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The Boys In The Band Meet Gay Liberation

boys in the band

Oy Vey! It's back.

A 50th anniversary Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band will open at the end of May for a 15-week run at the Booth theater, shaved down to one act. In the meantime, lots of superficial and historically incorrect nonsense is being written about the play. Misleading claims and marketing hype are being made by bright gay men who should know better. Yes, I'm talking about you Ryan Murphy, The Boys' producer, and Joe Mantello, its director, both otherwise very talented. Their theater hucksterism is largely self-serving and does a disservice to gay people's history.

Recently that profound contemporary intellectual journal, People magazine, ludicrously and incorrectly suggested that "the play helped spark a revolution when it premiered in 1968," as if the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion was a mere footnote to The Boys-inspired Gay Liberation movement.

More egregious is the distorted historical thinking of The New York Times' Jesse Green in his "A Brief History of Gay Theater, In Three Acts". Green, along with the spin of Murphy and Mantello, tries to make us believe the reboot of The Boys is like the play's messianic Second Coming. There are so many historical not-true and half-true statements by Green that my copy of the Times' article is covered in my handwriting pin-pointing mistakes of history and baffling interpretation.

Green declares, for example, that Gay Liberation was a "respectability movement." Nothing could be further from the truth. He is confusing Gay Liberation with the conservative, assimalationist Homophile effort (1950-1969), largely localized in Los Angeles. The Gay Liberation movement, birthed in 1969 after Stonewall, did not give a hoot about respectability nor being accepted by our oppressor, the dominant hetero-supremist culture.

The legacy of Gay Liberation is the cultivation of self-acceptance, a will to resist and nonviolently fight back, a reframing of gay identity and culture, and a necessity to coalesce into a visible community that assumes responsibility for each other.

The Boys, written by long-time West Hollywood resident Matt Crowley, opened off-Broadway at Theater Four on April 14, 1968 and closed September 6, 1970, having run 1001 performances.

After a 50-year hiatus, recently I reread The Boys script and watched the movie again, discovering they were worse than I remembered.

After a 50-year hiatus, recently I reread The Boys script and watched the movie again, discovering they were worse than I remembered. The play tells the story of a group of eight homosexual friends in their late 20's and early 30's celebrating a birthday in New York City. As the evening wears on they become more and more drunk, more and more vicious with each other, and more and more despairing and forlorn, a play needing a breakthrough catharsis but never finding one.

Some of the dialogue is clever at times but mostly bland, shallow, clichéd and meaningless even by 1968 standards. The play ends, sadly, with intellectual-suicide by eight young men who are existentially lost. Gay Liberation called it "oppression sickness."

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William Friedkin's film version opened March 17, 1970, and opening night in Westwood was picketed by Los Angeles' fledgling, revolutionary Gay Liberation Front. At the time, many closeted gay men criticized GLF's direct action with variations of the same attack: "We finally have a mainstream movie about us and GLF is demonstrating against it. Are you people crazy? Don't rock the boat, things are getting better. You are making up stories about gay oppression. You are all communists."

No, we weren't crazy at the time and gay oppression in a hetero-dominated society was cruel and real, still bordering on gay genocide in most parts of the world. Gay Liberation was the antithesis of The Boys. It tells you something about the low level of homosexual/homophile political self-awareness into which The Boys premiered and the Gay Liberation movement was born.

During March I asked fifteen gay men in Los Angeles of a certain age who knew about the play what they thought of The Boys. The feedback was revelatory and confirming, ranging from mildly dismissive to vehemently critical. An example is Matthew Alexander, a 50-something manager at Disney, who responded, "When I was a seventeen-year old gay kid trying to find myself, I saw the movie at the Olympia theater on Broadway in New York. Experiencing the self-loathing in the film, I thought there must be more to gay drama than this."

In 1969 gay people could not see what lay ahead—Angels in America, Bent, The Normal Heart, The Laramie Project, Torch Song Trilogy, Jeffrey, As Is, Last Summer At Bluefish Cove, Take Me Out, Fifth of July, The Dying Gaul, Love! Valor! Compassion!, Fun Home, Falsettos, to mention a few.

In the summer of 1968, the same year The Boys opened, I was a 28-year old UCLA doctoral student in history, and attended my first gay party—a private dance party since gays were arrested if they touched or danced in public then—somewhere off of Fountain Avenue in Hollywood with men the same age as in The Boys, mostly teachers and budding government bureaucrats.

Two events stood out for me. It was the first time I slow-danced with a man and I was in heaven. Also, the host quietly went out the front door every 20 minutes or so and then returned, checking to make sure the LAPD was not assembled outside ready to raid the party.

It's still amazing and incomprehensible a half-century later that we chit-chatted about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and our approval of the civil rights movement and our opposition to the war in Vietnam, but not a word was uttered about the systemic violence against us as gay men. Fortunately, Stonewall was just around the corner.

What intervened between the opening of The Boys in the Band in 1968 and the 1970 movie was the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Therein lies the argument. After Stonewall LGBT people would never be the same again, never again be silent, invisible, and self-loathing, never again be pickled in alcohol and passive victims of oppression. The boys in The Boys were real in 1968 but by 2018 they have become largely a historical artifact, like a specimen in a museum viewing case, compassionately reminding gay people from what, in part, they were liberated.

Gay people didn't change because gay theater evolved. Gay theater transformed after The Boys because a social revolution of gigantic proportions occurred, facilitated by the Gay Liberation movement, that altered radically and positively the trajectory of gay people's lives forever. Jesse Green, Ryan Murphy, Joe Mantello et al. seem encased in a New York City theater bubble, largely oblivious to their own history as gay men. Tony Kushner's Angels in America is truly great gay-centered theater. Matt Crowley's The Boys in the Band, you must be kidding.


Don Kilhefner

Don Kilhefner, Ph.D., is a pioneer Gay Liberationist and has spent the past 50 years on the frontlines as a gay community organizer in Los Angeles and nationally. Contact: