Marriage Equality from a Theatre Perspective

marriage equality

Pink equal signs on a scarlet field turn Facebook into a Red Sea as the Supreme Court of the United States takes up the by 9th Circuit Court of Appeal’s 2-1 ruling overturning California’s 2008 initiative, Proposition 8, saying that Prop8 had “no purpose or effect other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California.”

The appelate court’s Judge Vaughn Walker wrote the majority opinion for the 136-page decision in Perry v. Schwarzenneger, based on the argument that the state law violated federal protections of the 14th Amendment, and has implications for the federal Defense of Marriage Act as well as other state statutes. This may well be the case that brings marriage equality to California, once and for all, perhaps even be the death knell for a major expression of prejudice in the U.S.

The questions implicit in Vaughn’s decision are whether we can create a sub-class of people based on their fixed adult identity, whether existing marriage relationships can be socially defined based soley on gender, and whether we can base law on a vague sense of feeling threatened.

The questions posed by SCOTUS swing vote and moral curmudgeon Justuce Kennedy during oral argument for Perry indicate he is, if not interested overturning Prop 8, he’s at least curious.

Here’s the question that I’d like to address, though, directed to me by an old college chum, an attorney who enjoys going to the theatre but a theatre layperson whose perspective is that of an audience member: Why are theatre folk so supportive of gays rights? Is it just that there are so many gay people in theatre?

Well, first, of course, duh, there are a heck of a lot of our friends and co-workers in the theatre who are gay.  But it begs the question of why there are many gay people in theatre, and thus skims the surface of an important argument for marriage equality specifically and for human rights generally. It also misses an opportunity to make an observation about the enduring value of theatre.

Are there more gay people in theatre than in, say, education or the clergy or… what are the other stereotypes? Interior decorating? The arts, generally? If it’s a given that these occupations show larger proportions of gay people (and I’m not so sure… maybe it’s just easier to be out there? Or more difficult to be closeted?) then we’d want to look at why.

If it’s a given that there are more gay people in theatre, as in the other occupations, then one logical explanation is that they call for empathy, and nothing teaches you empathy for another person like seeing it modelled, positively by other people like you, and negatively by homophobes.

Theatre, it’s important to remember, is where we model behaviors. As with educators and others who model behaviors, we have to look inside of ourselves, and try to reach out to everybody, as honestly and directly as we can. We have, then, many of the same responsibilities as other artists, as teachers and as clergy: To speak for the voiceless, to share knowledge and insight as we acquire it, to be “the vicar of the community.”

Theatre folk are supportive of gay rights because our work is centered on the work an actor does to see himself as another, to experience the world from another’s perspective, and to exhibit that behavior publically within a ritual frame that makes it a model for a more general human experience.

How could I play a gay man if I couldn’t see the world from his perspective? How could I play a homophobe unless I could see what motivates him? With my life-partner, also an actor, we use this as a tool in daily life. If a person’s bahavior puzzles us, we ask oursleves and each other “How would you play it onstage?” It’s an empathic response that frequently yields a surprising insight, and makes you less likely to label another person as the Other.

So, yeah, sure: There are a lot of gay people in the theatre. But it’s not like it’s peer presure.    I have a gay friend in theatre who happens to think that marriage equality is a big distraction from other items on the “gay agenda.” The point is that everyone in theatre has and recognizes some obligation to look inside of themselves and look into the hearts of others, which is not incumbent on, say, an attorney, or a banker, or the clerk with the guns and ammo case at Wahlmart. We also have the obligation to model for those people.

This is why artists seem sometimes to feel a special privilege or obligation to speak out on social topics. If they are famous, of course, their celebrity can influence others. But even largely unnoted actors can take pride in being role models of a kind. Modelling empathy, onstage and off.

I’m proud of the theatre commuity as expressed in my Facebook community today.

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