Do you enjoy painting your toenails red or holding your boyfriend’s hand in public? Marrying your girlfriend? Declaring your pan-sexuality? Do any variation of current queer freedoms sound tantalizing to you?
It wasn’t always like that, obviously. In the last decade, we’ve seen LGBTQ rights rapidly move through congress (although there are still plenty that we need to focus on) and acceptance stretch across the nation.
But mid-century America viewed homosexuals as subversive, anti-God, immoral, a disease, non-conformist, scheming, and manipulative — a haunting invasion threatening to destroy middle-class society, the American way of life, and the country.
The persecutions and prosecutions of past generations of the LGBTQ community — and their successful battles — paved the way for us to practice freedoms we may take for granted. All history is personal. We must know ours and honor, appreciate, celebrate, and remember the stories.
This is why history recently made its way onto the menu at a dinner party that my partner and I hosted. Politics opened its garrulous mouth and President Trump, or as I like to call him, Prez KWAC (The Kook With A Comb-Over The Color Of An Orangutan’s Ass), took center stage. I mentioned that Roy Cohn had mentored the Young KWAC.
“Roy who?” they asked.
“You know, the villain in the play Angels in America (Angels)? The greatest play of the 20th century?”
I threatened to call ICE to revoke their pink visas to live in the United States as gay men. It seemed a fitting punishment, given President KWAC’s travel bans. Instead, I donned my teacher’s hat and educated the children.
Roy Cohn played a starring role in the commie/homo witch-hunt of the ‘50s. Knowledge of this travesty of American justice and prejudice informed my first four decades of shame as a gay man. Angels examines the zeitgeist of the ‘80s: the AIDS plague and homosexuality in Reagan’s America, specifically New York City. I lived there during the onset of the nascent plague.
History helps me understand the present. Craving more knowledge, the teacher becomes the student.
Real-life Roy Cohn was a closeted homosexual lawyer in New York with a ruthless reputation and a malevolent, heavy-lidded sneer, ready to strike. He first gained prominence in 1951 prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (Ethel is a ghost in Angels) for being Russian Communist spies. They were convicted and executed in 1953, generating much criticism. In his autobiography, Cohn admits with great pride ex parte (secret) discussions with another prosecutor and judge. It was his unethical and illegal breach of jurisprudence that condemned the Rosenbergs.
The notoriety brought Cohn to the attention of then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, rumored to be a homosexual crossdresser. Hoover recommended Cohn to Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin, who was leading the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings to expose suspected communists and homosexuals in the government, Hollywood, and the military. Cohn became McCarthy’s hypocritical lackey and the brains behind the inquisition. The pair was responsible for the firing of hundreds of gays and lesbians.
McCarthy’s eponymous political tactics became known as McCarthyism — smear campaigns, guilt by association, false accusations, and demagogic disregard of law and civility. Remind you of anyone?
During the Cold War, fear of communist infiltration — the Red Scare — reached mass hysteria. Irrational anxieties implicated gays and lesbians — the Lavender Scare — and targeted government employees. In 1953, President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 barred homosexuals from working in the federal government (including the armed forces) on the suspicion that they posed security risks because of potential to blackmail. Approximately 5,000 homosexuals, primarily in the State Department, were outed, fired, and thrust into a paranoid public.
The Cohn-McCarthy-Hoover ménage-a-trois ended in 1954. The Army-McCarthy hearings investigated Cohn’s pressuring the Army to give preferential treatment to G. David Schine, a handsome blonde “friend.” Cohn resigned, and the Senate eventually censured McCarthy.
Responding to homophobia in 1957, The Crittenden Report of the United States Navy concluded there was no factual data to support the belief that homosexuals posed a security risk, but it did find other reasons to condemn homosexuality. The Crittenden Report remained secret until 1976. Eisenhower’s 1953 E.O. remained active until 1995 when President Clinton replaced it with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
By the ‘70s, Cohn had built a powerful network in New York City, using the courts and City Hall to enrich friends and crush enemies. He performed questionable deeds for Nixon, Reagan, and various Mafioso.
Cohn met Young KWAC in 1973, teaching him his signature formula to exploit power: attack, counterattack, never apologize, never admit responsibility, claim other’s acomplishments, promote yourself, deflect. Grasshopper KWAC learned well from his mentor. The President lies, sues, debases adversaries, offends minorities and women, and ferments fury in fans.
In 1986, The New York State Supreme Court disbarred Roy Cohn for multiple unethical and unprofessional conducts.
Shortly thereafter, still denying that he was homosexual and claiming he had liver cancer, Cohn died of AIDS.
Cohn was a rotten patriot, and, as a character in Angels describes him, “the polestar of human evil.” The play’s villain, historical but imagined by playwright Tony Kushner, guides us through his unbearable suffering to hell and hopelessness. The everyman hero, Prior Walter, guides us through his to heaven and hope.
In the early ‘90s, Kushner wrote Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes as two separate plays: Part 1 – Millennium Approaches and Part II – Perestroika (Russian, meaning “restructuring.”). As a Fantasia, Kushner embraces magical realism, combining the terrifying reality that his characters travel with the supernatural and hallucinations they confront. Its National Themes are grand: religious, racial, psychological, political, sexual. Its human stories are intimate: love, sex, beliefs, loss, illness, resilience.
Part 1 garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and both parts won Tony Awards for Best Play in 1993 and 1994.
This summer, London is reviving the play courtesy of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, starring Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter (Spiderman, Hacksaw Ridge) and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn (The Birdcage, The Producers). A recorded live performance will broadcast in Denver cinemas participating in National Theatre Live.
For dazzling performances and CGI intensity, watch the 2003 HBO series on DVD, winner of 11 Emmys. Directed by Mike Nichols, the cast soars with Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, and a perfect ensemble. As Cohn/Pacino vomits his vitriol gleefully; Thompson’s angel is beatific, frightening, and erotic; La Streep portrays an old Jewish rabbi, a Mormon mother, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg with her usual numinous craft.
Angels’ themes are as timely today as the day it was written, reflecting the current national chaos. The Cohns and KWACS of the world love chaos, camouflaging themselves in a wolf’s hide of patriotism. Order exposes their greedy grab for power and billions — to hell with the rest of the world.
The devil occupies the White House.
I consulted the genesis of alternative facts, the Bible, finding that the devil is also known as “the lord of filth,” “ the father of lies,” someone who “leads the world astray.” Indisputable proof that with aggrandizing ego and colossal animus President KWAC curls his pointy tail round the Oval Office, his slimy demons slithering through the halls of every government agency. If Christian imagery fails to ignite your horror, imagine Sauron and his slobbering Orcs. Make America great again? The decline and fall of America has begun.
History may repeat itself. In 2016, Fox News reported that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich advocated a new House Un-American Activities Committee to combat Islamic terrorism “as a blueprint for weeding out American ISIS adherents and sympathizers.” Rejuvenating one of the grossest travesties of American injustice should be grounds for treason.
By all means, enjoy your red toenails, marriage, and sexuality. That is what our heroes and heroines fought for. Just remember that they stood up and paid painful prices. Someday, you and I will have to make a stand.
As Prior declares in the last line of Part One, “The Great Work begins.”