It may not be the Age of Aqueerius, but surely it’s some kind of watershed when two male wrestlers tie the knot. That’s sort of what happened on the Smackdown show last week, when Billy and Chuck—who look like the cloned spawn of Siegfried, Roy, and a pork butt—stepped up to take their wedding vows. GLAAD sent the grappling grooms a gravy boat as a gift, and its entertainment media director, Scott Seomin, offered this benediction: “Bringing camp to the masses is always a good thing.”
Camp has long been a way for gay men to savage straight society while acknowledging its power. That pro wrestlers, the ultimate emblems of kitsch, should take a campy attitude toward same-sex marriage shows how the tables have turned. Now it’s gay society that may be mocked yet must be respected. Of course, the homage only goes so far. At the moment of truth, Billy and Chuck announced that they were actually straight and abandoned the altar for a brawl. The real measure of change will be when an unrepentant queer wrestler enters the arena without blunting his desire—or his will to win—in charade.
The repression of gay aggression is at the heart of homophobia. This is no less true than it was in the bad old pre-lib days. Thirty years of agitation have brought us homosexual gentlemen, sitcom sodomites, out-and-proud politicians, and fey balladeers; but not queer warriors—not in the culture, anyway. Show me a homo with a gun and I’ll show you the premise of a horror film.
It’s still necessary to maintain the illusion that only straight men can kick ass. To demonstrate otherwise is to raise the ever present dread of rape that animates so many nightmares about homosexuals. Any pushy queer is regarded as a threat to the sphincter of man and God. To worship a gay champion merely places this ravishment fantasy on a more sublimated plane. No wonder the closet remains such a crucial institution in sports long after it has lost its purpose in less exalted professions. Aggression is the most provocative image any homosexual can project, which is why it’s such a hot homo fantasy—and why Richard Greenberg’s new play, Take Me Out, is the hottest gay ticket in town.
It’s not just the beefy shower scenes (after all, you can see the same thing at the Y with raunchier results). The most arousing thing about this rumination on American masculinity is the event that sets the plot in motion. When a baseball icon goes public about his homosexuality, the team’s spirit sags. This is no surprise, since the real threat posed by pushy queers is not to the sphincter but to the system by which men organize themselves. But Take Me Out is not just a fairy-in-the-woodpile problem play. Greenberg has created an all-star as arrogant and aggressive as a queer character gets. He’s not evil, but he sure is predatory in a pinch.
To an audience raised on images of the killer queer, à la Hitchcock and De Palma, it’s riveting to see a homo who can toy with other men, tap into their fears, and pay them back remorselessly without dying in the final act. Greenberg has been praised for creating a morally complex gay character, but the real power of Take Me Out is that its protagonist takes it out—on other men rather than himself. The play is smart enough to show the numbness that underlies this strategy, but sassy enough to let us feel the power of hitting back. Thelma & Louise it ain’t, but neither is it Will & Grace.
There’s nothing like a revival to reveal the contours of change. In that respect, you might check out the new production of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 crowd pleaser, Burn This. It’s almost a mirror image of Take Me Out. Here, the “problem” is posed by a pushy straight man who enters the sterile lives of a trio of Downtown types, wrecking their order. I don’t mean to dismiss Wilson’s grasp of character when I say that the play adheres to a schema. The macho intruder signifies a force of nature, and naturally this proves irresistible to the classy woman who initially rebuffs him. The only threat he represents is to the two men who serve as his feeble foils: the woman’s wealthy, enervated boyfriend and her nervous, devoted roommate. Needless to say, this loveless helpmeet is gay.
Even in 1987, this configuration didn’t sit well with acute critics. As Michael Feingold noted at the time, the roommate is basically a gay update of the tart-tongued female sidekick that had become a hoary stereotype. Casting a queer in this role made it new again. Indeed, the subaltern gay male is so appealing to the liberal sense of decency that it still flourishes in glitzy comedies featuring dynamic women and their well-groomed gay companions. You won’t find these humane homos itching for a fight. In Burn This, the gay roomie shrinks from combat, taking all sorts of abuse from the macho stud. In the end, he makes a pitch (unsuccessful, natch) to blow the rejected boyfriend.
There’s a gay neurotic in Take Me Out as well. He’s a repressed accountant turned frantic fan, and he also serves as a bittersweet foil. But Greenberg pins the play’s most eloquent message on this character, making him a repository for the hunger to connect that all fans share. The queer nerd becomes just another guy, with real sexual desire, but not for an unavailing straight man. The object of his devotion is the all-star, and by allowing a budding romance between the rogue and the wimp, Greenberg offers an image of psychic unity that is much like the one Wilson no doubt intended to project. Burn This wants us to see a relationship between the capacity for aggression and the ability to connect. But in 1987, it wasn’t possible to present a pushy gay character; not if you were looking for the audience’s sympathy. Today it is. The queer aggressor is an image whose time has come—at least in the theater, that bastion of gay power.
A good play can be an audition for life. Still, watching Burn This in its latest incarnation made me wonder about the inevitability of change. The play actually may have gained credibility in this post-9-11 age of the righteous stud. As for the gay man who clings to his subordination, no one in the audience I was part of seemed to mind. In fact, he got a standing ovation. But what if this brittle little ?it had sucker punched the macho invader as soon as he uttered the word faggot—and teamed up with the woman to throw the stud out? Would the audience have left the theater reassured, or would they have felt the twinge in the sphincter that keeps the order intact?