Five years ago,
when I was 30, I started teaching a musical theater
workshop for high school students. Given the subject, I
wasn’t shocked to find that most of the male
pupils were the sort of guys whose response to a
football would be to cover it in glitter. My mandate was to
teach these kids how to write musicals, but, recalling
my own difficulties with teenage social life, I also
looked forward to reassuring them that better things
lay in store.
What became clear
almost immediately, however, was that to these kids,
being openly gay was about as remarkable an achievement as
flossing. “My last ex-boyfriend…”
trilled one 17-year-old; my staggering astonishment
caused me to miss what he said next.
I came out at 15,
but in 1989 -- in South Carolina—it was inconceivable
that I’d ever begin a sentence with “my last
ex-boyfriend.” I suspected that there were a
few other boys my age who harbored feelings similar to
mine -- a suspicion confirmed, I am pleased to note, with
the passage of time. But on the few occasions I dared
approach the subject, I was met with stony silence.
wasn’t forced to go through my teenage years alone; I
did find a community of like-minded friends. But they
weren’t my peers. They were a group of older
men and women who congregated regularly in a chocolate
store one of them owned. It was from these people that I
learned how to duel à la Oscar Wilde, hurling
epigrams like hatpins. With them I first saw The
Women and gasped with delight to learn that most
of its stars had been passed over for the part of Scarlett
O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Among them I
understood there was a place in the world for a person like
But years later,
the kids I was teaching didn’t need to search for a
gay community, because their place in the world was
already clear to them from watching, Will &
Grace, talking to their gay next-door neighbor,
and running into their ex-boyfriend. I was deeply moved: The
future I had only dreamed of was coming to be.
After a couple of
weeks of teaching I found myself telling a few of my
students how lucky they were to have missed the bad old
days. “Thank God for Dorothy Parker,” I
said. “Otherwise I don’t know how I would have
“Who?” one student said. Damn my tendency to
mumble: “Dorothy Parker,” I enunciated.
“Who’s that?” another one asked.
I stared at them,
so appalled I couldn’t speak. Who’s that?
I told them
briefly about the 20th century’s greatest and most
depressed wit, the woman who’d said,
“Ducking for apples—change one letter and
it’s the story of my life,” and with
every bon mot my students laughed louder and louder.
Though they loved what they were hearing, I was alarmed.
Dorothy Parker is near the center of what I think of as the
gay canon—the people, books, movies, events,
and ideas that have shaped gay identity since there
was such a thing as gay identity. What did it herald that
these teens were unfamiliar with her and, for that matter,
Auntie Mame and The Lord Won’t
taught the musical theater course many times since that
first summer. Every year, when I ask gay students
about the cultural icons I take for granted, I get
more blank stares. And this makes me think that
today’s relative comfort with homosexuality is
something of a mixed blessing. Now that younger gay
people no longer need to seek out older gay people to
find acceptance, they no longer have access to the body of
knowledge their elders can impart. Even if they
didn’t raise their own children, gay men could
always count on the next generation to show up on
their doorsteps wanting to be adopted. And the first thing
they’d do, naturally, was hand out a copy of
Giovanni’s Room and pop The Boys
in the Band into the VCR.
What will become
of our cultural history now that kids aren’t looking
for a surrogate family?
I have no desire
to turn back the clock -- we’re much better off now
than we’ve ever been, although we still have
far to go. And I’m thrilled that high school
boys can now walk around talking about being “between
boyfriends.” But when I remember the shock of
recognition I still feel reading Wilde or watching
Joan Crawford or listening to the Weather Girls, I
think I can be forgiven for regretting, just a little bit,
the price we’re paying for acceptance.