The 'Gay' Sensibility

"God, that is so gay." It's a phrase one hears spoken with increasing frequency these days, both in delight and derision. But what does it actually mean? And does it mean the same thing to all, or is it all in the eye of the beholder? Is it like the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's infamous definition of pornography: "I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it"?

Openly gay and lesbian artists -- writers, directors, actors, composers -- are more visible than ever in 2003 America. Indeed, when two men can share a kiss on national TV in celebration of their 25-year relationship and the Tony they have just won, it seems as if a milestone of acceptance and assimilation has been reached. And, certainly, gay characters are more in evidence than ever before on stage, screen, and TV. When a mainstream newspaper like USA Today runs an article asking, "How 'in' is it to be gay? Let us 'out' the ways," something must be afoot.

In celebration of Gay Pride Month, culminating in this weekend's parade and other festivities, Back Stage spoke with eight out artists to find out how they define "the gay sensibility," how it has (or hasn't) influenced their own work, and what, if any, effect they see it having on the more "mainstream" culture of America. Their answers proved to be personal, diverse, surprising, and, in some instances, remarkably challenging.

Howard McGillin -- An Evolution, Not a Revolution

Tall, dark, and handsome, Howard McGillin has been a Broadway leading man in musicals since he burst onto the scene in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" in 1985. He is exactly the kind of actor who is not supposed to be out of the closet. And he once received just such advice.

"About 10 years ago, I went out to California for some TV meetings. My agent took me to lunch and said, 'I've heard you have some personal issues that you're struggling with. Well, I just want to warn you: Don't be open about who you are! It will kill your career. I don't even hire gay agents. It's a homophobic business.' "

McGillin had faced similar attitudes as a young contract player at Universal Studios in the early '80s, where he did pilots and miniseries before coming to NYC. He reacted differently then. "I struggled with my sexuality for years. I was married; I have two children by that marriage. I wanted to make a career. I'm no poster boy for being an out actor."

But there came a time when the price was just too high. "I couldn't live with myself. I was miserable not being honest about my feelings. This decision was going to hurt my children, my ex-wife, and people I loved, but I knew it was much better than the other kind of pain I would visit on them from not being honest."

McGillin thinks, "For an actor who plays leading roles, gay sensibility is still untested territory. Name one gay actor in Hollywood who is open about it." And yet, "Though my career may have suffered in certain elements, I'm so much better an actor. I'm more in touch with who I am. When I catch myself in reruns on late-night TV, I see a really scared guy trying to be something he's not."

The coming-out process, says McGillin, is "a journey -- an evolution, not a revolution." And on that journey, he has found roles that "allow me to take another step toward being honest with myself and the world. My first show after deciding to stop hiding was 'The Secret Garden.' It was an amazing epiphany for me. He wasn't a gay character, but he was hiding from the world because of his pain. And then there was this amazing metaphor about this long-dormant garden."

As Broadway's Phantom, there was "the struggle to allow yourself to express who you are. I mean, he spends his whole life underground." And then there was the effeminately gay Molina in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." "I certainly couldn't have done it if I hadn't made the journey that I had."

Most recently, he chose not to change the male gender in the love song "Why Did I Choose You?" on his debut solo CD, "Where Time Stands Still." "I wouldn't have done that two or three years ago." The notes contain a thanks to his partner, Richard Samson. And, indeed, a perusal of the song stack in order suggests a reflection of McGillin's emotional journey: "My Romance/The Folks Who Live on the Hill" gives way to "Not While I'm Around/Good Thing Going," "Unexpected Song," "I'll Tell the Man in the Street," "Lucky to Be Me," and "Two for the Road," among others.

McGillin's latest role is in "Bounce," the new Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman-Harold Prince musical opening this month at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. "It's the true story of the Mizner brothers, a couple of scalawags who bounced from one adventure to the next in the early part of the 20th century. I'm playing Wilson, the straight guy, and nobody's thinking twice about it. And Richard Kind, who is straight, plays my gay brother, Addison. It's called role playing, and I'm thrilled to be doing it."

Craig Lucas -- A Seventh Sense

Prolific and provocative writer-director Craig Lucas (currently writing the book for and directing Adam Guettel's new musical, "The Light in the Piazza," at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, where Lucas is associate artistic director) has dealt with gay characters and themes in such diverse works as "Blue Window," "Prelude to a Kiss," and, of course, the landmark AIDS film "Longtime Companion." And for him, "gay sensibility" seems to be a tautology. "Every artist has an individual sensibility that they infuse their work with. If an artist is gay, then the work has a gay sensibility."

Lucas believes "people communicate in ways we don't understand. I think we have a seventh sense. It's when you know a friend is going to call and so you reach for the phone and there they are. Or when you know someone is looking at you though you're not facing in their direction."

Lucas' seventh sense drew him as a boy to the gay sensibility of artists he had no way of knowing were gay. "It was long before the words 'homosexual' or 'gay' were permitted on jacket covers. But I nonetheless found my way at 15 to Christopher Isherwood, John Cheever, Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, E.M. Forster. These artists spoke to me directly. As a little budding homo in Devon, Penn., in the midst of all those Republicans and racist, anti-Semitic, horrible people that I grew up with, these books were calling to me off the bookshelves."

Lucas thinks, "Gay people have always disproportionately been represented in the mainstream. If you look at 20th century American poets, between 40 and 50 percent are homosexual or bisexual: nothing like anybody would claim as a percentage across the population. For whatever reason, part of whatever makes us queer also seems to be fertile ground for the artist."

Of course, those artists, by and large, were closeted. And Lucas senses a backlash in the face of today's openly gay artists. "George Plimpton named the 20 most promising young fiction writers in America. Well, none of them were out. And almost none were people of color. In other words, identity politics are the enemy of art. So many people who have the ear of the public, Harold Bloom and others, are filled with this rabid horseshit about what is universal and what isn't. Anything that is truthful is universal. 'Moby Dick' is universal, and how many of us have hunted whales? There's a great August Wilson quote. Asked why he didn't write white characters, he said, 'There is no experience that can't be conveyed in the lives of African Americans.' I think that's kind of stunning."

Lucas' opinion of Hollywood is not a high one, as he dramatized in his acclaimed play "The Dying Gaul" (ironically about to become a film under Lucas' direction). And he's not impressed by the current visibility of gays and lesbians in film and TV. "We do seem to be everywhere. But these are people who would sell their grandmother's bones. It's not that they think, 'Hooray, we love gay people.' They would do shows about coprophiliacs if they thought they could make money on it. It's exploitation. But I'd rather be exploited than ignored."

Asked what he thinks the future holds for gays and lesbians in American culture, he grows animated. "It's dangerously close to Germany 1933 in America. The folks in power are venal enough to exploit 9/11. You could just see it in their eyes on Sept. 12. They were gloating. They knew they could go to town. They've dismantled civil liberties; they've stolen almost a trillion dollars in tax money from us. They don't give a flying fuck about education, poor people, health care. They are only interested in making millions for their friends. Halliburton and Bechtel and the Carlisle are all run and owned by these guys and they've profited off every war. They don't care about democracy and they don't care about freedom. They own the TV stations and they own the papers. I'm terrified, and I'm afraid that most Americans, including my own family, are so complacent that they don't think it can happen here. But it can."

And what can gays and lesbians do about it? "Advocate for pleasure. Because one thing you can always tell a fascist by is his antipathy to pleasure. Those of us who don't want to cover up statues of naked breasts in the Justice Dept., those of us who think that fucking and making love and kissing and celebrating the body are good things are already on the side of the angels."

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