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Christopher Durang: Struggling in 1967 with Being Gay

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June 20, 2008

Christopher Durang is an acclaimed playwright whose works, including Beyond Therapy and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, have been produced on and off-Broadway, around the country and abroad. In his contribution to the ACLU’s online symposium in celebration of LGBT Pride, Christopher reflects on his experience coming out of the closet and how one can find acceptance in the most unexpected of places.

In April I was given an award at the William Inge Playwriting Festival in Independence, Kansas. And in my acceptance speech I had the “normal” opportunity to thank and acknowledge my partner of 22 years, John Augustine. And to feel the approval and acceptance of the large audience listening to my acknowledging our relationship.

Of course, I am in theatre, where people tend to be accepting, and which is one of the areas a bit ahead of the curve of general societal change.

Though really enormous change has happened.

And receiving this award, and feeling the affection for me and for my partner from the audience of theatre professionals, college students and local Independence residents (almost entirely straight), I was struck by the acceptance I was receiving in juxtaposition to what was experienced by the man in whose name this honor was given.

William Inge was a famous and successful playwright in the 1950s. His name was usually said in the same breath as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. (And as a child interested in theatre, I very much knew who he was.) His plays were successful hits, as well as critically praised. In a row he wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic (winning the Pulitzer Prize), Bus Stop, and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. He also won an Oscar for his original screenplay for Splendor in the Grass. He was also gay, and closeted, certainly in his conservative home town of Independence, Kansas. He also committed suicide in 1973, at the age of 60.

At his death, he was feeling despondent about his writing, but listening to his biographer Ralph Voss discuss his life while I was at the Festival, it’s hard not to think that his conflicted feelings about being gay didn’t help his feelings of despair. He befriended Tennessee Williams early in both of their writing careers. But as Voss said, Inge did not seek out the relationships that Williams did, nor the “filling the loneliness” one night stands either. It sounds like society and his family’s and his town’s views on homosexuality were ingrained in him.

Of course, he was born in 1913. (Williams in 1911.) And I was born in 1949. Though in my teen years, gay stuff still seemed as condemned as it did in Inge’s youth. And when I was at college, no one was open about being gay, and “coming out” wasn’t even a phrase at the time.

And I remember seeing a psychologist my sophomore year in college because I had been depressed. (I didn’t know at the time, but I was depressed because I had looked at the way my family’s struggle with alcoholism stopped any problem from ever being solved. I started to view the world that way. Very overwhelming to move ahead when you feel every action is doomed.)

Anyway, I met this therapist my mother had heard of, and in my meeting with him, I acknowledged that I had just had my first full gay experience at college. And he said, “I’m not surprised,” meaning I think that he felt I seemed softer than Sugar Ray Robinson, and thus my being gay was a likely guess. Though he then went on to tell me that no homosexual could ever be happy. His name was “Mr. Stadech,” but “Stadech” was pronounced “static.” He indeed filled my head with a lot of static.

But I was so much luckier than the talented Mr. Inge. I eventually sought out another therapist back at Harvard where they offered free psychological counseling. (Which was offered if you passed the “are you troubled enough?” interview given by a social worker; which I did, lol. My social worker said “You’re depressed!” Which I hadn’t realized).

Anyway, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I went to the therapist with the desire to be straight, I said. I liked women as companions, and I thought I’d be doomed to unhappiness because I didn’t know any happy homosexuals, and the church, and society and Mr. Static said you were doomed to be unhappy and neurotic if you “gave in” to this.

Wow, I lucked out with the psychologist I found at Harvard. He was close to my age…he was in training, in his late 20s. He was married and straight. He dutifully counseled me on trying to be straight. But after I had had a couple of “slips,” and in the middle of a session where I was beating myself up over having a crush on this quiet young guy I was getting to know in the dining hall, he interrupted my anger at myself and said: “Well for whatever reason, you are blocked in your feelings for women. But isn’t it better that you have feelings for someone rather than no one?”

My harangue against myself stopped cold. I was struck with his logic, and also the very important logic that human connection, including sexuality, is of value, period. It’s better than being some shut down, bitter person sitting up in a tower, no? The fact it was a straight man saying this to me, in 1970, carried enormous weight. It seemed logical. And it was also kind and empathetic of him to be open to that reasoning.

(His comment in a way reminds me of the great Tennessee Williams saying in Night of the Iguana: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind, violent.”)

In 1971 I went to Yale School of Drama. I never “came out,” but in the world of theatre at least if you didn’t date women, and tended to hang out with the same guy all the time, they just assumed you were gay. And theywere, frankly, accepting of it. Later I got better at just admitting it.

And so I didn’t shut myself off from relationships or sexuality. Life has its ups and downs. But at least I wasn’t solitary and isolated out of shame and “static.”

And I thought of this when I acknowledged my partner in front of a full theatre in the home town of William Inge, winning an honor named for him. He deserved to be happier than he was.

But thanks to everyone over the decades who has been honest and fought for acceptance, those of us who followed have been happier. And still more acceptance and right to happiness, and to love who we want — these will continue to follow.

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