Take a look at the audience of any Broadway show. It's likely that no small amount of the women will be clad in pants; but it's even more likely than none of the men will sport skirts or dresses.
Playwright Harvey Fierstein may have discovered the reason why. His new play, Casa Valentina, his first in 27 years, examines a crucial turning point in gender politics, uncovering a piece of untold history that still effects us today.
Based on real events, Casa Valentina takes place in 1962 at a Catskills resort that caters to a unique clientele: Male cross-dressers. But while drag queens have played front and center on Broadway ever since Fierstein won Tonys for his groundbreaking play Torch Song Trilogy and the equally groundbreaking musical La Cage aux Folles, the men of Casa Valentina don't dress up to perform. Their shared goal is to express "the girl within," yet they aren't gay. Indeed the resort is run by a cross-dressing husband ( Patrick Page) and his wife ( Mare Winningham).
The dynamics of such a marriage is part of what motivated Fierstein to shed light on the subject. "When the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as an illness [in 1973], they also declassified homosexual transvestites," the playwright said. "But they did not declassify heterosexual transvestites." He laughed, a sound like a shovel being dragged along gravel. "It's almost as if they were saying, 'We don't expect any better from you people.'" Dramatizing the psychology of straight men who wear women's clothes provides a number of richly nuanced roles for actors, including Gabriel Ebert (Tony winner for Matilda The Musical) and two-time Tony winner John Cullum.
"[They] have nothing in common," Fierstein said. "Not even the reason why they wear women's clothes."
Fierstein's own interest in women's clothes dates back to 1971, when, as a fledgling 16-year-old actor, he responded to an open call for a play at La MaMa called Pork, written by Andy Warhol. "I was so out of my element," he recalled. Still, Warhol saw something special in the art student, choosing him as the only person from that open call. For his one and only play, Warhol cast Fierstein as an asthmatic lesbian maid.
Fierstein continued performing in drag in New York's downtown theatre scene, particularly with Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company in shows like an all-male The Trojan Women. This commitment to drag has dominated Fierstein's career, not just with Torch Song and La Cage, but also his Tony-winning turn as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and his book for Kinky Boots.
But perhaps it was an early drag performance in a club in Montreal that made the biggest impact. "I finished my number," Fierstein said. "[I] left the stage, and I was arrested." Fierstein had violated Canada's "masquerade law," which required a female impersonator to take off his wig to prove he was a man. Fierstein was released when the police discovered his shoulder-length hair was his own. It inspired him to have the character of Albin pull off his wig during La Cage.
The danger Fierstein narrowly avoided in Canada permeates Casa Valentina. Laws against cross-dressing had been on the books in since the 1840s and were still enforced in the 1950s and '60s. Even mailing photographs of someone cross-dressed violated federal obscenity laws, punishable by imprisonment, a threat that plays a significant role in the plot of Casa Valentina.
This paranoia causes the characters of the play to debate whether to align themselves with the nascent gay civil rights movement. As one character posits: "Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking."
"I know," Fierstein said, laughing, "How fucking wrong was he?"
Still, exploring the alienation of these men caused Fierstein to re-evaluate his own sense of isolation as a self-described "gay separatist."
"Doing this research made me realize that as soon as you say 'I belong with this group,' you're cutting off the rest of the world. Coming together because we think we have something in common only separates us from everyone else."
Which is perhaps why the only men in the theatre wearing dresses are onstage and not in the audience. But those men onstage can make a big cultural impact, as evidenced by a photo Fierstein proudly shares of two eight-year-old boys at a recent performance of Kinky Boots. Both are wearing dresses. Both look happy.