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Closing the Gap Between Tolerance and Acceptance

Until Our Dying Day

by JAMES RUSSELL

In the musical “A Chorus Line,” the audience follows a group of dancers auditioning for the chance to be in a Broadway chorus line. It’s a popular show about love, coming-of-age and struggle. Told in a series of monologues (and the occasional ensemble number), we eventually meet Paul, a young, gentle, Puerto Rican musical theater enthusiast. “And there was the thing of trying to hide it from my parents,” says Paul, “that was something.” The 16 year old could have been hiding anything from his parents — condoms, drugs, a flask of whiskey. But in this deeply moving monologue, he’s referring to his drag outfit. Paul is gay.

“A Chorus Line” premiered Off Broadway in 1975 between two notable events in the gay rights movement: the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the AIDS epidemic. Both created a generation of aggressive and proud activists angered by the government’s willingness to bust a gay club, but complacency when it came to addressing a deadly epidemic. Even amidst the shared anger and ongoing activism fueled by Stonewall, gentle Paul was not an activist. I imagine he later will be devastated by the impact of the AIDS epidemic. And I also imagine it will fuel him to help his “family,” especially given the outsized presence of groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and People With AIDS (PWA) Self-Empowerment Movement.

Paul, still, was proud to be gay.

Since first seeing the musical 15 years ago, I still wonder about Paul. Where will he perform next? Will he reconcile with his parents? My understanding of queer struggle and history in the States has matured since then, and I have also endured the queer personal experience. I now imagine Paul’s life will mimic so many other young queer men’s and women’s: his family will fall into the shadows as he will likely create his own family of gays, lesbians, drag queens and the like. These surrogate family members will then replace his birth family, as they will have drifted away, feeling pain, grief and confusion over their son’s sexuality. His family’s withdrawal will leave questions unanswered and hearts broken. Through it all, I imagine, he will still have talent — and his pride, which will foster new relationships and replace those that will be missing. Eventually he will die. When he dies, his birth family will still plan the funeral. When that funeral ends, those bonds and intimate relationships will be buried with him.

When an ex-boyfriend — let’s call him Robert — unexpectedly died this week, I was reminded among all the sympathies and condolences that he played Paul in a production of “A Chorus Line.” Listening to his poignant coming-of-age monologue again reveals it is written to represent the struggle of growing up young and queer. So it will be with Robert. A life cut short, his funeral will likely not be planned by a disparate group of surrogates, but instead by distant family members, with whom, as far as I recall, he was not close and with whom the public’s memory of him rests.

As it is said, “pride commemorates bravery.” My understanding of our history suggests pride means celebrating our willingness to fight back. Pride, like our parades, is a collective experience; not just a personal one. It is an act of protest, born from our queer struggle. Then there is Paul. For one of nearly two-dozen characters in a musical developed nearly 30 years ago, his story still resonates.  Paul’s story shaped Robert’s performance. Robert’s story shaped his understanding of Paul. Robert performed Paul proudly. They overcame their early identity struggles.

Robert liked me in part because I was a vocal activist for any number of causes. Yet while he was out and proud to his family, which likely fueled their distance, I was not. What I saw happen to friends who came out of the closet, like the attempted suicides; removal of any familial financial and emotional support; divorces, bullying. It was devastating and made me sick, scared. I ultimately was silent about my identity.

Silence equals death. Silence equals pain.

Our relationship represented all the complexities and drama of such a complicated dynamic. We would break up. We would get back together. We would not talk for months. We saw other people. But it just wasn’t about one personal relationship’s ups and downs. We were rooted in the struggle; a microcosm of the pain our community still endures. We were mocked when we held hands on campus. When making out in a park after dark, the police came, interrogated us, and kicked us off the property. At our conservative college, I remember friends telling me that we were destined for Hell.

It is different now in some ways, as the gay rights movement claims progress on many fronts (as I wrote about here). As society’s views change, institutions like the church and the government, which once brutalized, damned and shunned us, have as well. “It gets better” has become a household term. Same-sex marriage is gaining approval in the polls (most of the nation, found one poll, sees same-sex marriage as “inevitable”). Conservative Christian denominations, as Molly Ball notes in The Atlantic, are moving “away from the vitriolic rhetoric of yesteryear and toward a more compassionate tone.” Where conservative churches toned down their rhetoric and message, progressive churches affirmed their queer members: a month before he died, Robert’s denomination, Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), passed a non-binding resolution affirming queer members of its churches.

But the Stonewall Inn raids are still not over. The complacency of the AIDS epidemic is not over. Those memories shaped us. I fear that the funeral, even if a somber celebration of his life, will ignore his struggle and the path to his pride. His performance of Paul may be remembered, but will he — will we — be afforded an opportunity to share with everyone this intimate part of his life … or will it be forgotten? Will it be until my dying day that I create a public record of the intimate memories we shared, the internal and external brutality we sometimes endured, and the façade created to conceal our romance from the public when necessary?

Every queer person struggles. If we survive, that struggle creates a stronger identity. We should be remembered for both the struggle toward affirming our identity — a struggle which defines our resilience. But as I fear it, even the contributions within our community likely will be relegated to the shadows. Our lives will not be wholly remembered. Hugh Ryan’s recent essay in the New York Times (“How to Whitewash a Plague”) touches on this fear. In criticizing a troubling new exhibit about the AIDS epidemic, the queer activist notes how it “takes a black mark in New York City’s history — its homophobic, apathetic response to the early days of AIDS in the early 1980s — and transforms it into a moment of civic pride.” Near the end of his essay, Ryan writes, “I’m not afraid we will forget AIDS; I am afraid we will remember it and it will mean nothing.” I imagine Robert’s funeral will do the same. While it will no doubt celebrate his life, will it be about his life, his experiences and the secret life we lead? I fear the latter will be forgotten, and it will be about the life they choose to remember. The true story will indicate whether the arc of justice bends toward tolerance or acceptance. The gap between the two is still wide, after all.

James Russell is a journalist and Book Review Editor for New Clear Vision.