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I started writing Torch Song Trilogy almost 40 years ago, a play in which the lead character was an openly gay man who wanted to be in a committed relationship and to raise a child. Straight audiences easily identified with this story. Gays could not. Family, commitment, acceptance in society were ideals from an alternate universe.
In that play I wrote the character of a mother, a disapproving, anti-gay, uncompromising woman. It was natural for gays and lesbians to identify with my character and rail on against the mother. But interestingly even older women — even older men — who held the same opinions as this woman, came to me to say that they identified with my character and his struggles against his mother. “That woman you wrote,” they railed, “that’s MY mother!” Art can do that. Art can allow the frame to view life from a safer perspective and gain new understanding.
Many gay battles were won in the arts. Television conquered more beach heads than Marines took in any war. Think about everyday folks watching Will and Grace on television. They loved those characters. They had those characters over to their houses once a week. They ate with them on TV. They watched them in their underwear. They became their friends. So while it was easy for them to say, “I don’t want homosexuals to have special rights,” not one of them was going to say, “I want my friends Will and Jack to lose their jobs because they’re gay.” Arts make the political personal.
The arts, in all media, are more influential and necessary to a nation of thinkers than any informational talk show or newspaper. Idiots like Bill Maher who call for the cutting of funds to the NEA as non-essential simply have no idea of how important the arts are in defining and shaping the political dialog. The arts not only define who we are as a society, they give perspective and illumination to ideas that might not otherwise be heard.
After the news of the Boston Massacre spread through the colonies, our forefathers were still not ready to go to war. It wasn’t until Paul Revere published a drawing of the massacre that emotions were riled up enough to say, “No more,” and the revolution began. Political cartoons and comedians have shaped elections, governments, history. Bill Clinton’s candidacy was salvaged by the political comedians defusing his sex scandals just as David Paterson’s entire political career was destroyed by Fred Armisen’s vicious impression of him as a bungling blind fool. Do we remember Gerald Ford for his presidency or Chevy Chase’s pratfalls? Did the war in Vietnam lose supporters because we began to love the idea of communism or because we loved protest music and pot?
Anyway, this speedy war whose victory we celebrate today was fought in theaters, art galleries, in TV sitcoms, Hollywood movies and on and on. I firmly believe if we’d left our freedoms up to politicians and the wealthy we’d still be under British rule.
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