Recently, I was asked by Scholastic, Inc. to judge their upcoming writing awards. Many years ago I won that award with my play, Coming to Terms. A narrative about a teenage boy struggling to come out, the characters weren't ripped from the headlines so much as dictated by life -- mine. During the years that followed, my coming out narrative was dwarfed by larger phenomena (the AIDS epidemic and Proposition 8) and eclipsed by the mainstreaming of gay characters on television and movies.
The coming out narrative was a hot topic at this year's OUTFest, the international gay film festival presented in Los Angeles. People questioned gay film's relevance and predicted its imminent obsolescence. The facile idea presumed that all gay films were defined by the coming out narrative. Thriving, OUTFest's existence only underscored this syllogism: if the coming out narrative was terminal, ipso facto, gay film was dead. Clearly, it was not.
The death-of-the-gay-coming-out-film thesis was flawed but provocative, and I used it as a jumping-off point for my new play, The Fire Horse. Coming out has been a foundation for 40-plus years of gay activism, yet there's been very little discussion around what happens after coming out.
Coming out often means leaving home. In The Fire Horse "home" is a place of violence and danger. Like The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy Gale, The Fire Horse is about leaving and coming home. Thus, the play interrogates beliefs and premises about coming out. What comes after coming out? What comes after "hey Mom/Dad/Sister, I'm gay"? What comes after familial rejection? What comes after years of assumptions, silence, and separation?
The Fire Horse addresses those long-term consequences of coming out via Casper, the main character. In one sense, Casper has been "freed" by coming out. But the act of coming out has also shredded whatever relationship Casper had with his family. He hasn't been home for the holidays in over 20 years.
In The Fire Horse the family "kills" Caspter to explain his absence. In the story they tell themselves, their gay son/uncle is nothing but a memory until he (inconveniently) bursts into the front door and comes home à la Jane Fonda -- just without the leotard, Golden Pond, or Kathryn Hepburn.
If On Golden Pond was a touchstone for The Fire Horse, then the mother lode was Making the Boys, a documentary about The Boys in the Band. Loathed by Edward Albee, the play was accused of trafficking in stereotypes (by casting the gay "community" in darker, pre-Stonewall images) and provoking one queer to coin the phrase, "Gay is good." However, I was less interested in Boys' challenging narrative than intrigued by the documentary's more subtle question: what happened to the play's actors?
Those artists who spoke the truth about what gay men are (sometimes) like behind closed doors were later subjected to prejudice by Hollywood. Likewise, in a gesture of life imitating art imitating life, The Fire Horse speaks to uncomfortable truth and goes there, "there" being another place, the place where queer and family collide, and unforeseen consequences follow; "there" being a dream of hell; "there" being the place where lies and judgements fester until new agreements are made and the poison is flushed; "there" being the place where people struggle to be their best and own their words; and, finally, "there" being the dream of heaven on Earth.