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Losing Dorothy

Losing Dorothy


Writer and composer Joel Derfner realizes his childhood dream of acceptance has arrived -- at a cost.

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.

Luckily, I 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 a 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 me.

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 survived."

"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 Mind?

I've 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.

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Joel Derfner