Recently, I took my nephew to his first Broadway show. This straight 19-year-old experienced the magic of live theater watching witches and monkeys fly in the long-running production Wicked. This clever show reminds an ethicist like me that good and bad should be used to describe behavior, not people. Nothing is completely clear. It also tells us a continually relevant message that no medium delivers better than Broadway: it's OK to be different.
When I was 15, my sister and I joined a trip to see A Chorus Line that my suburban New Jersey town sponsored. My mother had taken note over the years that I loved to sing along with the Broadway commercials and encouraged us to make this trip. My first Broadway show was about the theater and the fascinating characters who make up its world. This closeted gay teen also heard the stories of out gay men who were true to themselves despite the cost. As I heard gay men tell their story on stage, I experienced an intense feeling that I was not alone, that others feel what I feel and, even better, expressed it through dancing and singing. The story wasn't complete happiness for these gay men on stage, but I felt happier seeing them and hearing about their struggles. I was transported to a new possibility for myself.
But I had a dose of reality in that theater. At the moment that the second gay character came out on stage, a fellow trip member, a middle-aged female, whispered to her friend, "Did they have to have two of them?" At the very moment that I was experiencing the light of his coming out, darkness made itself present. The tone of her whisper was as upsetting as her words. What enlightened me to eventually dismiss her viewpoint was her unfortunate decision to break audience etiquette. She decided to sing along with "What I Did for Love." Alarmed hearing her off-key voice, I thought, "How do I know you don't do that and she doesn't?" She seemed so small at that moment that the quiet hate she had expressed earlier that night lost its power. I flashed her a bitchy look. At that moment, a theater queen was born.
When I grew up, young gay folks did not have easily accessible stories that provided lessons about gay life and love. We had no Glee, no gay sidekick characters in sitcoms. We had no Internet with wonderful It Gets Better videos. In a world where gays were largely absent, there was Broadway. The theater provided daring stories of individuals intensely wrestling with their identity, whether gay-identified or not. And those who felt different were able to find themselves and find love. Broadway provided lessons about self-acceptance and personal transformation that offered meaning in the moment and instruction for making personal choices.
Sure, there is tragedy along the way for many characters in plays and musicals, but I want to argue that the theater offers an inspired text that replicates religious texts meant to instruct and inform believers. Alban in La Cage Aux Folles plays characters in his drag show but demands to be recognized for his true self. Claude from Hair chooses invisibility, proving that silence truly does equal death. Fosca in Passion, who believed that no one could love her because of her looks, chooses consummation with her handsome beau despite its frightening physical risks. And my nephew and I learned that Elphaba defies gravity by embracing the fight for justice over the trappings of power. There are so many more of these characters who speak to gay men and all of us.
Broadway also took a stand on AIDS way before it was politically correct. Beyond amazing productions like The Normal Heart and Angels in America, the Broadway community formed Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, generating millions of dollars and socializing America to the horrendous struggles of the gay community during the worse days of the plague. This was heroic because of its call to justice and its potential financial risk to its business. It would take Hollywood years to follow.
Today, Broadway is on the forefront of gay rights with the work of Broadway Impact. Raising awareness on LGBT issues, Broadway Impact helped bus thousands of New Yorkers to the 2009 Washington D.C. National Equality March and rallied numerous volunteers to work for the 2011 marriage equality fight in New York. Continuing its work, the group released a video and new song called "Noise," which is co-written and performed by the organization's co-founder, Gavin Creel, who also blogs here at The Huffington Post.
As a person who lives in New York City part-time, with all my contacts being clients and business acquaintances, I often think of Broadway as my best friend in the city. It's not a friend who simply keeps me company; it teaches me about myself. This is not just my story. Broadway has been and continues to be a dear friend to gay men.