But supporters of Indiana’s RFRA believe that they are victims, oppressed by powerful political and corporate entities who claim to want equality but whose “real goal” is to destroy religious freedom. Representatives of these conservative Christian groups refer to those who support LGBT equality as “homofascists” and “gay terrorists,” thus casting themselves as heroes defending powerless florists, bakers, and pizza makers. [The image at the top of this post is making its way around the anti-gay corners of the internet, showing LGBT rights advocates as monstrous wolves in sheep's clothing.]
For those familiar with the history of LGBT people in America, this vilification is nothing new. But there’s been a slight shift in the rhetoric of vilification. Previously, LGBT people were maligned as the sinister threat from outside and below. We were a minority without any real political power, but we threatened to undermine and infect all that was good and normal. Now that the mainstream LGBT rights movement has won some substantial legal battles, that rhetoric has shifted to paint a portrait of LGBT people as a dominating power, one aligned with government and industry, to crush our enemies from above.
While it’s true that the social and political landscape has seen a tremendous shift in regards to the standing of LGBT people (Lawrence v. Texas, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, DOMA), by almost any measure LGBT people are still struggling for basic civil rights, including anti-discrimination protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations. We’re still subjected to harassment and violence, and we see the effects of homophobic culture, one that devalues LGBT lives, in statistics regarding LGBT health, addiction, and suicide. The myth of super powerful queers who can mercilessly destroy anti-gay forces is a fantasy.
Theatre artists often work within the realm of fantasy, unpacking and exploring its meanings, and I’m intrigued by two current theatrical productions that imagine queer characters who wreak violent vengeance on homophobes. What if we could be so empowered and destroy our enemies? Topher Payne’s dark comedy Angry Fags, first staged in Atlanta in 2013 and currently at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago until April 26, follows Bennett, an upstanding homosexual who works for a lesbian state senator. When he learns that his ex-boyfriend has been gay-bashed, he teams up with his (perhaps slightly sociopathic) roommate Cooper to become a gay vigilante terrorist. First they revenge themselves on the man they presume to be responsible for the initial attack, and then they go after a closeted anti-gay minister, an anti-gay politician, and a whole building of Family First types.
Payne smartly creates his dark political satire within the realm of screwball comedy—with a dash of romance—so the audience can recognize it as a loopy fantasy, but still engage with the reality underlying the fantasy. As the horrors of the play mount, the audience realizes that these gay vigilantes are bashing back against innocent people and that vengeance doesn’t really help their cause. Angry Fags has elements of the classic thriller as Bennett and Cooper have to kill friends in order to keep their secrets, and by the end it’s become a full-fledged revenge tragedy with a heap of bodies on the stage. So the play allows us to indulge in the fantasy of “gay terrorists” becoming empowered and taking action, but then it shows us how this violence will not further the cause and will destroy us.
While Angry Fags operates as absurd comedy and political satire, Revenge of the Popinjay, currently on stage at Dixon Place in New York City, employs a more surreal and visceral theatricality. Anthony Johnston plays a variety of roles: a theatrical version of himself, his sister who passed away in 2010, his new boyfriend who is also named Anthony, a self-help guru who preaches “positive thinking,” and a gay rapper named Popinjay who incites his audience to rape and kill heterosexuals (#yeshomo #nohetero). After his boyfriend hooks up with this rapper, Anthony goes to the police, convinced that the Popinjay is the serial killer responsible for the recent rash of hetero-bashings.
Johnston and his performance partner Nathan Schwartz find the ironic humor in this Bizarro World, in which heterosexuals must go into the closet and pretend to be gay in order to be safe. But there’s also deep anger in the piece, and by the end of the show the stage will be splattered with blood, a few body parts, and a slimy cephalopod. The hetero-bashing rapper serves as an alter-ego for Anthony, who is still dealing with the death of his sister. While Anthony obediently takes pills and goes to self-help seminars, Popinjay is a “bad boy” who takes violent action, at first against heterosexual oppressors, but then expanding to the entire world, encouraging the audience to burn it all down. In one theatrically fascinating and disturbing moment, Johnston plays both the murderer and the murder victim at the same time, perfectly embodying the theme that vengeance will become nihilism and will ultimately destroy both perpetrator and victim.
Angry Fags and Revenge of the Popinjay function simultaneously as revenge fantasies and cautionary tales, so they engage in a moral complexity often missing from our political rhetoric. They wrestle with the paradox: how can the queers be both oppressed victims and all-powerful villains? By challenging the melodramatic categories, perhaps the audience can emerge with a deeper truth about the difficult position of a minority group that, while achieving more political power, still faces the injustices and injuries of homophobia. The accusations of homofascism / gay bullying / terrorism are used to exaggerate the power of queer people, while also denying the continuing existence of homophobia and the need for LGBT civil rights. These plays, while enacting and critiquing violent fantasies, never lose sight of that political reality.