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Happy Birthday, Harvey

Via QueerSighted, I learned that Harvey Fierstein turned 53 yesterday, and since Harvey had about as much influence on my coming out as, say, Marlon Riggs, I can’t let the opportunity to say “Happy Birthday!” and “Many Happy Returns!”

I remember growing up a skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black gay boy in Georgia, during the Reagan era, and keeping my eyes open for any positive representation of homosexuality, much in the same way a man stranded at sea constantly scans the horizon for even a speck of land or the way one lost in a desert looks for the tiniest puddle of water. I must have been watching the Tony Awards, when Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy earned him two Tony Awards. Sometime after that, I got my hands on a copy of the play and read it in one sitting. What it meant to me, I can’t say any better than than Kenneth put it

Without Harvey, we’d have never had ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ — and we’d be a poorer gay culture without it. I first read the play in 1982 when I was 20 years old. I bought it at a gay bookstore in San Francisco and it instantly became one of those works that changed my life.

I was already out, but Harvey’s messages of living your own life, of being OK with being different, of loving yourself enough not to need anyone’s approval but giving yourself permission to want it anyway, all helped make me the gay man I grew up to be.

Harvey Fierstein gave me — and no doubt legions of other gay people — just a little bit more courage to be true to myself. I still have that script, it’s tattered and dog-eared, full of scribbles and check marks, a memory book now of what the book meant to me then.

Like I said, water in the desert. That Harvey’s protagonist was a gay man who didn’t cleave to the “clone” brand of masculinity embraced by many gay men after Stonewall, dared to be a “flaming queen, and still managed to create a life for himself (“in six inch heels, no less” to borrow a line from the play) gave one skinny, black, southern sissy a little bit of hope. I wasn’t the only one, either. I was in college by the time Torch Song Trilogy when the play came out, and every gay man I knew at the time went to see it. Some of us more than once.

And Harvey is still giving us hope. In support, I submit the following items:

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One: Harvey’s letter to the New York Times column in response to the aftermath of the Imus affair.

For the past two decades political correctness has been derided as a surrender to thin-skinned, humorless, uptight oversensitive sissies. Well, you anti-politically correct people have won the battle, and we’re all now feasting on the spoils of your victory. During the last few months alone we’ve had a few comedians spout racism, a basketball coach put forth anti-Semitism and several high-profile spoutings of anti-gay epithets.

What surprises me, I guess, is how choosy the anti-P.C. crowd is about which hate speech it will not tolerate. Sure, there were voices of protest when the TV actor Isaiah Washington called a gay colleague a “faggot.” But corporate America didn’t pull its advertising from “Grey’s Anatomy,” as it did with Mr. Imus, did it? And when Ann Coulter likewise tagged a presidential candidate last month, she paid no real price.

In fact, when Bill Maher discussed Ms. Coulter’s remarks on his HBO show, he repeated the slur no fewer than four times himself; each mention, I must note, solicited a laugh from his audience. No one called for any sort of apology from him. (Well, actually, I did, so the following week he only used it once.)

Face it, if a Pentagon general, his salary paid with my tax dollars, can label homosexual acts as “immoral” without a call for his dismissal, who are the moral high and mighty kidding?

Our nation, historically bursting with generosity toward strangers, remains remarkably unkind toward its own. Just under our gleaming patina of inclusiveness, we harbor corroding guts. America, I tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you brush your teeth. If your insides are rotting your breath will stink. So, how do you people choose which hate to embrace, which to forgive with a wink and a week in rehab, and which to protest? Where’s my copy of that rule book?

Of course, Harvey knows as well as anyone that those rules don’t apply to the rest of us.

Two: His appearance in the 2003 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as Edna Turnbladt appearing as Mrs. Claus.

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Three, his rousing defense of his controversial appearance as Edna Turnbladt appearing as Mrs. Claus, which itself appeared as a rousing defense of sissydom as well.

Free Image Hosting at allyoucanupload.comWon’t America get a kick out of that? But what if Santa really was gay? Could there be a another Mr. Claus? Would those grinches who, as we speak, are fashioning legislation to deny marriage to gay and lesbian Americans make an exception for the jolly old soul? What has Santa ever done except bring joy and gifts to all? Just the sight of his face is enough to bring a smile to the Scroogiest of politicians. Would his gifts of love and goodwill be answered with exclusion and derision?

The answer, history tells us, is “of course.” Consider the Americans who have rained nothing but glory on our nation. Think about the magnificent works of Walt Whitman, James Baldwin and Hart Crane. They’re just a handful of writers who shaped the American vision and yet could not achieve full citizenship because they were homosexual. How many wedding parties have walked down the aisle to the music of Virgil Thompson, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman or Aaron Copland? Yes, we get to provide the music, but we are not allowed to get married ourselves. The next time you stand, hand on your heart, and sing “America the Beautiful,” remind yourself that we owe those towering words to Katharine Lee Bates, a lesbian.

Remind yourself, too, of the Rev. Mychal F. Judge, the fire department chaplain who was killed on September 11. There was hardly a religious leader in our city who did not glorify his name and hold him up as someone to emulate. But remind them that he was a proud and openly gay man and those same moralists will turn their backs in denial.

Oh hell. Why not just let him tell it?

And tell it.

And to top it all off, he gave us The Sissy Duckling in print and on film.

Happy Birthday, Harvey. And many happy returns.

What a queen. Long may you reign.

One Comment

  1. When I was on the verge of disappearing and had endless (un-acted upon thoughts) of killing myself because my children rejected me when I came out. I got to talk to him on a radio talk show (Alan Colmes) and he gave me the support to stand up for who I am.

    The man is a saint.

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