I spent two years as an actor between my time on Capitol Hill and the last two dozen years in public and media relations. Twenty-eight years ago, I moved to Manhattan to become a “star.” I enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Institute, and eventually began doing small theater around New York City.
Crowds were always a rush for the ham in me, but what I noticed most about being an actor is that the nervousness and excitement to perform doesn’t hit when the curtain goes up. It’s actually before you walk out onto the stage, while waiting in the wings, when you feel the rush of anxiety and the pressure building.
As 2021 prepares for its time in the spotlight, perhaps no year in our lifetime has so much weight on it to perform brilliantly. My social feeds are full of GIFs and memes panning 2020 and begging for 2021. There is so much hope, so much expectation for 2021 to be a great year. The anticipation for 2021 is immediately palpable. But are we aiming too high in our urgency for the new year to arrive?
When you think about it, turning from one year to another is just moving from one day to another. From one winter month to the next. And this year, from a Thursday to a Friday. Except this year, we’re moving closer to two things that might make the emergence of 2021 a bit more substantial, a new presidential administration and new vaccines. Both aimed to fix the corrosion of our government and stem the tide of COVID-19. Turning the page this year is nothing like last year, when we had so much hope for the new decade ahead.
Looking back and reading my column from a year ago, “LGBTQ Americans Have Cause of Anxiety and Hope in 2020,” it seems almost benign, talking about more LGBTQ+ television shows, more out athletes, and our constant battle with the government and equality. Not that these issues are any less important; however, little did we know all the drama, pain, reminders of the past, sickness and death, intolerance and hate, and corruption and malfeasance that lie ahead in 2020, and how it would impact the world and our community.
You could say that a column I wrote last January about the chaos, pain, and mortal damage of hiding in the closet for Whitney Houston, Aaron Hernandez, and others was a harbinger to what was to come in 2020. The insidiousness of the Trump administration, of a lethal virus and of racial tension were all hiding in the proverbial closet in 2019, bursting out of the darkness and into the spotlight in 2020, causing consequential pandemonium, suffering, and death.
Impeachment rang in the new year of 2020, and we had hopes that Donald Trump and his crew of criminals would finally be run out of Washington. Out Senator Tammy Baldwin helped explain to us in January what would happen during the Senate trial, and while she told me she swore an oath to do her duty, 53 other Senators did not, allowing Trump to remain in office and the frightening prospect that he could be reelected in November, as I wrote in January.
That same month, the coronavirus started its sickening spread. At first, like SARS and Ebola before it, most of us thought that this sickness would only makebe making a cameo, blindly believing — or wishing — that it would just disappear, as Trump kept telling us; however, by March, the significance of COVID-19 had set in, and I wrote during that month about Trump, “After 73 years of escaping, eluding, evading, and eschewing, Trump’s luck may have finally run out. And the tragedy — no the calamity — is that we will be the ones who lose in the end.” We did. At this writing, almost 340,000 Americans have inexplicably lost their lives. And thankfully, but certainly not on the same level, Trump lost too.
For our community, there was a big election win in the early days of 2020 amidst all the confusion and catastrophe of COVID-19. Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay major party presidential candidate won the Iowa caucus in March, and in doing so, I said, “Pete stood tall and so did we. Pete gave us hope for the future. And Pete, someday, will win again.” He did. When he is confirmed to be the new Secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration in 2021, he will be the first Senate approved LGBTQ+ cabinet member in history.
We had a number of groundbreakers in 2020, and prominent people stepping out for the first time to talk about their sexuality and identity. Former U.S. Representative Katie Hill talked candidly in August about her bisexuality and her involvement in a throuple, saying, at 31, she was essentially ahead of her time as a 21st-century U.S. congressperson. Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump, spoke to me exclusively in July about being a lesbian, and growing up and trying to come out in a family that was anti-everything. There was not, she revealed, anyone in her family that she could confide in about her sexuality.
Perhaps my most meaningful column of the year featured Justice Marty Jenkins, the first LGBTQ+ member of California’s Supreme Court. During our emotional discussion in October, he revealed for the first time publicly that he was gay, and the tear-jerking incidents that led him, late in life, to be his authentic self.
In a year of racial tension fueled by the horrific death of George Floyd, as I wrote in June, it was most reassuring to know that Jenkins’s appointment will serve as a beacon for those fighting against systematic racism in our judicial system in 2021 and beyond. As he so eloquently said, “Hopefully, I’ll have the ability to shine a light on the possibilities for people who look like me or have the same orientation as I do.”
We drew a few comparisons during the year of gay men’s gruesome battle with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s to the advent of COVID-19 this year. “Testing positive” returned, becoming a catchphrase in 2020, but those same words were literally a death sentence in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and hearing those words again was a horrific reminder for those who survived that harrowing time, as I wrote in March.
During 2020, I spoke to two doctors who were pioneers during the AIDS epidemic, and now current vanguards of the public’s trust about COVID-19. Co-chair of the Biden Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Michael Osterholm talked to me in July about contact tracing, and how he developed the first contact tracing program for HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s. And Dr. Tony Fauci, who will become Biden’s chief medical advisor in 2021, also spoke to me in July about the parallels of the pandemics and his relationship with Larry Kramer, an icon in the fight for a cure to HIV, whose death we mourned in 2020.
We also lost far too many trans people this year by violent crimes. My column about the introduction of Elliot Page this month elicited the most tender responses. I heard from so many transgender people and their allies who echoed Page’s sense of fragility about being openly trans, and readers who appreciated my pointing out that just because the “T” is the fourth letter of LGBTQ+, they should not be fourth in importance. We’re all in this together.
Which, on a broader scale, is the refrain that stuck out — or should have stuck out — most for all of us in 2020. Whether your gay, straight, Black, white, man, woman, non-binary, Christian, Jew or agnostic, everyone was touched somehow and in some way by COVID-19 and its jarring cruelty. And we all hope to be touched in some positive way by the future of a President-elect Biden, and be pinched by the miracle of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021.
Which brings us to this ubiquitous upcoming year, and all the hopeful optimism associated with it. I saw a meme that said something to the effect that if you say the new year out loud, “2020 won,” it sounds like a cruel irony. But in reality, 2021 may determine if indeed 2020 did win. We have so much work to do to bring this country together, to make it healthy, to make it prosperous, to make it welcoming, to make it more equal, to make it more tolerant, to make it less divisive, to make it happy. Each one of those, in and of themselves, are extremely tall orders.
Perhaps 2020 was just a series of bad rehearsals and performances that set the stage for a show-stopping 2021? Will we look back a year from now and feel different about ourselves? For each other? For those whose lives have been lost by COVID-19? Or, for those murdered or maimed simply by being Black or transgender? Will we have learned any lessons from 2020? Will 2021 be a year of redemption? Will Joe Biden and a roster of talented government officials restore our — and the world’s — faith in the United States? Are we expecting too much out of 2021? Should we be tamping down on a year we wishfully hope will be filled with miracles? Or, are we right to be overly and desperately enthusiastic for a year whose performance we anticipate will exceed our expectations?
I remember as an actor being in a play once that had one bad rehearsal after another, topped off by a dismal dress rehearsal. We had a British director who was obsessed with classical music, and after giving us all our notes the night before the opening, and noticing how crestfallen the cast was, he quoted a famous British musician, “A bad performance haunts the artist like a nightmare for days and days, and the memory of it is erased only by a good performance.”
Let’s hope 2021 garners a standing ovation, rave reviews and a grateful and captive audience.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.