Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened at New York’s off-Broadway Theater Four on April 14, 1968. The revolutionary show dared to show gay men “at home.”
The story centers on a group of friends at a thirty-second birthday party for Harold, hosted by Michael, when Michael’s supposedly straight college roommate, Alan, unexpectedly shows up. Anxiety, depression, guilt, and self-loathing fuel the free-flying insults as the men verbally flay each other and themselves.
What may be saddest of all is the friends gathered in Michael’s apartment actually do care about, and even love, one another like the “gay family” they are.
But after lifetimes of being told men who love men are sick, sinful, and second class, it’s small wonder the pain they carry inside boils over regularly with the only people with whom they feel safe enough to vent.
“If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so very much,” says Michael in the play’s final scene, before speaking the show’s most famous line: “You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”
That line hurts even today because it still rings true for too many gay men. The hatred of gay people we grow up hearing and seeing, frequently from our own parents, still sinks in and undercuts our self-esteem.
Before Boys in 1968 showed the world our pain—and the Stonewall uprising the following year began to show us our power—most gay men lived essentially “straight” lives. They were often married to women, fathered children, and kept their “gay life” a secret.
It’s remarkable that gay men managed, quite well, to find one another over the centuries and in the decades immediately following Oscar Wilde’s famous 1895 trial and conviction in London for “gross indecency.” Even medical researchers of Wilde’s day were continually astonished at gay men’s ability to pick one another out of a crowd. They attributed it to a kind of sixth sense. Gay men usually call it “gaydar.”
At a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, this perceptiveness was dismissed as further proof of aberration. “Sexual perverts readily recognized each other, although they may never have met before,” wrote one doctor in 1892, “and there exists a mysterious bond of psychological sympathy between them.”
Of course gay men viewed that mysterious bond quite differently.
Associating with one another was key to counteracting the negative images of gay men. Historian George Chauncey says in his landmark book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 that gay men “also developed cultural resources and subcultural strategies that allowed them to undermine the authority of the dominant culture more directly and to create more affirmative conceptions of themselves.”
As early as the 1920s gay men called their most distinctive cultural style “camp.” Chauncey describes camp as “a style of interaction and display that used irony, incongruity, theatricality, and humor to highlight the artifice of social convention.” It was also an important component of gay men’s resilience.
Nothing embodied camp humor, and turned both the social order and gender roles on their heads, more cleverly than drag. Gender inversion was central to gay culture, the reason Chauncey says the drag balls and their organizers occupied an honored place in it.
One of the most important steps gay men took to subvert and survive society’s prejudice was in choosing the word gay to represent themselves. Gay was a coded term that began to catch on in the 1930s and became the choice of white homosexuals in the 1940s. The black gay men who turned Harlem into a homosexual mecca referred to themselves as being “in the life” or “the sporting life.”
Not all homosexuals liked the term, but it provided a way for them to identify themselves to one another without alerting those not in the know.
The days were passing when gay men felt a need to refer to one another with winks and euphemisms about being “musical” or “horticultural,” discreetly inquire about being “friends of Dorothy,” or drown their pain in pills and booze like the real-life Dorothy, Judy Garland herself.
Seventy-four years old when I interviewed him in 2016 for Stonewall Strong, John Clum, a Duke University professor emeritus of theater studies and English, was well-positioned in time to reflect on gay culture from the age of divas to the era of legal same-sex marriage. In his 2000 book Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture, Clum looks at pre-Stonewall gay culture from the point of view of what he calls “show queens”—gay men, like himself, who collect and discuss the minutiae of musical theater and its stars. You might say he wrote the book on diva worship.
“To closeted gay men,” writes Clum, “the diva heroine was a figure of identification. Where does one find magic if one is different and must try to hide one’s difference? The ideal is escape from the provincial, where one is hated, and fabulousness, an antidote to grayness and the strong sense of entrapment.”
Divas offered both escape and fabulousness in equal measure. Their gay fans identified with women like free-spirited and glamorous Katharine Hepburn, shrewd yet vulnerable Bette Davis, talented and tough Barbra Streisand, and, above all, tragic and triumphant Judy Garland.
“Garland was a wreck, but she went on,” said Clum.
That is what gay men saw on stage and on the screen: resilience. The grit to go on in spite of everything that wants to hold us back.
For the divas of screen and stage, the struggle was to be independent women in a world dominated by men. Even today gay men frequently struggle to be true to ourselves in a world dominated by heterosexual men.
“We were like the divas,” said Clum. “We go on and on, but underneath we’re hurting.” He added, “Divas are survivors. We loved them because they were survivors.”
We're able to go on, and not hurt so much, when we learn to love ourselves by claiming our own history of surviving--and by recalling the resilience of our gay forbears not as sad closet cases, but as men who also did what they had to do to survive.