Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Theatrical Closet: Just a Question

In the past few years I have been asked to contribute comments to the odd biography of the odd deceased theatre person here and there. That is, biographers of the said dead theatre persons have contacted me, saying “I know you have a history with this dead theatre person, do you have anything to say about them?” In several cases I have sent back quite a long essay. And if the theatre person was closeted, then in my essay I always speak at length about the person in the context of their sexuality and mine. This is not to be mean, or to ‘out’ a dead person in ‘spite.’ It is because their actions — which had very much to do with their closeted sexuality — affected Canadian theatre very deeply and importantly, and the facts should be known.
You see, when you are an ‘out’ theatre person (not as common as one might think!) the opposition you receive in terms of your career is not so much from straight people, but from closeted gay and lesbian people. Why? Well they are the ones who have the most to lose.
I have a long history with queer, closeted theatrical types (some now dead) who gave me a lot of trouble. What kind of trouble? Well they would denounce my work, call it worthless or irrelevant, and just generally dismiss me. For by dismissing me, they also commit the very important act of distancing themselves from homosexuality. “I’ll have none of that Sky Gilbert business! I don’t like it, and it’s not for me!”
I’ve had to endure this kind of treatment for years. I remember when I was on a Canada Council jury with Eric Peterson back in 1983. (I was barely an infant! And so was he!) Now let me be clear, Eric Peterson is neither gay, nor closeted, nor any more homophobic than the Average Joe. But at one point he leaned over to me and said “I wish I had visited Buddies in Bad Times, but you know…a lot of people would be kind of afraid to go there — without wearing a paper bag over their head!” 
I knew that he was actually trying in his own way to reach out to me — to be kind — and I didn’t hold it against him. But it has always struck me as a perfect expression of the atmosphere within which I was forced to work.
So recently when people have asked me to comment on this or that dead closeted theatre person for a biography, I figure, well — why not just tell the truth? 
I mean, they are dead, after all.
Who can it hurt?
Well, it turns out, the living family.
The living family don’t want anybody to know that the unnamed (and unnameable) dead theatre person was gay or lesbian or bisexual or whatever they were. So the biographer says to me “Well I will try and use some of your memories of this dead closeted gay or lesbian theatre person, but not the memories of their queerness, because the family would not approve.”
When this happens, I always think of that scene from Carrie.
Many years ago I worked as an usher at the Uptown Cinema. At the end of the movie we ushers would rush to the doors of the theatre just to hear all 500 patrons scream at the same time. You know the scene; Amy Irving bends down to put flowers on Carrie’s grave and suddenly a bloody hand pokes out of the ground and grabs her, trying to pull her into the earth?
It’s a cold dark hand from the gaping maw of hell trying to yank the living into the land of the dead.
That’s kinda what it feels like when I’m told I can’t talk about the sexuality of this or that dead closeted gay theatre person even after they have died.
You know what? I know you value your family. But so do I — my gay and lesbian family. A family of people who share a history.
But  how can we and love ourselves, how can we even believe in the reality of our lives when we are asked to hide the truth forever?
Just a question…..