered dinner, but made a proud point of serving his guests of honor cold fast food shouldn’t surprise us—it’s totally in keeping with his usual ways.
But we should note his total inability to tell the truth even in the most mundane and verifiable circumstances. To be so incredibly petty as to lie even about the number of hamburgers served, to feel the need for self-aggrandizement and lies in even the tiniest particulars, to say that “over a thousand” burgers were served when he only bought 300—if he did pay any of his own money at all—this is a constantly changing virtual reality that he manipulates in order to destabilize the world. We should never assume that he will be honest or do the right thing in any particulars, ever. We should assume that he will pull the whole world down to make a point if we let him.
Will we let him?
In 1928, British lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was published. It scandalized official British society, was decried as “a danger to the nation” and was eventually suppressed and censored for being a work of “obscene libel”—not because there was any actual description of lesbian sexual behaviors beyond a kiss and the most oblique mention of sharing a bed. Simply admitting that lesbianism existed was considered a scandalous act, and allowing a lesbian to share her thoughts on what it was like to experience romantic feelings for another woman caused official fear and outrage.
It’s true: Hamilton totally earns the hype. My sweetheart treated me to a touring company performance of the musical here in Boston last night, and it was the first time either of us had seen it. What a tour de force!
It’s a constantly moving, singing, dancing, quite literally spinning masterpiece of intricate physical, vocal and emotional involvement among cast, crew, musicians, choreographers, set designers and visionaries. Everything is held aloft by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rhythm, rhyme, and lyrical passion and inspired by Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s erudition.
It starts with a pow and never slows down, and turntables within turntables spin against each other to allow for even more movement and multiple simultaneous stories to play out before your eyes.
There is very little spoken dialog separating the musical numbers—it’s a constantly flowing, beautifully paced river of rhythm, full of emotion yet always supported by a framework of fact, a propulsive political urgency and this historical imperative: Make this moment count. Make your vision real. Fight for what matters. Keep on trying. You can rest another day—acknowledge your power to make a difference right now and turn that potential power into positive action. It’s honest, with no holds barred: thrilling, merciful, inspiring.
Yesterday Boston was 90 degrees and the air was thick with humidity. This crowd-hating introvert was deeply sleep-deprived and had a long list of chores to accomplish. I dreaded the idea of rallying and marching in that heat with a bunch of strangers for hours. But none of that mattered as much as the fact that my federal government is kidnapping children and torturing families, and I had a chance to register outrage and encourage others to notice and react to the evil being done in our names.
Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are waging war on vulnerable families who have lost everything. These families have dragged themselves to our doors begging for asylum, the most urgent and elemental assistance that a noncitizen can ask for. The U.S. is using terrorist tactics against children to destroy families who have marched through Hell, and is doing it as a political ploy. This is so shocking, so evil, so much like the Hitlerian tactics of World War II that I am left dumbstruck and sick to know that monsters are terrorizing babies in my name.
The people who come to our borders asking for asylum have lost friends and family members to gangs or war at home. They’ve given up their whole lives and made their dangerous, difficult ways across hundreds, even thousands of miles to pull themselves to our border crossings. All they ask is to keep themselves and their children from being murdered in their home countries. They seek refuge from violence and terror, and a chance to live and work and contribute to a society that doesn’t treat them like insects to be maligned, crushed and destroyed. Their children have already seen and experienced terrors I cannot even imagine; they are fragile, vulnerable, sick and exhausted.
And now Trump and Sessions are quite literally ripping nursing babies from mothers’ breasts, telling parents their babies are being taken away to be bathed (which is just what Nazis told Jews as they were about to be lethally gassed in concentration camps) and then sending the most vulnerable people in the world far away to live with strangers—all while failing to keep track of the locations of the parents or their children.
My government is caging children like animals, giving some of them sheets of Mylar instead of soft blankets and instructing them to lie on floors instead of beds, the cries of other children ringing in their ears as they try to sleep in their cages surrounded by strangers.
Those guarding the children are told not to hug them. At least one recording was made and played on MSNBC of a woman warning children in Spanish not to talk to those who visit the camps (including reporters) about what happened to them, implying that they might not be reunited if the children speak the truth to reporters or doctors.
Children have been seen changing babies’ diapers at detention centers. Reports say that some children are being drugged. Central and South American refugees and migrants are raped at very high rates, so chances are great that some of these children were assaulted or knew of (or witnessed) their mothers’ assaults during their escape from their home countries. Stories circulate of children being abused and assaulted at detention centers. Imagine the horror of being stripped naked, washed and examined by strangers after being taken from your family. Think of the terror of knowing that your parents cannot protect you after you’ve seen what happens to vulnerable people. And think of how many kids are being denied necessary medical care because their medical histories are unknown.
Those who don’t care about the lives of these children and their families should turn their selfish, contemptuous, compassion-free hearts to this thought: Trump and Sessions are breeding hatred against the U.S. in the hearts of millions around the world. They are stoking a desire for vengeance against the U.S. in the minds of many who have been ripped apart from their families, and millions more who are watching this debacle from other countries.
This state-sponsored terrorism will have dangerous reverberations against America for decades to come. It will leave permanent wounds in the hearts and minds of thousands of family members personally affected by these actions, and will turn millions more witnesses to these atrocities against us. Our leaders are sowing the seeds of future terrorist acts against the U.S. by these actions. Terrorism breeds terrorism.
So yes, I managed to get up off the sofa and take half a day away from my privileged life to send lawmakers a message of support for basic human decency when children’s lives are at stake. I left my comfortable apartment to walk with friendly strangers who believe in what America officially stood for not long ago: appreciation for the strength, work ethic and inventiveness of immigrants; a better life for the descendants of enslaved and oppressed people; appreciation and sorrow for the losses Native North and South American people suffered at the hands of white conquerors; revulsion at the thought of racism, terrorism and xenophobia; and compassion for children of all colors and origins.
This last point is so basic to people of all cultures that I can’t believe it even has to be expressed. A just, good nation does not rip children away from loving, caring parents in order to torture families into giving up their only hope of staying alive after fleeing danger at home. Compassionate lovers of liberty do not defy their own established asylum laws to suddenly turn on the people we have for so many years encouraged to come to us for help.
Good people do not choose to harm children.
If you can attend a Families Belong Together march, rally or other event and be counted among those who oppose the use of federal forces to kidnap and torture children and their parents, I encourage you to do so. If that’s too difficult, phone calls or emails to your members of Congress are very important and can be accomplished in under three minutes. Donations to organizations like RAICES, the ACLU and MoveOn who are working to reunite kidnapped children with their parents are wonderful, too—even $5 helps.
Speak to your family members and friends. Let your voice be heard. You have more power than you realize to do good and make a change—so please use it to help vulnerable children avoid a lifetime of pain, fear and resentment toward an America that let this happen and has not done enough to try to limit the damage.
Friends, please stand with me against U.S. government-sponsored terrorism of children and refugee families.
Bless you. May your family be safe, intact, well and free.
In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, a short-subject film shown in cinemas prior to feature films. The Pathé Brothers of France owned the world’s largest film equipment and production company, and they saw the benefit of bringing news to life for moving picture fans and thus padding out an afternoon or evening’s cinematic entertainment. In the years before television, people grew to rely on newsreels during their weekly cinema visits to keep up with royal visits, war news, sports, fashion and celebrity events and travelogues that took them to far-away places.
Over time, many short subject films took on a nationalistic bent, and they were used as propaganda tools during World Wars I and II. Some showed women on the home front how to make do with rationed food and fabrics during and after World War II. Others showed teens at play, making them seem like laughable aliens, underscoring the generation gap that caused such rifts between teens and their parents in the 1950s and 1960s and played out in major culture clashes in both cinematic and real life.
News reels often depicted the people of other nations as quaint and exotic, and made women look like vain, silly, laughable lightweights. But they were wittily narrated, well-edited and often visually sumptuous, so they make for fascinating views into 20th century cultural history today.
Pathé short-subject films reached the height of their appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Britain. Many of these shorts involve women being made to look foolish while demonstrating outlandish fashion or beauty trends and inventions, all accompanied by an orchestra playing a peppy tune and a wry male narrator making snappy sexist comments.
It’s always interesting to see how much effort has been put into inventing odd machinery to distract women, perpetuate stereotypes and keep women “in their place.” It still goes on today, of course, but now women’s voices are used to make the narrated hype more palatable and to seem more “empowering” and less demeaning.
[In honor of the Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s 50-year-old play The Boys in the Band starring Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells, I’m reposting this piece I wrote in 2009.]
Some years ago, while watching TV in the wee hours of the morning, I happened upon a film that I’d never before heard of. I was instantly hooked. It turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.
Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of.
Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.
It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.
The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the needling, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.
The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.
However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in their depictions of homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out stereotypically gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions. At other times, it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. Playwright Crowley has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.
These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.
The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense. This echoes the action in plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.
It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, locked out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay people fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry. It gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for homosexuals coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were gay people with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.
Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.
When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay man on the streets of New York by both straight and gay people, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.
The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director. The enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.
In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie, affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”
According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”
Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”
“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.
[Originally published in June 2009.]
An incomplete but representative list of my experiences of sexual harrassment and assault:
• The obscene phone calls that started when I was 13.
• The coworker who stalked me from floor to floor in our Cupertino Apple building, cornered me, grabbed my hand and licked my wedding ring.
• The flasher at the park.
• The museum guard who followed me around the museum gallery in Washington DC and then came up to me to comment on my ass.
• The coworker in Menlo Park who moved his work station underneath the stairs so he could look up my dress when I went upstairs.
• The construction workers in Palo Alto who made loud bets about what I’d be like in bed.
• The bully sitting next to me in seventh-grade math who loudly accused me of stuffing my bra.
• The Livermore yahoos in pickup trucks who shouted obscenities and made kissing noises at me as they sped by me on the street when I was eleven years old and walking to the grocery store, the record store, the movies or just about anywhere. That kept up through high school, and a new crop did the same thing to me when I visited Livermore again in 2013.
• The San Jose coworker who asked about my breast size in front of my colleagues and referred to me as Sweet Buns until I made it clear that THAT wasn’t going to be tolerated.
• The coworker at a temp job who went to the lunch room when I did but brought no lunch, sat at the table next to mine and stared me down while I ate, refused to stop when I asked him to, and ultimately forced me to eat my lunches in my car for several months.
• Yet more, highly disturbing obscene phone calls that I received during my twenties, some of which included violent fantasy commentary and one of which incorporated a recording of my own voice taken from my outgoing work voicemail message.
• The supposedly liberal and forward-thinking Portland artist and friend of a friend who openly and blatantly assessed my body and spoke only to my breasts when introduced to me at a gallery opening.
• The man whom I supervised at Apple who announced that his wife was away for the weekend but that he had an open marriage, so I was welcome to come home with him.
• The beggar at the crowded Seattle bus stop who responded to my giving him bus fare by telling me what he’d like to do with me in the nearby building’s stairwell until I loudly told him to leave me alone, drawing the attention of 40 people or more, not one of whom spoke up or asked whether I was okay.
• The man in Rome who walked directly up to me on a very crowded sidewalk and grabbed both of my breasts hard before rushing away, which surprised not a single Roman.
• My daughter’s school bus driver who assumed that my daily “good morning” and the cookies I gave him at Christmastime constituted a come-on. This resulted in his grilling my neighbors about my marital status and hugging me close and hard against my will when he ran into me at my daughter’s school, resulting in my having to stop going to the bus stop and driving my daughter to school for the rest of the school year.
• The old man sitting behind me in the cinema in Nice, France, who stuck his hands through the gap in my seat and groped my ass when I was 16 and watching a movie with my friends.
• The Apple coworker for whom I babysat who suggested that the cure for his boredom was to have an affair with me.
• The harassing ex-boyfriend who texted and called endlessly to tell me that despite what I said, I actually loved and needed him, then stalked me, then wrote me to comment angrily on the book he saw me reading (in a city he had no business being in) and to tell me what my choice of book said about our defunct relationship, what my thoughts about him were, and why I was wrong.
And on and on and on.
So yeah. Me too.