Why the Gay and Bi Men of Boys in the Band Still Matter

Boys in the Band

Boys Parsons Quinto Bomer

Above: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Matt Bomer

MOVIE HISTORY

Part of the reason The Boys in the Band was so groundbreaking is that it was one of the first films to have gay characters at all. The Hollywood Production Code, which lasted from 1930 to 1968, put a stranglehold on any portrayal of “sex perversion.” Sure, some subtextually gay characters (think Rebel Without a Cause) made it to the screen, but in Boys, the characters are up front about being gay. And whether they hate themselves for it, there’s no mistaking that this is a room full of men who self-identify as queens, fairies, and fags. Nobody watching the the play could mistake them for anything but queers.

Straight director William Friedkin (who later gained fame for directing The Exorcist) was called brave for making the 1970 film, which many Hollywood insiders thought would be a career killer. But critics agreed that only two years from stage to screen meant that Friedkin wasn’t hired to improve on the play, just to preserve it for a wider audience.

Looking back, actor Zachary Quinto reminds us the play is set “at a time when the only place where gay men could be open and authentic with themselves was in private. There wasn’t the freedom that we enjoy today, and I think probably the most significant evolution in the past 50 years is the ways in which we as an LGBTQ community have become more integrated and more authentically ourselves.”

Still, “the evolution of the vernacular and the colloquial mode of communication, which I think in some ways evolved from a need to release a certain kind of pressure … that still exists [today].”

“It’s true how much has changed, and how much hasn’t changed,” Parsons says. “At the risk of … generalizing, it seems to me that there is not a moment, a reaction, a statement, a feeling, a take on anything that any of these men have in this play from 50 years ago that can’t be and isn’t daily replicated in the lives of gay people now — just perhaps not to the same degree. Some things still do elicit the same kind of reaction. It’s not by a black-and-white flip of the way things were to the way things are.”

Quinto, perhaps best known as Spock in the new Star Trek films, also had conversations about Boys with Murphy, Mantello, and producer David Stone.

“I feel like I have a much deeper, fuller understanding of the play now, and towards its resonance and its power,” he says. “It was sort of stigmatized when the movie came out. It’s been really nice to get to know it with fresh eyes.”

The actor, one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars, came out less than a decade ago, moved by the 2011 suicide of young queer activist Jamey Rodemeyer, which reminded him that LGBT kids were still killing themselves even as courts legalized same-sex marriage. Quinto wrote on his blog that after Rodemeyer’s death “it became clear to me in an instant that living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it is simply not enough to make any significant contribution to the immense work that lies ahead on the road to complete equality.”

It’s telling how youths have impacted many of these actors: Watkins is raising 5-year-old twins; Bomer and his husband (publicist Simon Halls) have three kids; Quinto’s earliest activism was for the Trevor Project and It Gets Better, both aimed at preventing LGBT youth suicides.

“You know, The Boys in the Band and I are the same age, actually,” says Watkins who was born in 1968. “At 50 years old, I’m the oldest guy in the play, and Charlie is the youngest guy in the play. I would guess that even though he’s half my age I probably have twice as many fears about what it means to be gay than he does, which is really a great thing, because it means that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants — gay men and women who came before us, who paved the path.”

He feels differently now than he once did about “stereotypes” on the lavender screen. “I feel like I’m sort of a time capsule of the gay experience from when this play was written,” Watkins says. “When I was born, to where we are now … I’ve taken exception with my own community and the representation of gay people in the TV and film industry … I had a problem with what I thought to be stereotypes, particularly over at Modern Family. That was a number of years ago, but the problem I had with seeing gay stereotypes in entertainment was just that. It was my problem.”

The actor admits that the culture he grew up in during the 1970s and ’80s, and the industry in the ’90s, “reinforced in my head that being gay was not OK. I still have feelings about what it means for me to be gay, but … [I] want to do better. I plan to make things better by making people feel safe being themselves around me because I, in turn, want to feel safe being myself out there in the world.”

Unsurprisingly, Carver has experienced masculinity in very different ways, and he hopes the femmephobia in the play is a relic of the past. “That is something that I hope we are beginning to contend with more deliberately and compassionately now. I experienced a lot of internalized femmephobia growing up.” Carver says coming of age as historical changes like marriage equality happened, “my feelings about myself and my masculinity have [also] changed. I think what’s really exciting about being a young person­—about young, gay, queer, LGBTQI+ culture now — is this sort of queerification of gender.”

For actors like Parsons and Carver, coming out was smooth. Their careers as out actors are successful. Things were much different for the original cast of Boys, a number of whom were also gay. Laurence Luckinbill, who originated Hank is married to Lucie Arnaz and is the uncle of transgender film directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski. He played Spock’s half-brother in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Peter White, who played Alan, became a soap star on All My Children and Dallas. Luckinbill and White, both straight, are the only two stars still thought alive. Reuben Greene, who played Bernard, faded from public view in the '90s. Cliff Gorman, who played the flamboyant Emory, went on to macho TV roles on Law and Order and Police Story before his 2002 death from leukemia.

Kenneth Nelson (Michael), Leonard Frey (Harold), Frederick Combs (Donald), Keith Prentice (Larry), Robert La Tourneaux (Cowboy), Robert Moore (the play’s original director), and producer Richard Barr, all died of AIDS complications.

“A lot of them had great careers,” Bomer says. “Unfortunately, we had this horrific epidemic that swept through our people. I look back and say, ‘Wow! These guys were 10 times more courageous than someone has to be now.’”

La Tourneaux, who played the naïve working-class sex worker among a sea of middle-class men, fared the worst. He told reporters that Boys had been the kiss of death as an out gay actor. Unable to score other roles, La Tourneaux modeled nude for gay men’s magazines, had a naked cabaret act at New York City’s Ramrod, and once told reporters he had an affair with actor Christopher Walken. Eventually La Tourneaux turned to sex work, advertising his services in The Advocate (back when adult ads were still a part of the magazine). After a fight with a nonpaying client, he was sent to Rikers Island, where he attempted suicide. Three years later, he was lost to the AIDS epidemic. Gorman and his wife cared for La Tourneaux in his final days. What’s clear even now is that Charlie Carver, who plays Cowboy in the revivial, the role that pigeonholed La Tourneaux as a gay hustler, won’t suffer the same fate.

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