When I was growing up, in the 1960s, there weren’t a lot of role models for young men like me.
I came out at the age of sixteen, but I knew I was gay at about seven—which meant I spent a lot of years feeling like I didn’t know anyone who felt like I did. At the time, there were no movies like Love, Simon or Call Me By Your Name. I didn’t have awareness of—or access to—books with gay themes like Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin or The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal. At eight or nine years old, I wasn’t about to go to my local library to ask for John Rechy’s Numbers, a book chronicling furtive, restroom gay sex and one-night stands in graphic detail.
But in 1968, everything changed with a groundbreaking, off-Broadway play called The Boys in the Band, which was said to expose gay life as it had never been seen onstage before.
Written by Mart Crowley, an openly gay man, the play portrays a close-knit group of gay friends who come together for a birthday party for Harold, a self-described “pock-marked Jew fairy.” The celebration soon becomes an occasion for dark secrets and self-loathing to be revealed, for recriminations and regrets mixed with a heavy dose of cattiness and sharp-edged quips.
The play took the New York theater world by storm, and even a thirteen-year-old like me in Cincinnati, Ohio saw it mentioned in Time and the Village Voice, which I bought every week at a local “hippie” bookstore.
Suddenly, I had found my tribe.
They were too far away for me to see them in person but they existed, and that meant I no longer felt like the only gay person on the planet.
When the original cast recording of the full play was released, I snapped it up with my allowance money. Every day after school, while other boys were going to football or basketball practice or smoking pot, I was sitting in my bedroom (with the door closed) huddled close to my mono record player, listening to the “boys in the band” bicker, camp it up, and express their loneliness, heartbreak, fear, and self-disgust.
I felt comforted that I had finally gained entry to a secret, enticing circle of men who love other men. But that world also terrified me.
I remember thinking—Is that what I’ll have to be like in order to be one of them?
I enjoyed the characters’ flamboyance, their quick-witted one-liners (though most of the double entendres flew right by me), and their flouting of all the rules of masculinity that I had thought were inviolable. But it also scared me to think that entering the inner-circle of gay life meant becoming someone I wasn’t, of having a jaded cynicism and a need to skewer others … as well as myself.
I identified with their self-dramatization and desires, but I shrank away from their self-flagellation and self-pity. Still, those were the only gay men I knew. So I returned to them faithfully, memorizing every line of dialogue they spoke, dreaming of the time when I could be my own version of them.
I now know that there were lots of teenage boys doing the same thing, cherishing those two vinyl records as if they were a lifeline to the sought-after world to come.
Those days of listening became my rite of passage, my “alternative” bar mitzvah. Instead of learning my Torah portion, I practiced the dialogue that would signify my acceptance by a community that I longed to join, a family that went farther back than I could trace of anonymous men who lived their lives in the shadows.
I became a man by listening to The Boys in the Band.
Now that the play is being given an all-star revival on Broadway in New York City, I am filled with a mix of emotions—mostly an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, as if anticipating a reunion with a friend I haven’t seen for fifty years. I am grateful to this friend who taught me that the feelings I felt were shared by other men, no matter how unalike we were in other ways.
If the friend hasn’t changed much, I know I have, and the world has. My hope is that a new generation of young gay men will discover the play and not judge it by today’s terms—so radically different from the sixties. I would like them to see it through the eyes of the thirteen-year-old I was then, hungry to belong to a “band” of brothers who allowed themselves to be seen—flaws and all—instead of remaining invisible.
A part of me will always be that young man hunched over my portable record player, listening intently, and for the first time feeling I was not alone.
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