Playwright Terrence McNally has won 4 Tony Awards and an Emmy and received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, a Lucille Lortel Award, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Upcoming Broadway productions include his book for the new musical Catch Me if You Can with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and the revival of Master Class at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Being 72 as I write this, I have seen more changes than my husband, Tom, who is 25 years younger than me. Just writing those two words “my husband” still makes me heart skip a beat and feel the world we inhabit as gay men and women has turned upside down.
When I came to New York City in 1956, I was 17 and being gay was as fun and sexy as it is now but it was also scary and probably more dangerous than we cared to admit. My bar of choice was Lenny’s Hideaway, long gone on W. 10th St. It was a firetrap and down a very steep flight of stairs but we felt safe from the stares and taunts of the enemy.
We took the police raids in stride. It was the price you paid for being gay. I never would have predicted that the drag queens at the Stonewall some 13 years later would start a revolution that won’t stop until marriage is legal in every single state and maybe not then.As a playwright, I have always enjoyed the relative security of working in a field where gay men and women are sometimes the norm and seldom the exception. But I do remember the critics reviling my first piece, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” for its candid depiction of sexually active gay men. It made them very nervous and they resorted to calling me names like decadent, depraved, and immoral — the kind of mud-slinging that is no longer allowed in the august pages of the Grey Lady, aka the New York Times.
I tried to write about what it was like in those pre-Stonewall days in my play “Some Men.” This could have been a lot of men speaking about the 60’s, including me!
“I loved standing room at the Old Metropolitan Opera. You got good music and a hand job at the same time. Of course, you had to know when it was appropriate. I remember once during the second act of Tosca hearing this really loud voice somewhere behind me: “I told you, mister, not during ‘Vissi d’arte.’ The whole audience heard it. Even Maria Callas stopped singing.”
There’s still no telling how deeply the catastrophe of AIDS shaped us but we came together as a community in response to it in a way that was unforeseen and has left a lasting impression on us.
I remember Lenny’s and the Old Met with an older man’s affection, I still shudder at the specter of AIDS and I look forward to full marriage equality in my lifetime.
I sometimes daydream about which period of history I wish I had lived in. But when I think about the changes in our community, I’m very glad I was born in 1938.
Happy 25th, Chelsea Pines!