A Unique Power to Change Hearts and Minds
As part of an effort to help people understand what it means to be gay, John Johmann helped to create some Gay Pride events in June with his employer. A video he made focused on marriage equality and was released on several public forums, including LinkedIn, a business and employment-oriented social media website.
“There were many supportive, wonderful comments. And, here we are in 2021, there were some really horrifying comments. And it just struck me that someone would attack me on a professional thing like LinkedIn,” he says. “That was very upsetting.”
Even more horrifying is recent legislation in a variety of states, much of which targets the transgender community based on erroneous assumptions and information, Johmann says. He points to a report released in May by the Human Rights Campaign, marking 2021 as the worst year ever when it comes to legislative attacks against people who are LGBTQIA+, with a “record-shattering number” of measures being introduced and enacted into law. “We have to be careful and we have to be on watch,” Johmann says. “If you look at who’s being targeted, it’s certainly people who are trans by a large margin. We have to know there are people who would send us back to 1968 if they could.”
What was it like to be marginalized and shunned as an outsider in 1968?
Johmann will show us during his performance in The Boys in the Band, which will be produced by Madison Lyric Stage (MLS) at the Deacon John Grave House, 581 Boston Post Road, Madison. It runs through Sunday, Aug 1 and is being produced by Marc Deaton, Johmann’s husband and the MLS artistic director.
Johmann, who also is the MLS executive director, says he appreciates the play’s universal appeal with its focus on love, loss, regret, how to deal with Mean Girls, along with the importance of relationships and the families we build when the families we’re from fail us. The characters are prickly, lovable, and often funny. And, today more than ever, Johmann appreciates the play’s power as a vitally important work of art.
“It’s important to look back to understand where we were, how far we’ve come, and how much remains to be done,” says Johmann.
Powerful, Forbidden Knowledge
When Deaton was 13 years old, he was kind of a loner kid who spent a lot of time in the library, devouring and memorizing plays. While reading them, he could see them in his mind’s eye being performed on Broadway, often imagining himself as the star. When he saw the title, The Boys in the Band, he thought it might be a musical.
“I started reading it and, at first, it was hard for me to understand,” he says.
He soon realized it was about gay men. Even as a teen, Deaton knew he was attracted to boys and men, but he had a hard time making sense of that, particularly since he was often victimized and bullied as a result of how he was perceived by others. The play made him realize there was a social aspect to being gay and communities where he would belong.
“I realized that there were places...where men who were like me, who loved show business, and art, and books, and who were clever, that there were places where we could be. We could make our own families, families with people like me, when my own family did not want me,” he says.
He realized at the time that this knowledge was powerful, forbidden, dangerous. Even though the play he was reading was in a compilation of Best Plays of 1968, and even though the title was not on the cover, and even though the title would have meant nothing to most people in his hometown, he wrapped the book up in a manila folder as he read it.
“I made it look like homework,” he says.
The Boys in the Band, which had opened off-Broadway in 1968, is the story of a group of men who gather for a birthday party in an apartment in New York City. The characters in the play include an older man who fears he is losing his looks as he ages, a young attractive blonde who is none too bright and very sexy, and a married man who once had an affair with another man and wonders whether he is gay. Also attending are couples and frenemies, all of them aware that the world outside the apartment is dangerously hostile to their very existence as men who love and who are attracted to other men. Add alcohol and let the drama begin.
Deaton, as a 13 year old, sitting in the library reading the book hidden in a manila folder, could not even begin to imagine a world in which one day he would be producing the play in a historic homestead in an old New England town, with his beloved husband playing one of the stars. But he did know, at 13 years old, that the play showed him something he longed for.
“The play helped me realize...I wanted to have a day without being chased or called names or beaten up,” he says. “I wanted to sing and dance and be a movie star.”
A Failure in Our Democracy
The world he imagined, a world where people who are not threatened because of who they are, remains out of reach for many, even in 2021. The report released in May by the Human Rights Campaign shows how this problem is growing.
The Human Rights Campaign is an organization that combats discrimination and works toward fairness and equality for people who identifty as LGBTQIA+. LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, and asexual and/or ally. The acronyms sometimes include P for pansexual, or D for demisexual. Here’s a guide to the terms: outrightinternational.org/content/acronyms-explained. And someone who is cis-gender has a sense of personal identity and gender that corresponds with their birth sex.
The list and the letters and words are useful to contemplate as our society’s understanding of the different and varied ways people express love, sexuality, identity, and gender expands to include the identities and preferences of people who have existed throughout time, but who have not always had the words to express who they are and how they feel. The words are an acknowledgment that, while love is a constant in most relationships, the way it is expressed and how it is expressed and to whom varies.
As the understanding of this evolves, is expressed, and becomes more embracing of differences, the fear and misunderstanding of these differences metastasizes as well.
“The rights of LGBTQ people—and especially transgender people—across the country are being systematically threatened and undermined by national anti-LGBTQ groups coordinating with anti-equality lawmakers to wage an unprecedented war on the LGBTQ community..,” says Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, in the May report, which can be read at www.hrc.org. “This crisis cannot be ignored and necessitates concrete action from all those with the ability to speak out. These bills are not only harmful and discriminatory, but also represent a failure in our democracy and the commitment elected officials make to protect and serve their constituents.”
That urgency is something that Patrick J. Dunn, the executive director of the New Haven Pride Center (NHPC), feels acutely. NHPC provides support, education, and cultural and social enrichment for the community it serves. Programs range from art installations to making sure people who are LGBTQIA+ have secure housing, food, stable employment, legal assistance, health equity, and community support so that they can thrive.
How can cis-gender people help with that? Educate yourself and don’t rely upon someone else to do that work. Donate. Volunteer. Support. Understand privilege and how it can be used as a force for the good to help those for whom it is not granted.
“I have strong opinions,” Dunn warns. “So instead, I’m going to quote my good friend, [NHPC Youth Program Officer] Ala Ochumare, who is also a Black Lives Matter activist. ‘I don’t need allies. I need comrades. People who will get in the trenches and fight with me.’ If you want to support LGBTQ+ people, your brothers, your sisters, your mothers, your daughters, your best friends, the best way to do that, if you are a straight person, if you are a cis gender person, it’s your responsibility to access your privilege to benefit people who do not have that.”
He says that is how you help change the world. He says the straight, cis-gender community needs to understand the fight is not about them and is not about waving a flag so a selfie can be posted on social media. “It’s about standing with us and being prepared to go to places and fight alongside us,” he says.
“I’m on the same page as Patrick,” Johmann says. “To me, ally-ship has to be something specific, deliberate, and active. If I put a sticker in my window, maybe I’m an ally. And that’s nice, but that’s not truly being an ally.”
A Unique Power
Dunn says even though The Boys in the Band focuses on the 1960s, “it is, ironically, super relevant at this time.” He says the history of the queer community was, in the past, handed down from generation to generation in bars where people who were gay would congregate.
“Someone would say, ‘and this is what we went through and that is what we went through,’ and that is how our history was handed down,” he says, adding that he was among the last generation experiencing that. “I was the generation before Grindr [a popular social networking and dating app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people] and Grindr really changed the bar dynamic. We’ve lost some of those intergenerational relationships.”
As a performing artist himself, Dunn knows there is a real value to stories told about the past.
“I just think art has the unique power to change hearts and minds, and the unique power to tell stories in a way that people can’t say, ‘I don’t agree with that,’” he says. “Art truly has the power to survive throughout time. Laws don’t. Societies don’t. Governments don’t. But art does. And helping to facilitate art is the vital responsibility of every member of the community, whether you create it yourself or not.”
More information about the New Haven Pride Center can be found at www.newhavenpridecenter.org. More information about the play and tickets are available at madisonlyricstage.org.