Harvey Fierstein: Change Came Through Visible, Lovable Gay Characters on TV & in Theater

Harvey Fierstein is a playwright and an actor who has won Tonys for his works “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage aux Folles.” His show “Kinky Boots” is currently playing on Broadway.

When I wrote “Torch Song Trilogy” and I had a gay character who said he wanted a committed relationship, I started getting attacked by people like (novelist) Edmund White. They said I was trying to turn gay people into heterosexuals. It shocked me.

But it’s not about having to do something. It’s about the possibility. We don’t all have to be in monogamous relationships. The point is, it should be a possibility. You can adopt, you can get married. It’s all there. That became the civil rights cry for me. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you, you should be able to do anything. If a heterosexual has the right to live their life any way they want, then a gay person should too.

Pre-Stonewall, you had “Tea and Sympathy” and “The Children’s Hour,” but after Stonewall, we had the same crap. The characters were more out, or maybe their roles were a little bigger, but they still had to be tragic. I was screaming against that stuff.

How does theater or art help? Visibility is everything. Many people are against homosexuals having rights, but no one wants his brother Arthur being thrown out of an apartment because he’s gay, or losing his job because he’s gay. We had to turn “them,” or “those strange people over there,” into our family, our friends, people we know. Nothing does that better than art.

Well, nothing does it better than television. Television does it the best, because you’re watching these people in your underwear. They’re in your house. Whatever anybody may say about “Will & Grace,” they were in everybody’s living room. You ate dinner while you watched them. They were part of your life. And it’s very hard to then deny rights to those people you adore on television.

Here’s the worst thing about writing about gays: Nobody says to David Mamet, “That character in that play? That’s not what all heterosexuals are like. I’m not like that.” There is a weight put on writers who write gay stories. That’s starting to change now, and there’s the freedom that not every gay character has to represent the entire community. But that was a real problem.

I do love the outrageous character. I love the theatricality of people who aren’t afraid to express themselves through drag. People would say, “Why do you write all those characters?”

But listen, “Kinky Boots” isn’t about drag. It’s about this thing that happens to all of us, which is we have parents, and their expectations can buoy us and destroy us at the same time. It just so happens that while we’re telling you that story, some drag queens show up. And every time they do, the place cheers. The audience loves it. They’re reacting to something that’s honest and fun. We’re all there having a good time together.

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