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LGBT History: Dramatically Expanding

BY ON November 25, 2014

Arch Brown

Arch Brown, who established a foundation in honor of his partner Bruce. to fund queer history through theater

When my friend Arch Brown established the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation some 20 years ago, I was delighted to be asked to serve on the organization’s board, but I’ve got to admit I was a little concerned about its mission. I thought that by focusing on literary and performing arts work “based on, or inspired by” LGBT history, Arch might be drawing too tight a boundary around the kinds of things the foundation could fund. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in queer history—I shared that enthusiasm with Arch and his then recently deceased partner, Bruce Brown, to whose memory the foundation was dedicated. I was just afraid that the literary competition and play production grant program Arch envisioned wouldn’t draw enough submissions, because of that “historical” restriction.

Our early literary competitions—back then, we alternated yearly between plays, novels, and short stories—drew 20 or 30 or 40-some entries, and, frankly, I kept expecting this stream to run dry. I just couldn’t imagine that there were all that many fiction writers and playwrights “out there” who were (1) writing about LGBT people and (2) basing their work on historical sources. What a failure of imagination on my part. Over two decades, the stream has turned into a torrent. The foundation’s 2014 playwriting competition (our annual contest is now restricted to plays) drew a whopping 254 entries. Now, granted, some of the plays submitted were ineligible for consideration because they made only glancing reference to history (if any reference at all)—but there were relatively few of those. This flood of competition submissions—combined with all the grant proposals we’re getting that seek support for new performing-arts works based on LGBT history—convinces me that a formidable, and growing, number of LGBT artists are looking to history for inspiration.

And to judge from our competition and grant-program submissions, the parameters of LGBT history also seem to be expanding dramatically (pun intended). Sure, we still receive plays (and requests to fund plays) about notable historical personages. Michelangelo is a perennial favorite, unsurprisingly, and this has been a bumper year for works about Alan Turing. Nothing wrong with that, and, in fact, some of these works are quite good: Among the runners-up in our 2014 play contest was Michelangelo and Tommaso, by Sacramento-based writer James Rosenfield, which centers on the young Roman nobleman with whom the artist was reportedly infatuated. And a highly inventive, intellectually dense theatrical work about Alan Turing, called Pure and written by Queens, New York–based writer A. Rey Pamatmat, won one of our honorable mention awards this year. (We’ve also recently helped fund a new opera based on Turing’s life being produced by the American Lyric Theater, as well as a documentary film about controversy over the posthumous royal pardon Queen Elizabeth granted Turing a year ago.)

But alongside works like these come entries set in unexpected locales with casts of characters very unlike those we used to see. This year’s competition winner, The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane, by another Queens-based writer, Jen Silverman, is set largely in South Africa against the backdrop of the 2010 World Cup; its characters, with one exception, are black South Africans. Centering on a young woman’s search for her vanished former lover, a lesbian activist fighting the heinous practice of “corrective rape,” the play is rooted squarely in recent South African history. About its genesis, Silverman told me, “My inspiration was an actual petition circulated by a woman named Ndumie Funda, of the activist organization Luleke Sizwe. The petition called for corrective rape to be recognized as a hate crime, [and] I was captivated by the idea of someone putting herself in the national eye, putting herself at such risk at home.” An emotionally devastating, morally complex work that even dares explore the all-too-human motivations of one hate-crime accomplice, Dangerous House will have its premiere production at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre in January.

Nearly contemporaneous but worlds away from Dangerous House are the setting and characters of one of this year’s second-prize winners (two plays tied for second place this year). That play, Average American, by Manhattan-based writer Susan Miller, is a behind-the-scenes, often comic look at the development of the first-ever American TV program about lesbian women. A fictional account based loosely on the making of the pilot for Showtime’s The L Word, on which Miller worked, Average American serves up a very different but undeniably important slice of LGBT history. As Miller told me, “People are hungry to see themselves. Shining a mainstream light on the lives of gay people, women especially, marked a turning point in the public exploration of LGBT identity and representation. We made history.”

Our other second prize went to the play Mr. and Mister, by Robert Matson, who lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, and who, with his partner, has run a gay community theater in Oklahoma City for the past 15 years. Its setting is more formulaically “historical”: the action takes place on the Great Plains during the post–Civil War years. But it, too, breaks new ground in the exploration of the LGBT past by powerfully depicting the intersection of multiple histories of oppression in the United States—of gay people, African Americans, Native Americans, and those who seek love or employment outside a socially accepted norm.

So I’m very happy to report that I was very wrong, 20 years ago, to be worried about our little foundation’s mission. The bounds of LGBT history are just as wide, its complexities just as deep, as those of human history itself—and the possible uses of that history are, for creative artists, apparently inexhaustible.

James Waller is a writer and editor and a regular blogger and contributor to mediander.com. Since 2012, he has served as president of the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation.

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