On Activist Theatre

In response to this New York Times Article:

We were given this article in my graduate queer theory class today. I had trouble even reading it. I just think it’s really disturbing how activism is increasingly portrayed as this totally negative thing, with the implication being that anyone who espouses an agenda (and invariably it’s the people espousing a progressive, left-wing agenda who are attacked for it) should just shut up and assimilate, be a good boy or girl and start marching in step with our neoliberal overlords, who might–if we are really really lucky and very very good boys and girls–throw us crumbs like legalized gay marriage and adoption. I have huge respect for Tony Kushner because Angels in America is one of the best pieces of theatre/literature ever written but I think he, like a lot of middle or upper class usually white gay and lesbian people have this totally warped notion that somehow gay people have “arrived” and things are just fine and dandy for mostly everyone.

I’m not saying things aren’t immeasurably better than 10 years ago, or back when I was in high school nearly 20 years ago, and definitely we’ve come a spectacularly long way from the full-on criminalization of the 1960s and prior… but I come from Vancouver, one of the most liberal/progressive cities in one of the most liberal/progressive countries, where we have strong human rights code and legal protections and even full marriage equality, and still, in that “paradise,” there are kids killing themselves because they’re struggling with their sexuality. There’s people being severely bashed, even to death, in this purported liberal oasis of acceptance. So if that’s happening in the progressive urban core of one of the most accepting countries in the world, what the HECK do these people who think we should stop being “political” (where “political” is a dirty word) think is going on in the suburbs? In rural areas? In non-democratic countries? For people who are working class or poor? For people who are non-white?

Even if you take the approach that AIDS is not as major a concern for queer people as it was in the 80s and 90s (which I think is definitely debatable), there are plenty of injustices and plain simple evil that is perpetrated against people on the basis of their sexuality every. single. day. Celebrating or lauding the fact that “gay theatre” has “moved beyond” the (presumably infantile) “stage” of protesting queer people’s mistreatment has frightening and disturbing implications.

I remember being in San Francisco a few months after 9/11 and seeing a banner across the exterior of the famous City Lights Bookstore that stated: “Dissent is not unAmerican.” It shouldn’t need to be said that dissent is not anti-gay, either, but apparently it bears being made explicit. While having a diversity of themes in gay theatre is great, it shouldn’t be presented as if this increasing diversity means that the political focus of prior gay theatre was some kind of childish rebellion that was futile and unnecessary. If anything, we’re much more in need of activist theatre and film now than we ever were.

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