OUR BEST and BRIGHTEST ACTIVISTS: the arts.
He directed Angels in America on Broadway and turned Lea DeLaria into a star with On the Town. And as the impresario of the Public Theater in New York City, he's proud that it's "deeply committed to presenting theater that is a true reflection of the United States." But personal success isn't what George C. Wolfe is after. "From a very early age," he confesses, "I was taught that it isn't enough to obey my own ambitions. I had to work to dismantle structures which kept others out." Now working on a musical version of The Wild Party--as well as a screenplay and a new play--Wolfe doesn't have to do much to get attention. "I'm a black gay artist with power," he says, "Hell, anytime I open my mouth to say `Hello,' it's assumed I have an agenda,"
Literary agent Malaga Baldi has the same response to the work of Kate Bornstein, Daniel Harris, Felice Picano, and other writers she has represented. "On a gut level I wish I had written it myself," she explains. An agent since 1986, Baldi has a reputation for cultivating and championing first-time gay and lesbian authors who would be hard-pressed to find another advocate, Her agency may be a one-woman show--"l do everything from stuffing ]iffy bags to getting fired"--but it's always a hopeful one. "As soon as I hear about a new [publishing] house, I just flood them with stuff, Because I'm always looking for new outlets for distinguished, important voices."
It's been another uphill climb, but we're ready to roll with Further Tales of the City," says novelist Armistead Maupin. The Tales books, which have already given birth to two acclaimed television miniseries, are the cornerstones of Maupin's achievement. As a chronicler of our time, he's as boisterous and entertaining as Dickens--and just as socially conscious. For Maupin, who's nearing completion of the Vertigo-inspired novel. The Night Listener, his ad has always been personal and political, "My goal from the very beginning," he says, "has been to be a big old queer for the general public." Maupin speaks passionately these days about reaching out to queer teens. "I know how important it is for both gay and straight kids to be exposed to successful homos who are happy with their lives."
It's not so long since we met Ellen Morgan, a clean-cut, good-looking TV character whose quiet ambition in life was owning a bookstore, But our whole world has changed since then, thanks to Ellen's creator, the multitalented Ellen DeGeneres, From her triumphant, history-making television coming-out episode to her struggles for equal treatment of gay and lesbian stories on network television to her current starring role as actress, leader, and activist, DeGeneres has bravely paved the way toward just treatment for lesbians and gay men everywhere.
A dynamic force in contemporary theater, Los Angeles actor-director-play-wright Luis Alfaro donated most of his 1997 "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation to his parents, He has often brought his sharp political sensibility to bear on the juncture between AIDS and art. The former chair of the Gay Men of Color Consortium, the largest AIDS consortium in the country, he also served for four years as project director for Teatro VIVA, a Los Angeles AIDS-awareness theater troupe, He has performed more than a dozen solo pieces (his latest is Cuerpo Politizado); as an artist in residence and codirector of the Latino Theater Initiative at the Mark Taper Forum theater, he has commissioned 15 new plays that give voice to the Latino community, "I get asked a lot, `Are you a gay Latino or a Latino gay?'" he says, "As if these parts of oneself could be separated."
"I'm not interested in every queer organization out there," says poet and novelist Jewelle Gomez, "There are professional activists that are invested in a piece of the proverbial pie for us, I'm more interested in how we think about changing the pie overall, because we are connected to a lot of struggles in addition to our own," Along with her poetry (Gomez runs the Poetry Center and the American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University), she is best known for The Gilda Stories, her linked tales of a lesbian vampire who overcame slavery to help others, "Being able to create a black lesbian heroic character who is not saintly and who people can relate to honestly and emotionally--I'm very proud of that."
Not only is Melissa Etheridge one of the world's favorite musicians, but she's been out as a lesbian since 1993, when she said "Yes, I am" at the Triangle Ball, the gay gala celebrating Bill Clinton's inauguration, "I always intended to do it," she told The Advocate in 1994, "I felt like I was lying, and my music is so much about the truth," Etheridge has won two Grammy awards and sold more than 25 million records--while working for causes such as the Human Rights Campaign's National Coming Out Day Project, She's releasing a new album later this year, and she recently became a mom for the second time with partner Julie Cypher.
JOAN GARRY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GAY AND LESBIAN ALLIANCE AGAINST DEFAMATION
As a relative newcomer to the movement two years ago, I was able to step into my role at GLAAD thanks to a generation of activists who preceded me. These people did whatever it took to bang on the door of the American consciousness, and thanks to their passion and their wisdom, the doors, in many arenas, are now open to us. We have everyone's attention. Now what? We need to work smarter, maximizing new opportunities such as research--an opportunity presented by the growth of lesbian and gay scholarship. And then there's technology. Think about how much more quickly we can reach so many more people. Speaking of more people, we need them. We must engage more voices and more diverse ones. We have to seize the opportunity that youth present us; they've grown up in a different landscape, one in which our community is infinitely more visible. We must build alliances. I saw a solid glimpse of the power of this with the dozens of media trainings GLAAD provided to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in support of Equality Begins at Home. And we need to consider a model of advocacy that recognizes that attitudes and opinions are shaped long before a person walks into a voting booth or before a judge enters a courtroom. We're shaped by the cultural influences around us, and if you want to change hearts and minds, start here.
The activists of the last 30 years left behind such a gift to our community--the gift of access. Our success will be measured by what we do with it. Here's hoping that we listen very closely and engage in smart and impactful conversations--with no less resolve than those who have come before us.
Debra Chasnoff made history at the Oscars as the first lesbian winner to openly thank her partner, (Her short film Deadly Deception also helped push General Electric out of the nuclear weapons industry.) In June, despite right-wing ire, Chasnoff's 1996 documentary It's Elementary aired on PBS, The film, which asserts that school kids should be taught about gay issues, has sparked "one incredible story after another," Chasnoff says, "People have used it to start little revolutions in their communities,"
May's "I Love Lesbians" episode of The Roseanne Show--the maverick star's TV talkfest--was just the latest salvo in Roseanne's smart, savvy war against bigotry, (It should go without saying that her sitcom, Roseanne, will always be a queer landmark.) And the lady herself rocked the house at the GLAAD Awards this year by calling gaybashers all the four letter words we'd like to hut often don't. She's the best big sister most of us never had.
When historian Lillian Faderman was 16, she recalls, "I went to the library to find out more about lesbians--and found them wedged in between necrophiliacs and people who have sex with chickens," From her 1981 book Surpassing the Love of Men through her latest, To Believe in Women, Faderman has unearthed a trove of queer history as she works toward her remarkable goal: to provide gays and lesbians with what she terms "a usable past,"
"I just finished shooting The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," says David Drake about the film version of his acclaimed one-man show, which begins with a reference to the Stonewall riots and ends with a vision of a happy future, He's updated his script: Now its glimpse of a queer-friendly future and a cure for AIDS lakes place at the dawn of 2018 instead of in 1999, "But [the AIDS epidemic] will be over," says Drake, "And we will be able to look back and say there were a brave and courageous people who took the steps forward to end it, And those people were the gay and lesbian community."
Tom Ford, the world's hottest fashion designer, brought Gucci back from the dead and--just as significantly--convinced that venerable house it should make hefty contributions to fight AIDS, first in the form of completely underwriting AIDS Project Los Angeles's lavish Passport fund-raiser in 1997, then by bringing along a $100,000 check from Gucci when APLA gave Ford its Commitment to Life Award in May, "I don't want to wake up and be a miserable 60-year-old fashion designer worrying whether the skirt should be six inches above the knee," Ford told The Advocate in 1997 when asked about his activism, Now the out designer appears to be the guiding force in Gucci's takeover of Yves Saint Laurent, which can only give him further opportunities both to create and to raise money and awareness.
"I've always felt that my work has to matter," says author and activist Sarah Schulman. Famed for fiction (Shimmer) and nonfiction (Stagestruck), she's now writing a novel "about how gay people are pathologized as children." This summer she'll workshop the material as a play with director Craig Lucas. Above and beyond her individual projects, she notes that she has been laboring since 1981 to open the world of American arts to more writing "with primary lesbian content."
Writer Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina was the publishing phenomenon of the early '90s, a word-of-mouth smash that just kept selling and selling, Her story of a dirt-poor family in South Carolina touched on child abuse, the disdain of an indifferent world, and a young girl's coming-of-age that was more like trying to stay alive, Even before the success of her second novel, Cavedweller, Allison became an instant icon as she toured the country reading and lecturing, She appears with her partner and their son in the anthology Love Makes a Family, in which she writes on lesbian motherhood: "When I was doing my book tour for Bastard Out of Carolina, I met all these butch women who wanted children, They'd ask me, `What's your pregnant girlfriend wearing?' `Overalls,' I'd say, You should have seen them--it was like a light went off in their heads, `Hey, Marge,' they'd say to their lover, `we can do it?"
Courageously facing down controversy, the talented Ms. Heche refused to abide by Hollywood's version of "don't ask, don't tell," Warned that her film career would be ruined if she acknowledged her love for Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche proceeded to act according to her own heart, Then, with a series of riveting film performances, she single-handedly proved that a leading lady who's in love with another lady can create onscreen magic for critics and fans of all sexual identities, Not content with mere acting mastery, Heche wrote--and will direct DeGeneres and Sharon Stone in--an important and meaningful segment of HB0's lesbian-themed If These Walls Could Talk 2.
"I think it was Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet that began it all for me," says literary agent Jed Mattes, reflecting on why he began representing queer authors nearly three decades ago, Did he worry that such a move might harm his career? "This was back in the '70s," Mattes laughs, "I don't know what I was thinking then," But he's done plenty of thinking since, Mattes has championed such diverse authors as Michelangelo Signorile, Rich Tafel, and Urvashi Vaid.
Edmund White, whose work has defined eloquence in the age of AIDS, has just finished The Married Man, a novel about an American and his younger French lover who dies of AIDS-related complications, "I thought at this late date it was important to write a tough book about AIDS and avoid sentimentality," White says. Of his career he adds: "I've been a reluctant activist working against the grain, I've posed questions rather than providing answers, The publication of my books can be regarded as strategic acts, but they've never been rallying cries nor agitprop, I've always chosen the tough truths over a feel-good bromide."
KEVIN JENNINGS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GAY, LESBIAN, AND STRAIGHT EDUCATION NETWORK
The most exciting activists I've met this year were the students who belong to Spectrum, a high school-based gay-straight alliance in Ames, Iowa. When I met them in March, they had just finished their first fund-raiser, a bake sale in front of the local Wal-Mart.
Let me repeat that. High school students. Bake sale. Wal-Mart. Ames, Iowa.
These students taught me a lesson: Twenty-first-century "activism" will transcend what we have traditionally though of as "gay activism. First off, it won't be all "gay," just as the membership of Spectrum encompasses people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Second, it won't necessarily be "activism," if by that you mean explicitly political work. It will be about students selling cookies in front of Wal-Mart, GLBT parents showing up on PTA night, and teachers walking into class to teach GLBT history as part of America's history.
Twenty-first-century activism will be about building community in our own hometowns, as we trade in our San Francisco--and New York City--bound bus tickets and demand that rural and suburban communities be big enough places for all. The fires of change will move through these schools, these churches, these small and smaller communities, and go on and on.
Twenty-first-century activism in the GLBT community will be democratic and decentralized--a daily series of brushfires that the religious right will never be able to put out and which organizational leaders like myself may be able to support but will certainly never control.
Bring on the matches.
"Clearly, coming out at the  GLAAD Awards was the most important moment of my life," says Mitchell Anderson, who first caught our eye as the gay classical-music teacher on the Fox TV series Party of Five, "From that moment on I was able to join my life as an actor and an activist in a way I was never able to do before," Instead of hurting his career, Anderson's bold, unpremeditated move made him more in demand than ever, (One indisputable proof: He'll appear with stars Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone in HBO's If These Walls Could Talk 2.) Politically, Anderson is throwing himself wholeheartedly into the fight to legalize same-sex marriages. "If the state finally recognizes our unions," he says, "we will have conquered a huge stumbling block."
Anyone who's read Barbara Smith's The Truth That Never Hurts--a 199U collection of her penetrating essays--knows that the black, lesbian, feminist, radical, socialist scholar has always argued persuasively that the various issues she embodies are really part of one overall struggle to make the world a better place for everyone. During 1998's Black Radical Congress in Chicago, Smith shared a stage with Angela Davis and other mainstays of the movement. "For the first time in my life," Smith says, "I'd been included in that group. It was just so gratifying."
The Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! is at heart a very traditional play. With it, Terrence McNally seemed to be saying, "This is our theater; these are our lives. They're special and unique--but they're also just like yours." Then, with Corpus Christi, McNally did it again, reclaiming faith as part of our heritage too. And he did it with a sweet and gentle play in the midst of a firestorm of protest. In 1997 McNally told The Advocate: "I'm always accused of saying that I'm not a gay playwright. I'm not saying that at all. I'm a gay man who is a playwright. It's not just about my sexuality."
He will always be remembered as one of the NEA Four. But provocative performance artist Tim Miller's talents range beyond taking off his clothes in theaters and taking on Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990's brouhaha over arts funding. Miller has been a producer-curator at two of the most avant of avant-garde spaces: PS 122 in New York City and Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Calif. Miller's one-man show and book Shirts & Skin traces his turbulent life through the clothes he's worn. And--get this--he moonlights by teaching Protestant ministers how to improve their sermons. Miller promises "to continue being an activist, slutty, queer point of light."
KIRSTEIN KINGDON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PARENTS, FAMILIES, AND FRIENDS OF LESBIANS AND GAYS
When I hear the word activism, I think of two of my heroes: my father and my mother. My dad devoted an enormous amount of energy to changing the world: on the job as a union organizer, in our community on environmental issues, and on the national lewd for African-Americans' civil rights. My mom was an activist in a different, more personal sense in our small Midwestern town. She cared deeply about people and healthy relationships. Her arena was home and church. She was as fearless as my father but in a different, quiter way. In PFLAG we try to practice both kinds of activism. Our roots go back to Jeanne Manford, who in the early 1970s stepped out into the New York City streets with a simple sign. Her example called on parents to be visible in support of our gay children. We PFLAGers are still doing that--in our schools, our churches, our statehouses, and the media. We advocate tirelessly for equal civil rights for our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered lowed ones. We also practice a quieter, more personal activism. Our power lies in being able to change attitudes through our stories and our personal relationships. We are still learning as times change. For instance, we are developing new tools to help the increasing number of younger parents whose children are coming out at an earlier age and to reach other underserved communities. Even when all the legal battles (that my dad loved to fight) are won, we will still need person-to-person activism--with next-door neighbors, with local PTA leaders, and with carpool buddies. That's the. kind of activism my mom practiced--and which PFLAG proudly continues.
Sir Tan McKellen
Asked to recall the proudest moment of his life, our own gay knight replies: "Completing my coming-out journey, But as this didn't happen until I was 49, there will always be the regret that I left it so late." Since then, he's made up for lost time. Ian McKellen's efforts on behalf of gay and lesbian causes are too numerous to list, and all the while, his career has flourished. Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters gave him the role of a lifetime in gay director James Whale; McKellen carried our pride all the way to a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Next up, McKellen romps on Hollywood's big screen as the villainous Magneto in the big-budget fantasy X-Men. (Having seen his evil Nazi in 1998's Apt Pupil--and his wicked turn in the title role of his own 1995 Richard III--we're shivering already,) Will McKellen give us more great gay heroes in the future? Undoubtedly, But, as befits one of Britain's finest classical actors, Sir Ian stands ready to play any man. "Much as I admire those who identify themselves as exclusively `queer' artists," he quips, "I am too fascinated by the phenomenon of heterosexuality to ignore it in my work."
Cherry Jones's strong, sad presence in The Heiress won her a Tony and our hearts. Over 40, over worrying about being openly lesbian, and over her gorgeous looks, Jones continues to wow Broadway, most recently in Tongue of a Bird at the Public Theater. But she's no caged trophy of the Great White Way: Jones reprises her delightfully silly role as Gene Wilder's girlfriend in the upcoming A&E Cash Carter TV movie, and this fall she graces film as a theater impresario in Tim Robbins's hotly anticipated Cradle Will Rock.
He changed the rules of the music business with biting humor and looked fabulous doing it. But don't think he wasn't serious. "My artistry is my activism," says RuPaul. "[In] a pair of pumps or a pair of Rockports, trying to be who I am in the entertainment industry is the most political thing I can do." Ru's busy with songs on the South Park movie sound track and Lil' Kim's upcoming album plus a nondrag role in the indie film But I'm a Cheerleader, His proudest moment so far: "Performing `Supermodel' [at the 1993 March on Washington]," he says, "I knew I stood for something that had never been represented before."
Ever since Wilson Cruz played a gay teen on ABC's My So-Called Life, young people have approached him on the street to say how much that series meant to them, "I always end up in tears, I feel very protective of them," admits the 25-year-old Latino actor, who often works with gay youth--and who also has a gay younger brother, Being out hasn't slowed Cruz down: He's starred in Rent, appeared on Ally McSeal, and just wrapped a role in the big-budget sci-fi film Supernova, starring James Spader, Best of all, Cruz returns to TV next season as a series regular on Party of Five, Is he playing gay? We'll have to wait and see.
She's a certified superstar, She's also the mother who moved a thousand mothers--not by claiming that all was hunky-dory but by admitting that she struggled to accept the news that daughter Chastity is a lesbian, Wonderfully blunt as always, Cher admitted getting the news was hard, And that will make it easier for other parents in the future.
REA CAREY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL YOUTH ADVOCACY COALITION
In the last six youth activist colleagues, I have seen remarkable shifts in what they bring to the GLBT movement. My experience of the meaning of activism--through the work of youth activists in particular--has been a focus on cross-oppression and cross-issue organizing. I have learned from youth that activism is the act of working for the unfettered expression of our selves. I don't believe that "activism" will need to change to keep up with the world--but rather that what we perceive as "activism" will necessarily change because of the perspectives of current youth activists. Based on the issues queer youth are talking about, I think activism will be transformed in three ways during the next century: First, activism will focus more on quality and depth of meaning and less on quantity. We are well on our way to creating an expansive infrastructure of independent GLBT organizations. The trick in the next century will be to use that infrastructure strategically and not to continue to proliferate multiple, narrow-missioned groups. Second, there will be an entire generation of people running those groups who have never known a world without the Internet (depending on our privilege, of course). Because of this, "activism" will become a more decentralized experience for more people--whether or not they have access to computers. Third, if we play our cards right, GLBT "activism" will continue to make connections between our struggles and those of other people experiencing discrimination. If we fail to reach beyond our activism on sexual orientation and gender identity, our movement will not succeed in gaining anyone's freedom.
Every year, literary agent Frances Goldin marches in New York City's gay pride parade, "I carry a sign that says, I ADORE MY LESBIAN DAUGHTERS," Goldin says, "[But] I've been involved in the movement, including equality for homosexuals, since I was in my 20s," recalls the 75-year-old rep for Dorothy Allison, Martin Duberman, and other gay stars, "I met a socialist when I was 18 years old, eventually married him, and he educated me," If Goldin retires, it will be from the business only, not the struggle, "It will be nice to spend all my time getting arrested," she laughs.
Bill T. Jones
Perhaps no dance piece in the last decade inspired more debate and than Still/Here, Bill T, Jones's meditation on AIDS and death, "True activism or true social engagement implies a willingness to be `up-front' at all times," says the choreographer, "I have never made what I would consider overtly political statements in my work, Any statements I made were the result of my answering urgent questions for myself." Lately these questions have led Jones to genre-bending collaborations with soprano Jessye Norman and jazz pianist Fred Hersch, In the fall he's touring with a solo piece called The Breathing Show,
"To quote Dorothy Allison, `I fell in love with a woman, and everything changed,'" says performance artist Holly Hughes. One of the NEA Four, Hughes has been fighting for artists' rights eversince. (In June she helped organize the star-studded New York City premiere of a banned play by lesbian teen Samantha Gellar.) Hughes's work includes her own performance pieces in Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler, and O Solo Homo, a collection of one-person shows she coedited, "I can't imagine being an artist if I weren't a lesbian," says Hughes, "And I can't imagine being a lesbian without being engaged in social change."
OK, Tom Hanks didn't kiss Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia, but having our era's Jimmy Stewart play gay was great, And Hanks's Oscar speech was the classic that launched Tom Selleck's onscreen kiss with Kevin Kline in In & Out, Hanks pays more than lip service to the cause: Most recently, he showed up for us at this year's GLAAD Awards, where he presented an award to lesbian parents Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher.
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|Title Annotation:||individual contributions to the gay rights movement|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Aug 17, 1999|
|Previous Article:||OUR BEST and BRIGHTEST ACTIVISTS: politics.|
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