Saturday, 10 November 2018

I’m Afraid of ‘Woke People’

for Vivek Shraya, upon reading her book -- I'm Afraid of Men

I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because they divide humanity into either ‘us’ or ‘them.’
I’m afraid of “Woke People’ because they taught me to fear being gay. It was something that I worked very hard to be proud of, and now — once again — I am ashamed.
When I go to a theatre event or a sexuality conference, I am careful not to dress in a sexual way, because I know that for many ‘Woke People’ it fits an evil gay stereotype.
When I go online I brace myself for the postings about how politically insensitive, hyper-sexual and super-rich gay men are.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People because they can’t see that I’m gay, but only that I’m a man. 
When I send ‘Woke People’ emails, I have to go out of my way not to appear too gay, too sexual, or too irreverent. I do not want to offend them. 
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because if I mistakenly use the wrong pronoun to describe them, they may become furious and never forgive me.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because, for them, good intentions are not enough.
When I dress in drag, I fear I will be ‘dressed down’ by a “Woke Person,’ screamed at for enjoying appropriated music, for making fun of trans people, and for my camp sense of humour.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because when I appeal to them for generosity and kindness they see it as trying to make them weak.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because I am worried they will measure my lack of privilege against theirs, and find it wanting.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because they have said to me ‘your time is up.’
When I see a group of ‘Woke People’ laughing and tittering in a corner, I can’t help but imagine they are laughing about me.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because my intersectionality does not have enough intersections.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because our very human imaginations may not be able to survive the rigorous scrutiny of social justice.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because I’m afraid they will kill art. 
You see I believe (gulp!) that we should try and love everyone, even (gulp!) the people who hate us.
I’m afraid of ‘Woke People,’ because — I’m sorry. 
Because I’m sorry I exist.

Monday, 29 October 2018

An Open Letter to Vivek Shraya

I have not read your book I’m Afraid of Men. I apologise. 
I am a man. I will not apologize for that.
I’m sure that you have had the best of intentions, and like so many of us, you have had a lot of pain in your life. And there may be truths in your book. But that doesn’t justify it’s title. (And it doesn’t matter if the back cover says ‘Men Are Afraid of Me’). I appeal to you. That title is hate. Hate, in any form is reprehensible. And any statement which vilifies any group on the basis of race, gender or sexuality is wrong to do so. What if someone titled their book ‘I’m afraid of Jews?’ (and they were not a Jew)? This book’s title, unfortunately is akin to the hate filled rhetoric that fills our public spaces and endangers us all. Can’t you see that no matter what your feelings are, and how deep they are — and I’m not questioning the depth of your pain — that hate will not relieve it?
I must speak on behalf of men. (I must speak for them, if no one else is willing to do so!) There have been some very great men in our history, and many are still living to this present day. They have put their lives on the line for gay people, trans people, and people of colour. I am thinking particularly of Marsha P. Johnson and Patrick Califia. 
Marsha P. Johnson was a drag queen, and one of the founders of the gay liberation movement. People today call her ‘trans.’ But to be fully accurate she embarked on her brave crusades before the word ‘trans’ was in common usage. She identified as a proud drag queen — like so many who founded the gay liberation movement at Stonewall, like so many who fight so valiantly for our man rights. She was a man who loved to dress as a woman, and everyone loved her. She disappeared — was probably murdered — because she dared to declare her identity loudly and publicly.
Patrick Califia is a trans man who has been an active spokesperson on behalf of queer love and sex for nearly forty years. He identifies as male. He also thinks that masculinity can be sexy and empowering, And he speaks eloquently of the triumphs and adversities of being driven by testosterone.
These are just two of the many kind, brilliant men who have spoken out for us all. When you say ‘I’m afraid of men’ you erase these brave and passionate men from our history.
I have one more point to make.
  Please do not be afraid. I know it’s hard to be brave. But fear looks backwards. Be angry at men who hurt you, at the men who are sexist, racist and transphobic and homophobic; but do not be afraid.
As a young drag queen, I strutted confidently in many ‘unsafe’ spaces. I read poetry in front of crowds of straight people, I led tours of my favourite sexual spots in the gay village, and I took a ragtaggle group of queers shopping for dresses with me in the Eaton Centre. I’m not bragging. But I am saying that to fight what is wrong demands courage. We must all have the courage to stride unabashedly into ‘unsafe’ space, straight space, alien space, oppressive space, and look the oppressor in the eye. Yes, we may be vilified, beaten, even murdered for our honesty. But we must do it if we are ever to win.
Vivek, I urge not to go the way of hate and fear, but instead to gather your courage and your gentleness.
It’s an old rage, and it must be cast aside.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Hating Hadrian

I’m not a reviewer. If I was I’d have to evaluate this damned thing. I’d have to talk about those little diapers the pretty chorus boys wear (why not jockstraps or just, well — why not just nude?). I’d have to talk about Michael Gianfrancesco’s set and it’s over-liberal use of tired projections. I’d have to talk about Rufus Wainwright’s gorgeous music — music that I so loved listening to — and the complex challenges Daniel MacIvor’s poetry presents to a willing and open audience.
But I’m not a reviewer, thank God! So I’m not going to talk about any of that.
What I am going to talk about is a new Canadian hobby — hating the COC’s gay opera Hadrian. Now that the reviews are out and there are so very few bums in seats — ‘hating Hadrian’ has become a Canadian pastime — as common as not being politically engaged, or whining about the CBC.
When I attended on a Friday night, there were many, many empty seats. And people seemed to be making a little performance of their exits. John Terauds in the Toronto Star said it all: “We are never given a good reason why we need to see this.”
Right. I won’t list and/or analyze all the ideas in Hadrian, because this is not a review. 
I will ask one question though. Speculating about the foundations of early Christianity, the continuing origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the true nature of love — are those ideas?
In fact, if this opera could be accused of anything, it would be of having too many ideas. (But I won’t do that, because this isn’t a review.) 
Critics, however, have also called Hadrian ‘pompous.’ 
Certainly Hadrian, if nothing else, comes with a strong sense of it’s own weight, importance, and seriousness.
Why might that be?
I think Hinton, Wainright, MacIvor and the COC have done a very brave thing here. They have dared to produce a gay opera. That is revolutionary. When it comes to homosexuality, the classical music establishment is just slightly more open minded than the Taliban. Try mentioning at a gathering of composers and musical historians that Schubert was gay. You’ll get shouted down. And if there is a rock around, it will be thrown at you. Try suggesting (don’t you dare!) that Handel composed his early cantatas (1706-1723) for a coterie of homosexual aristocrats in Florence, Rome, and London, and that his operas have a clear ‘homosexual subtext’ (Harris, Ellen. Handel as Orpheus, 2004). Don’t you dare say it — someone might throw a harpsichord at you! And most of all don’t even think of imagining that either Samuel Barber or Gian Carlo Menotti (lifelong romantic partners) wrote any music of any value, or that their collaborative operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra are anything but garbage.
Yes, Hadrian, is self consciously big, and elaborate, and important — but how could it be otherwise — when everyone involved knew from the start that the cards were so heavily stacked against them?
Yes. I can forgive Hadrian anything, because of that. 
This is not a review. 
However I will suggest that for the first revival of the opera I would prefer jockstraps. 
Speckled with glitter, 
if the budget allows.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

It’s a Mad, Mad World!

I’m not sure that movie title would be allowed today (It was a very bad movie, released in 1963 — but it featured a lot of great stars!). In fact, I have concerns about one of my favourite old Beatles’ songs ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ Remember — it’s a song about an insane, brutal, serial killer who mainly kills women. And it’s quite a cheery tune. No —‘madness’ as it used to be called, is no a laughing matter these days. And as we get more and more politically correct in the arts, it may be time to bury some old favourites deep in the cold, cold ground.
I thought about all this recently when I attended a play that had been funded by an arts program for artists with disabilities. I was certainly very pleased that these artists (some of them forgotten by the world) had this opportunity for funding, and I must say, the work was nothing if not interesting.
But it struck me that I hadn’t seen these artists perform for quite a long time. At least not since I ran Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 20 years ago. Yes, they were Buddies in Bad Times Theatre alumni. And they are very talented people. I have no idea what their disabilities are; but when I worked with them I certainly knew what their abilities were. I also knew that for whatever reason, it was not just their sexuality that made them appear ‘different’ to the outside world. There was another elephant in the room. But at Buddies these people were known only as ‘artists,’ not as ‘artists with disabilities.’ And suddenly I wondered — is it a good thing that they are classified that way now?
I mean, of course it’s important that excellent work be funded — perhaps how it is funded doesn’t matter. But it strikes me that the aesthetic we were promoting at Buddies back in the 80s and 90s was perhaps more radical than we thought. I was a great disciple of Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In his controversial book Jaynes suggests that in ‘pre-conscious’ civilizations (which we now view as ‘primitive’) everyone in society heard voices, usually the voices of the God(s). We have now, generally speaking, lost this gift. In the modern ‘civilized’ world, we classify people who hear voices as schizophrenic. Jaynes suggested that there are others able to hear voices — people we now call ‘artists.’
Shakespeare says much the same thing when he says that ‘the lunatic, lover and the poet are all of imagination compact.’ I know it sounds very romantic and old-fashioned, but I do think that most real artists are more than a little mad. At times, when I was the artistic director of Buddies so many years ago, I felt that I was running a lunatic asylum. Not that I classify myself a non-lunatic — in this case one of the inmates was running the institution! And in fact this was true — because some of the artists working there were in fact the documented walking wounded of the mental health care system.
So which is better? Is it better that we have a special classification for artists with mental disorders — that ‘sane’ artists now do ‘sane’ work, and artists who are ‘mentally ill’ do ‘mentally ill’ work? Or would it be better if we lived in a world where artists are not separated by medical classification. What if instead we understood that all art is by nature, mad, — and all artists, are, by vocation, unhinged? And that being ‘mentally ill’ is an important element of their ability to shake up everyone else’s rather boring, complacent little world? 
But then again, I might just be crazy.

Monday, 30 July 2018

We Need a Memorial to Danny Cockerline!

 One Properties is planning a new condominium building at 66 Wellesley Street, the northwest corner of Church and Wellesley. There have been various proposal put forward; the last one I read about was for a 442 unit building with a sheltered, two level high, 320 square metre public plaza, one that will have sliding doors that open during the good weather and that can be used ‘for community events throughout the year.’
 Well if what is meant by ‘community’ here is gay and lesbian community, I’m not entirely sure if there is a gay community anymore, nor am I sure of where it is located. I know that what is left of what used to be called the Toronto gay and lesbian community can be seen in the handful of bars and restaurants near the corner of Church and Wellesley.
 But if One Properties wishes to honour that community, I, for one,  could care less about a public plaza and, apparently, (gee whiz!) another grocery store. 
 What we need — prominently displayed on the property — is a memorial to Danny Cockerline.
 I remember looking at that cheery old four story apartment building at 66 Wellesley Street East and feeling sad because it was going to be demolished.
 Then I remembered why. Once I went to visit Danny Cockerline in his apartment there, which as I remember it, was very charming and colourful (like Danny himself) at the back of the building on the second floor, with a lovely deck that overlooked the alley.
 Who was Danny Cockerline? You can read a beautiful memorial for him by Rick Bebout at the url below.
 Danny was an out of the closet male sex trade worker/activist/pornstar at a time when that particular type of individual could actually exist.  He stood up for gay men — and most of all for sex in general — at a time when few were willing to do so — throughout the scourge of AIDS. In fact, he was HIV positive, and he took his own life in 1995 — at a time when AIDs itself and the treatments for HIV were mostly lethal. And the rest of us slutty gay guys — the ones who refused to feel shame about our sex lives — we understood why he had decided to commit suicide in the prime of his young, proud life.
 I know this suggestion may fall on deaf ears. Times have changed. Gay men don’t take to the streets and proudly defend their right to have sex for money, in bathhouses, on the street, or in a backrooms. Gay men wear cute little bowties, get married, and try to assure the world that they are just the same as straight people. We live in a world where most gay men have sex secretly on online apps, and scorn the notion of ‘flaunting it’ in one of those ‘old fashioned’ gay bars. They certainly scorn what Danny Cockerline could so often be seen doing: standing outside his signature place — Woody’s — scantily clad, camping it up. But Danny Cockerline is an important part of our history and I, for one, am proud of him, and I believe he must be remembered.
 I doubt anyone will listen to what I say here. But I had to say it.
 One Properties must build a memorial to Danny Cockerline.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Leave THE KING AND I Alone!

It’s so sad that people are wasting time attacking The King and I. Yes, this gorgeous Rogers and Hammerstein classic (no one is creating anything that matches it today!) is racist.
Yes it is old fashioned. Yes it presents stereotypes of non-white people. And yes it underplays the atrocities of western oppression and destruction of non-white cultures by the very premise of a western ‘teacher’ cheerily warbling her wisdom to the King of Siam.
May I ask a simple question?
Why is The King and I being revived now?
I’ll tell you why. Because we are so culturally bankrupt that we cannot come up with a work of art that measures up, yet is modern and relevant .
I am gay. If I visit New York I am to be treated to a revival of The Boys in The Band. The Boys in the Band is the gay theatrical equivalent of The King and I. It was a supremely entertaining, ground breaking play in its day. Nowadays, with gay marriage, AIDS, meth culture, and PrEP, it’s about as relevant as my great grandma’s handbag. 
Yet everyone seems very excited to see it again.
Because people who go to the theatre these days are afraid to see anything that deals with gay culture as it is, now, in 2018.
Our culture is bankrupt. We have two choices, equally unappealing. 
First we can go to old revivals of musicals at Lower Ossington Theatre/The Royal Alex, and when we’re done, curl up in front of the computer and turn on Netflix, and when we’re done with that, lie in bed watching 30 second youtube videos of cats (those are my fave things! they don’t require a helluva lot of concentration! And God knows what I can get up to at the same time!).
We can attend an avant-garde production of a not very well written, preachy play about how horrible cis-gendered people are, or about how horrible men are, or about how horrible white people are. These plays have admirable premises— as an aging drag queen I’m not big fan of straight white men! But the only alternative to corporate-mind-numbing-mega-musical-Netflix culture is plays that bore you to death with their self-righteous moralism because they are not so much plays as they are preachments to the ‘woke.’
The fault dear Brutus, likes not In these old classics, but in our cultural bankruptcy.
So please don’t blame The King and I.
Blame ourselves.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Closeted Gay Men Will Save the Theatre

The theatre has always been ours; I’m happy to say it will be gay men who save theatre.
The theatre was always my place to hide. When I was an adolescent people remarked on my fluttering hands and my dramatic way of speaking. They were concerned and…uncomfortable? When I decided that I was an actor it all made sense — to everyone. It wasn’t that I was gay, it was that I was an actor. I started a gay and lesbian theatre in Toronto many years ago. Much of the opposition was from gays themselves. The problem was that a gay theatre was a contradiction in terms; theatre was a place where gay men went to hide. Everyone knew that. Promoting a gay theatre meant that the hiding place now had a bright light shining on it. When I ask people abroad if there are gay theatres in Europe, they say ‘’Oh no, all theatre is gay here.” Indeed it is. What they mean is that theatre is a place for gay men to hide.
Why not also speak of lesbians and the theatre? Because, unfortunately, in a sexist society, it is men’s mannerisms and actions that are remarked upon with the greatest concern. We’re supposed to be running the world. We’re not supposed to be girly!
The fact that theatre is where gay men hide became explicitly clear to me when I read Simon Callow’s autobiography. In Being an Actor he spoke of acting as a disguise. He said that as a little effeminate gay boy, putting on the mask of a character was the only way that he could feel good about who he was. I recognized this syndrome in myself, and I see it in many closeted gay men. 
That’s why we gay men will always save the theatre. These days there are two opposing political movements that are gradually changing the world. One is a move to right wing dictatorships (it’s happening in America, we all know that, but we are afraid to say it). Probably in the next year the U.S. Supreme Court will repeal gay marriage (along with Roe vs Wade’s precedent making abortion legal). In the future, Canada may be one of the few countries where gays will be safe. At the same time there is a cultural wave of political correctness and a ‘reality theatre’ trend that have combined forces to wage a war on what is the very essence of the theatre: disguise. Avant-garde and thoughtful artists these days are challenging whether they do, or should, have the right to put on a disguise, to create art about anyone who is not exactly like themselves.
It is the closeted gay artists who will speak out about this, I guarantee it. They are gay, their friends know, but these artists don’t feel the necessity to talk about it too often. Just being in theatre is enough. Their work is not about gay things, not about being a gay man. No, no. Their work is sensitive, looks back in history, is colourful, innovative, design centred — it’s often about women and feelings and usually music is central. Closeted gay artists have worn a disguise and made theatre that was not about gay subject matter for centuries. I expect they will continue to do so, and be applauded for it.
As the world becomes more and more oppressive, as our little Glad Day —  our time when we had our civil rights, and felt we could celebrate our sexuality by dancing and kissing in  the street — becomes something to remember (a thing of the past!) the closeted gays will be very motivated to hide again, in their favourite hiding place.
And the one good thing about all this is: the closeted gays will save the theatre.