Music to come out to
How I sang and danced my way out of the closet
Before I start: In the piece you're about to read, as in all my writing, I use the word "queer" as a term of pride, never of shame.
It's no secret that musical theatre goes hand in hand, in plenty of people's minds and hearts, with queer culture and lifestyle. Aside from the fact that gender bending costume choices have been a thing from the very birth of theatre in ancient history; and Shakespeare's plays being performed by all-male casts before the Civil War that removed the monarchy, and by all-female casts during the time of its Restoration. The history of Broadway in the US, and its UK counterpart, the whole theatre district of London known by Brits simply as The West End, from the classic to the modern age, have been home to every letter of the LGBTQIA+ alphabet, and every colour of our rainbow flag, both on stage and off.
Cabaret is based on the memoir of T.S. Eliot's friend and fellow traveller Christopher Isherwood, Christopher & His Kind, a huge influence on the gay rights movement in its day. La Cage Aux Folles was adapted into the drag queen rom com movie The Birdcage, and gave us the gay anthem I Am What I Am.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert;
The Rocky Horror Show;
Hedwig & the Angry Inch;
I've barely scratched the surface.
Marsha P. Johnson (blessed be her name) was making a living as a performing artist on that fateful day at the Stonewall Inn, where the Pride movement truly began in the USA. The charity, Stonewall, that takes its name from that moment in history and carries on the work in the UK, was started by, among others, the classically trained stage and screen actor, Sir Ian McKellen.
Maybe it started as a way of straight audiences finding it entertaining to laugh at the gender bending fools and freaks, like P. T. Barnum's Bearded Lady, but like the word Queer, it's become like a reclaimed slur - if you didn't have This Is Me stuck in your head when I first mentioned Barnum, star character of The Greatest Showman, I bet you do now.
I want to talk about the moment I heard those songs, through the keyhole of my own personal closet, until I couldn't deny myself any longer and came dancing out of the door.
On the one hand, I grew up sheltered in a cushy little bubble of middle class, conservative, evangelical Christian upbringing, and was past the halfway point of my life so far, before I even heard words like gay, trans, genderfluid or demisexual. On the other, my love affair with theatre goes so far back in my life that I don't remember a time before it. I've loved stories, and dressing up as the characters in them , since I could walk and talk, if not before. Imagine my rapture at the fact that there were people who did these things for a living!
Most British children, me included, get our first taste of theatre in Pantomime Season - a word that means something a bit different over here than it does in other places. To us Brits, "Panto" means a cross-dressing Christmas comedy play, whose story comes from the same collection of fairy tales that classic Disney movies did. It's so full of cheese and covered in glitter that most "serious" professional actors hate it. Since then, I've become a "serious" professional actor myself, and I still love it. A few years back, I even wrote one, that toured around the south west of the UK: Alice in a Winter Wonderland.
Meanwhile, back in my "real" acting career, I was simultaneously playing a double role as two of the male leads in a Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, and some minor background roles in a modern musical, Rent. I was absolutely exhausted, and so was my wife who was beside me in both; but at the same time, there was something about both of them that made me feel deeply euphoric.
Slightly when I was a child; more so when I was a teenager; to the point that I began to want some kind of mental health diagnosis to put a name to it in my twenties; and simmering under the surface only to come briefly bursting out at the wrong moments through my thirties; I knew there was something inside me, but I just didn't know what it was. Aside from the facts that I loved spending time with girls as friends more than boys, had dolls in my toy collection beside my cars and action figures, loved to be smoothly shaved and have my long hair hanging down; there were times when I had the dreamy, phantasmal experience of looking in the mirror and somehow simultaneously recognising and not recognising myself. When I started living in a community that was far more open and diverse than I had done before, I started hearing words like transphobia, and gender dysphoria, and Pride.
Then came Twelfth Night and Rent.
A quick blurb for those who aren't familiar with these two amazing plays:
Twelfth Night is a comedy about duality. There's a pair of twins, who are lost at sea. The brother begins a gay love affair with the sailor who saved his life. The sister dresses as a boy, and lives in hiding with a Count; he is in love with a Countess; she is refined, although her family are drunkards; they are served by two servants - a stuck-up butler and a sarcastic jester. Ours was a chaotic folk-music version. More chaotic than we planned, but that's another story!
Rent, a rock musical, takes the story of a starving artist on the snowy streets of 19th century Paris, from Puccini's opera La Boheme, and updates it to a drag queen living on the streets, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1980's New York. Creator Jonathan Larson was himself terminally ill at the time and never saw it become the international, multi-generational success it is today. Comedy and tragedy stir up together in a soup from beginning to end, and cast and crew are often known to burst out either crying or laughing mid-run. I did both.
But I did more than that.
I love rock dance, I love Shakespeare, but there was something about these ones in particular that was strangely special and specially strange. I was feeling like I was being myself when I went on stage, and putting on a character when I came off, instead of the other way around.
Every piece of my puzzle slotted into place; every side of my Rubik's cube became a solid colour; I looked back at all the times I'd felt alone, and felt alive; and all I had to do, to make that true, was to look in the mirror and say a single magic word out loud:
Those weird bone-and-muscle kinks and cricks that prevented me from dancing to my full potential beside my castmates in Rent and Twelfth Night, ironed themselves out when it hit me that they'd crept into my body from the moment back in childhood when I was told to "not walk like that, it looks gay". Some hard-to-hit notes began to smooth around the edges, as I unlocked those outer edges of my vocal range that "sound gay when you sing like that".
Suddenly, I was me. Suddenly, I was free. Suddenly, the stranger's face in the mirror became my best friend. My name was Stephen. Her name was Stevie.
Her name is Stevie because it's easy for people who've known me as Stephen to remember and adapt to; it allows me to express, explain, explore and experience the new side of myself without divorcing or dissociating myself too far from who I'm used to being before; and because, aside from every other musical matter I've mentioned so far, Stevie Nicks is a Freakin' Goddess. She's my icon of style, both in voice and in face. How often do I try to imagine, "What would it look like if Stevie was the conscious extroverted persona, and Stephen was the unconscious introverted shadow, instead of the other way round?", and then look at and listen to Stevie Nicks, and think to myself (myselves), Yes. Like That.
In theatre land we have a phrase, Ghost Light. It's the lights we leave lit on the stage when it's empty, to remind the ghosts we've not forgotten them, we will be back, so please may they bring us good luck more than bad. We may be a superstitious bunch, but literally our entire job is symbolism, so indulge us these silly little thoughts. Stevie has been quietly shining like a Ghost Light inside me since I don't know when, waiting her turn to upstage me and take the spotlight. She has her chance now, and she's a star.
Ghosts lights may be shining throughout the whole theatre industry of the western world right now, as we're left in lockdown. But let me tell you something. When big budget Broadway is able to be a thing again, and somebody pulls out their pen and pad and says, "Let's make a musical for Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks; let's call it Rhiannon, after the Welsh Witch in her signature song; let's find someone who can really embody her energy..."
Clear the audition room.