In novels such as People in Trouble and Rat Bohemia, Sarah Schulman argued that homophobia leads to an institutionalized callousness toward people with AIDS. Her new, nonfiction Stagestruck takes the opposite perspective, examining how the most pervasive forms of mass communication have circulated false notions of homosexuality that then trickle down into the work of individual artists.
In her juicy chapter “The Dirt,” Schulman examines the ways in which the late Jonathan Larson’s megahit musical Rent lifted plot and characters from her 1990 People in Trouble. But Larson’s real crime, from Schulman’s point of view, isn’t artistic laziness, but that he transformed her characters into bland, “acceptable” versions of gay life. All the heroes are straight, the lesbians monstrous bitches, and the only dramatic function served by gay PWAs is to die, while the straight ones return to life to belt out the stirring finale.
Schulman builds this example into broader commentary on the falsification of gay culture. Her chapter on mainstream gay magazines is loaded with scathing and anger-inspiring analysis. Glossies like Out, The Advocate, and Genre, Schulman believes, have made a dangerous pact with high-paying advertisers. Together, they’ve forged a construction of gay men as wealthy, happy, healthy (no terminal illness, please), largely asexual, and mostly white–the perfect niche market. This phony, truncated image seeps into the general culture, providing artists like Larson the fake imagery of homosexuality that they then incorporate into their work.
What Schulman asks is simple: Must we continue sacrificing the memories of those who have died in this epidemic to hawk another album, a T-shirt, and a bottle of Absolut? Her answer in this powerful, provocative work is equally direct: Don’t lie about our lives.