(Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn & Andrew Kushnir)
There are a whole lot of books about queer and LGBTQ2SIA history, and this is a wonderful thing. https://bookriot.com/2018/06/01/books-about-lgbtq-history/calls forth fifty of them. https://www.autostraddle.com/25-lgbt-history-books-to-add-to-your-epic-queer-history-reading-list-398368/picks out twenty-five that they deem necessary reading. Our archives here at Isabella contain many of these titles and others that can trace a history of queer lives globally, and we are lucky to be able to access this information that was once shrouded in shame and secrecy.
History can be revealed through a variety of lenses and media – through music, theatre, through art and politics and so on. When performers and playwrights Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, and Andrew Kushnir sat down in 2008 to discuss what is meant by, and what should be included in a queer history play, they realized that The Gay History Project could be best realized by approaching it through the dynamic complexity of Heritage, as opposed to a linear history. In Peter Seixas’s analysis of the value of “Heritage” he notes:
[H]eritage includes the valuing of relics and historic sites, the sensory “experience” of the past that contact with those relics and sites can generate, and therefore a focus on the value of preservation. Perhaps most crucial in the values of the heritage project, is a notion that these objects and sites belong to “us,” that is, to a group defined either by nation, region, ethnicity or family. It is this belonging of “the tangible past” that gives heritage the power to confer and confirm group identities. “Heritage” is, in this sense, “inheritance”: a past that is bequeathed to “us,”” (however defined), and that we, therefore, have an obligation to preserve for those who come after us.
This concept lies at the heart of The Gay History Project, and it is also what differentiates it from other examinations of gay history. “Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion,” write the playwrights, referencing the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Heritage and Society- and that is what this play sets out to do. The three actors/ playwrights/ men sat down to think and engage critically on how to look for oneself, one’s community, and where one fits within the canon of gay history and heritage. The concept of ‘passing on’ one’s knowledge, culture, or tradition is fascinating in that on the one hand, they are asking: where are our gay elders? Who is there to show us the way? While on the other hand, they are positioning themselves as those elders, passing on the information they have learned through in-depth study and conversation.
The Gay Heritage Project, though preserved in book form now, was first presented as a play. The project was designed to be interactive, to allow for and facilitate discussion. The play opens with a “meet and greet” to get to know their audience, addressing the audience throughout the play, and inserting themselves into the audience – there is one scene in particular wherein one of the actors is sitting in the audience booing the stage. A play might not go on touring forever, but the ideas on the page, and between the margins of a book can take shape, be ruminated upon, and be shared among communities for generations to come. A reader can digest the scenes in an entirely different way than an audience member – – but the solitary pursuit of reading draws attention to the absence of “community” and “belonging”, the absence of the audience these performers relied on to thoroughly explore and animate our heritage. In the introduction to this text, the playwrights discuss the importance of brotherhood to their creation of the piece. Ironically, it is in the introduction that they explain how the performance takes them and their audience on a unique symbiotic journey with: “that’s why we didn’t write an article or a book about gay heritage; that’s why we decided to make a piece of theatre. Because heritage is an exchange, a theme party, a social rite. We are a community.” The play drew its oxygen from the communal aspect of their performative style. This begs the question: “What is missing in reading the pages versus watching the play?”
In their examination of gay heritage, the authors grapple with the unsavoury bits of gay history – at one point they declare “The point of the list is to make our history impressive, not help fuel claims of our degeneracy” –in addition to attempting to turn a critical lens on themselves and the position and space they take up being “Gay, White, Male, Privileged.” In one scene they directly ask: “is there one umbrella ‘gay heritage’ and if so, why does one group appear to hog the spotlight?” The men address past figures and events, touching on the Bathhouse Raids and the Fruit Machine – but ultimately, this text is more about the self and personal identity than it is the external factors and moments that make up history. The three authors explore the past to gain a better sense of where they themselves fit in present day, and they come to suggest that self and identity are developed as we gain a sense of belonging, community, and relationships that develop through shared experience. This is another means through which the playwrights make their performative work feel meta – they recognize that the style of their exploration of their personal identities is happening through their simultaneous engagement with the past and their audience as they are onstage.
In the end, the question “where do I fit in?” does not find one clear answer. The authors are able to trace events and figures without necessarily establishing one singular, tangible or linear history. As a community, we have often collectively had to deal with the erasure of a semblance of history and heritage that has existed. And yet through digging up, showcasing, and engaging with elements of the past – triumphs and failures, those we relate to and those we might not – they create a jumping off point for discussion and community-building.
I can only hope that this play will one day return to the stage so that we might experience the full effects of its message.