Then and now.
By Blake Hayes
“We will win equal rights,” said Harvey Fierstein, reading from his open letter to President Obama.
It was February 2009, just three months after the bittersweet 2008 election: Obama had won, but so had California’s Prop. 8. “We need a hero, and you have been elected.”
Fierstein was reading his fiery letter to a packed New York City theater that night, as part of a celebrity benefit concert and fundraiser for LGBT rights held at the Gershwin Theatre, the home of Broadway’s Wicked.
With the touring version of the popular musical in Houston this month, I’ve been thinking back to that concert, which featured live and recorded appearances from stars like Jane Fonda, Cyndi Lauper, Nathan Lane, Keith Olbermann, Elton John, Rue McClanahan—even the original cast of Sesame Street. It was a powerful night and an important reminder of how many people we have on our side. But it was Harvey Fierstein’s letter to Obama that I remember most vividly. “Mr. President, we need you to be more than another reasonable voice,” he said. “We need you to raise yourself up out of the mire of majority opinion. We need you to rise above the daily politics of compromise.”
This was only a month after Obama had begun his first term, and long before he came out in support of marriage equality. At the time, Fierstein’s frustration with the president’s backtracking on gay issues reflected my own: “Had we been fooled?” so many of us asked. I remember thinking that Obama would be different. I believed we had an advocate. But then he invited an antigay pastor to pray at his inauguration, and he stopped talking about gay rights.
Maybe Fierstein’s letter sticks so prominently in my brain because of the comparison he made between Obama and Lincoln. President Lincoln had adjusted his views on race substantially before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Obviously time and experience brought Mr. Lincoln to what would have been called the extremist view; that freedom cannot be compromised just to appease the majority,” Fierstein read passionately. He called on President Obama to “mount that bully pulpit our blood, sweat, and tears have erected, and speak to the greater ideal. . . . That, dear son of Lincoln, is the grand gesture we need from you.”
Fast forward four years, and I think Harvey Fierstein would write a much different letter today! We’ve abolished “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” won marriage victories in several more states, and the president has come out not only in support of marriage equality, but, in his second inauguration speech, called for full federal benefits for married same-sex couples. It may have taken a while, but the “grander gesture” Fierstein demanded has finally been extended.
As I get ready to see this iconic musical again in Houston, I can’t help but appreciate how far we’ve come in four short years. Since that night when the normally dark Broadway theater was opened for a Monday night rally, life for LGBT Americans has improved greatly, both socially and legally. But the progress we’ve made is built on the shoulders of folks like the ones on stage that night calling for change, and on events like that “Defying Inequality” concert. They raised something like $400,000 for a handful of LGBT groups that night, and the producers of Wicked donated a substantial chunk of the total themselves. (Equality may be priceless, but it isn’t won cheaply.)
So this month, if you venture downtown to see Elphaba, Glinda, and the Wizard, rest assured you’re supporting an entity that supports us. Not just because it’s musical theater, but because they’ve put their money where their (green) mouth is. That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering Wicked’s storyline: a girl who was simply born different is made to feel inferior, and finds herself at odds with a society that discriminates against her based on misunderstandings. Sounds familiar, no?
Where will we be in another four years? Can we achieve a nationwide ban on job discrimination for LGBT employees? Will the right for all of us to marry our partners finally be won? What about donating blood, or living without the threat of housing discrimination? These are just some of the goals that a redrafted letter to Obama should include. And—even more so than four years ago—they are all within our reach, as long as we keep pushing forward down that yellow-brick road to full equality.
We can all take our cue from Elphaba as we strive to reach our destination: “I’m through accepting limits ’cause someone says they’re so. Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know!”
And yes, Harvey, we will win equal rights.
Blake Hayes is the morning host at Mix 96.5 KHMX.