Harvey Fierstein Has Words for the Next Generation of LGTBQ People

Playbill Pride   Harvey Fierstein Has Words for the Next Generation of LGTBQ People Playbill’s 2016 Pride Issue—“What’s Next?”—comes to a close in a candid interview with Harvey Fierstein.
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Harvey Fierstein Eric McNatt

With so many victories for the LGBTQ community in recent years, including the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the defeat of DOMA and the historic 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, it felt like a natural progression to ask “What’s Next?” What were the challenges and hopes for the future that the LGBTQ community (and the artists among them) talking about.

We couldn’t have known that on June 12, 2016, America would wake up to the horrific news of another mass shooting—the worst in U.S. history—and a direct attack on LGBTQ people.

As a community accustomed to violence and acts of aggression, ranging from physical to political, the latest attack reverberated throughout the LGBTQ community as a rallying cry, a call to for unity, understanding and, yet again, action.

Harvey Fierstein, the outspoken and OUT, playwright, actor and activist, who was celebrated as a 2016 Trailblazer Honoree by Logo June 23, spoke candidly with Playbill.com about the importance of preserving LGBTQ history, the attitudes within the community that need to change and why all LGBTQ individuals should take part in the movement.

There are so many younger LGBTQ people who aren’t aware of the history of the gay rights movement that came before them. Too often I feel like I hear people say things that the Pride March isn’t for them, or that it doesn’t reflect them, or who gay people are now. What do you say to those people?
Harvey Fierstein: I just laugh. Children are always privileged. I don’t think I’m the first to notice that. You’re born into a world that is the way it is, and then it’s not even comfortable. It’s a hard thing to try and look back and see how you got there, especially since most of our history has been decimated. Our history was never written down, and most people who were gay had marriages, or beards of some sort. How many years do you have to go back—two, three—to find that that’s the way people lived?

It’s a very hard thing, and our history is not taught in schools, obviously. We are a minority, because there’s not as many of us as there are heterosexuals, but we are in every culture. We are every color, we are every religion, we are every social and economic background, in every country, in every tribe, and we’re everywhere. So it’s very hard to create a community out of such disparity.

And can you say to every gay kid that, “You should know your gay history” when there isn’t a teacher on this planet who can teach gay history? I assume that in colleges that such things are being taught. I put my papers at Yale because Larry Kramer’s papers are there. And one hopes. I know there’s a gay collection in San Francisco trying to save our histories, and we all cling to each other.

When I was a kid, I’m “first generation Stonewall,” I guess is what you call us. Stonewall happened, and I was already out. I was already hiding down the block from Stonewall, because of course, I couldn’t get in. I was too young. But me and my friends were hanging out on the street, looking at gay people, trying to see where we fit in and all that. So I’ve been watching it a long time. I was there at the GAA [Gay Activists Alliance] Firehouse, and I did know people in the Mattachine Society, and when I try and talk about this stuff sometimes it’s accepted and sometimes it’s not.

When I did Catered Affair, I had a character in it who was gay. I even talked to Gore Vidal who wrote the screenplay, and I talked to Gore about it, about these men who lived on family’s couches, these confirmed bachelors. Who did people think they were? And he laughed and said, “They never would have called themselves gay.” And I said, “Well you don’t call yourself gay! So why would they call themselves gay?”

The point is, I wrote this character, this person who had no life. He lived on his sister’s couch. He grew up in the same home, had the same wants and the same desires, and yet had no life. By the end of the show he starts realizing, “I have to go out and make a life.” But he doesn’t know how, it’s set in the 1950s. And still people came in and said, “This character is post-Stonewall.” He’s a human being! Do you think all of the gay movement started with Stonewall? It’s so insane, but how do we get young people to care about our history? How important is it?

There was just a sit-in on the floor of Congress. You’ve got John Lewis, one of the major figures of the Civil Rights movement, sitting on the floor of Congress. It wasn’t the murders elsewhere that started this. I’m old enough to know now, that when history is written 30 years from know, they’re going to look at those gay murders as a turning point.

Many gay people, when we first heard about the shooting in Orlando, we knew it had to be somebody gay [who did it]. You just don’t attack gay people unless you’re gay. Look at what we went through at the Ramrod [the 1980 massacre at a New York City gay bar]. With a sense of history you know that.

As someone who is being recognized for creating a path for others, what do you want the next generation of LGBTQ people to take away from this?
HF: It embarrasses the sh*t out of me that someone’s giving me an award for being gay. Just for being openly gay? For being a trailblazer? History is being made right now. You either want to be a part of it or you don’t.

You can’t expect everybody to do the work for you. That’s the bottom line. You want the freedoms, you want to party. Back in the day you wanted to party, to be at the disco, but you didn’t want to do any of the work. You didn’t want to be out on the streets, you didn’t want to do the marching. That’s the way it is. Isn’t most of the political work done by the least number of people? It’s no different in our community than it is elsewhere.

The reason the NRA has the power it has is because they show up. Their members, or at least their paid members show up. If we showed up, you get things done.

How many times do I have to challenge the young gay community? There was a period where I tried to produce older gay plays. The truth is that plays are hard to produce, it’s hard to get an audience into a gay play. I produced Robert Patrick’s Haunted Host, and I did that because it was a play that was written before Boys in the Band.

There’s a story I do love telling about Eli Wallach. This was about 1982, and I was on an airplane, and he comes up behind me. And he taps me on the on the shoulder and said, “You’re Harvey Fierstein,” and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What’s this crap about you playing a homosexual on Broadway and being the first homosexual on Broadway. I was playing a homosexual on Broadway.” And I said, “Yes, I know you did the play Staircase.” And he said, “Yes, that’s right. I did the Charles Dyer play Staircase and when you were still in diapers, I was out there playing a homosexual.” And I said, “Yes Eli, but did you s******?”

And there is something to that. You think our stories have been told. They have always been out there, but never with homosexuals in them; because “homosexuals are too disgusting to actually look at” is the message.

If people are going to look at Philadelphia and say, “That is a great film.” You have to say, “Okay…?” To me it’s a great attempt, but Tom Hanks, who I adore, and Antonio Banderas, who is a friend, are those really the only two actors anyone could find to play those roles?

I’ve spoken to many people who have made that same observation. That film seems to be a kind of touchstone for this issue and the desire for authentic representation.
HF: When we made the movie of Torch Song, we couldn’t get openly gay people to be in it. One of the days we were shooting at the club La Cage aux Folles. So we have our makeup in trailers in the parking lot and we’re all getting in drag at 6 or 7 AM in the morning. I’m already out on the street smoking, and it’s me and Ken Page and Matthew Broderick, and Charles Pierce [the late female impersonator best-known for impersonating Bette Davis] comes out of the trailer in full drag and he goes, “Girls! My mother is coming to the set today, not a word!” This man made his living in a dress. He was at that time 60 or 70 at that time. “Not a word!” Doesn’t that just sum it all up?

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In his acceptance speech during Logo’s Trailblazer Honors, Fierstein added to these sentiments, encouraging the LGBTQ community to “put your arms around each other.”

Watch the speech in full below:

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