Two faces of gay theatre

On Thursday I went to see two plays. One was written in the late 1980s, is about AIDS, and is called Elegies, Punks and Raging Queens. The other was written in 2010, is called Queer in the USA, and is about a gay teenager obsessed with Bruce Springsteen.

Which would you guess offered a broader, more sophisticated portrayal of the varieties of modern gay life? You’d be surprised.

I went to see Elegies in part out of a sense of obligation. Much as people watch hard-hitting documentaries about disappearing rainforests or the abuse of women in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, I, like many gay men, feel AIDS is something we ought to face, understand, and be saddened by.

But as the show began and the first song was sung, the reminiscences of a former club singer about the wild sights of the Lower East Side in the 1970s, I must admit my heart began to sink. We were in, I feared, for two hours of the same old worn-out story: gay men came to New York and to San Francisco, and it was dirty and dangerous and sexy and fabulous, and then the hurricane came and everyone died.

This story is the creation myth of the modern gay community in the West. And I’m tired of it. Not because it’s not true, because it is; not because we’ve heard it all before, though we have. I’m tired of it because it leaves so much out: the many gay men who didn’t move to the coastal cities, but shuffled tentatively out of the closet in their small home towns; the many straight victims of AIDS, from drug addicts and prostitutes to those who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion or a medical accident or from an unknowing partner.

I needn’t have worried.

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