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Harvey Fierstein on Love, Broadway, Secrets, Addiction, and Fighting Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Harvey Fierstein tells Tim Teeman why bigots are emotionally dead, intellectually dead, and historically dead, and talks Broadway success, love, suicide, and alcohol addiction.

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Some are very funny. He recounts a crush on Richard Chamberlain, and how he asked the Dr. Kildare actor to fulfill a (chaste) long-held dream of his one night. (I think our time has come and gone, Fierstein says today, with a chuckle.) He talks about growing up gay in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and finding his way in the arty demi-monde of New York, the Stonewall Riots, the AIDS era, experimental theater, the long gestation of the multi-Tony Award-winning Torch Song Trilogy, acting opposite Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, encountering Andy Warhol, trying to take his own life, heart surgery, alcoholism, Hairspray (another Tony Award), Ginger Rogers homophobia (yes, really), playing Bella Abzug on stage, and his attempts at finding love.

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It is a rich, beautifully written portrait of a life, and an instructive, extremely personal sweep of theatrical, pop cultural, and LGBTQ history. You can hear his voice in every anecdote. Fierstein even finally tells a key truth about his own life and its intersection with Torch Song Trilogy, after many years of lying to those who had askedand it was his brother who unlocked it after a performance of the 2018 Broadway revival.

This adventure is one of determination, rather than ambition, he says. I never said I wanted to be a Broadway star. Even writing the book, do you think, Wouldnt it be great to be a New York Times bestseller? Sure, but did I think it would ever be a reality? No, I didnt. Youre working your ass off every day putting your heart onto the page and just hope people like it.

His father died young, at 63, just when Fierstein had gotten his Equity card. He insisted the family be close, and Fierstein and his brother still are. His mother initially didnt have the knowledge to deal with his homosexuality. She didnt have the vocabulary, didnt have the emotional knowledge, the social knowledge. All she had was a mothers fear that her son was going to be unhappy and miserable, and get arrested.

He writes in the book that eventually his mother became a great ally, delivering meals for the charity Gods We Deliver, and working with young LGBTQ people. Thats the point of trying to educate the general public. You tell them the truth, so they dont live in fear.

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That is particularly acute now, with over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills in Republican-run state legislatures, and a return of the lies and poisonous Republican rhetoric of LGBTQ people grooming young people.

Fierstein condemns the bans on young trans people playing sports at school and accessing gender-affirming healthcare, as well as Floridas Dont Say Gay bill. Science says you cannot go backwards. You cant go back to where you were. You can make-believe you can go back to where you were, but you cant unlearn something. Pandoras Box never closes again. I have a great anger towards these people obviouslythat they dare to say we are not citizens and that there is something wrong with us, blah, blah, blah. On the other hand, I have great sympathy for them because they are dead. They are emotionally dead, intellectually dead, historically dead. When you want to go backwards, youre not alive anymore. Youre not experiencing life.

Fierstein says there is a saying among antique dealersthat if you want to get rich, sell people back their childhoods. Think of that penny candy you had as a child. Now youre 60 walking through an antiques mall, you see it, and you pay 50 dollars for that penny candy. Youre trying to get that memory back. But you cant. You cant go back. Thats not living, thats remembering, and these people with their Make America Great Again are just frightened of change. Were all frightened of change. But you cant change change. It doesnt work that way. You cant stand still. You cant breathe that breath again. Its not possible. So, they scream and yell. Theyre letting their fear run them, not their bravery.

Theres nothing brave about these people. They hide behind their Bibles. They hide behind their memories. They hide behind everything. They do not live. Theyre the walking dead. We have far too many of these old people in our government. I have nothing against old people, but I do think we need to get them out of our government. When I think of people like Chuck Grassleythese old men who havent heard anything said to them in 50 years, who havent had a new thoughtthats not my country.

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What we see as a great adventure of life they see as trying to steal their happiness, their peaceful deaths. They just want to live out their days, saying Stop challenging me, stop making me think about new things. I just want to watch The Andy Griffith Show on TV. I believe in young people. I believe the world must be run by young people. They will guide us to where we need to go.

Fierstein believes that while Republican legislatures are successfully passing anti-LGBTQ legislation, and whipping up hatred against LGBTQ people, right now, that ultimately they will lose. Look at Putin. Hes trying to do the same thing, to somehow return to the glory days of the USSR. Hes like, Why are the Ukrainians fighting me so hard? Because you are dead, you are the past. These are living people. Eventually, you are going to lose.

What would he say to trans kids living through these times of intense prejudice, vitriol, and bullying?

You must be yourself. You cant be somebody else, or try to be somebody else, because that is suicide. In my book Sissy Duckling, one of the things I write is, Be brave, be you. My generation fought the battle of sexuality. Our job was to somehow get the heterosexual, normative idea out of the way, to say that being gay was just as normal, just as much part of the human experience as being straight. Obviously, we are still working on that or there wouldnt be 300-plus anti-LGBTQ bills. This next generations focus is around gender. And so I get in line and take my place behind them in the army of right.

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American playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein stands in leather vest and bow tie in front of the marquee of the Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes Theatre) where his semi-autobiographical play, 'Torch Song Trilogy,' is playing, 240 West 44th Street, New York, early 1980s. The play was later made into a movie.

In the book, he writes about watching Torch Song anew in the Broadway revival in 2018, and the transformation of a play that was once dangerous into something joyous. The sting of Arnolds mothers rejection remained the same, but the LGBTQ audience had changed. From being too frightened to go see it, they now hold it up as part of their history and lives.

Fierstein recalls fighting the good LGBTQ fight on TV at a time when there was little visibility. Today he says vociferously it was never my job to be a figurehead. The hardest part of my job was to tell everybody that I represent no one but myself, because no one can represent the entire gay experience. Its just not possible. Were too much of a rainbow of experience. The hardest thing was to say, Yes, Im gay. No, I dont represent all homosexuals. Nobody elected me to shit.

Indeed, he says, when he wrote Torch Song Trilogy he was screamed at by some within the LGBTQ community who objected to the portrayal of a gay man wanting what looked like a conventional marriage. Or: Youre just trying to turn us into heterosexuals, as Fierstein says.

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You cant win with our people, we are such a bitchy lot, he adds. Were so negative so many times. Theres still a level of self-loathing in our community that pops up every now and again that says we dont deserve freedom. He sees it as a hangover of sorts from the era of activism of the Mattachine Society, whose members would wear dark suits and ties and hold placards aloft. Even if it was born of a very different time, Fierstein thinks there is an element of LGBTQ thinking that if we look like them they will accept us, they will accept us. It wasnt true then, and its not true now. Nobody goes out of their way to accept somebody different unless they are forced to. Its just human nature.

In the book, Fierstein writes powerfully about the moment and aftermath of trying to commit suicide many years ago. It really was exhaustion. On every level. I really felt I had fought enough, I really felt I had done enough. I survived the AIDS era, I did the best I could. I survived all these political battles. I fought as hard as I could. I had my successes in several fields. I was dead. The alcohol does that to you. If you take depression and the exhaustion and put the alcohol on top of it, its a very bad combination, cookie. A very bad combination. Alcohol is a depressant, right? So if youre already depressed and then drinking half a gallon of Southern Comfort every day, youre not going to end up in a good place.

Did he really mean to kill himself?

Cookie, I didnt leave any note. If you want to know if someone is really serious, theyre not going to leave you a note. I knew if I wrote a note, people would say I was wrong. I worked it so that nobody would find me for at least two days.

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He woke up the next day and called a friend who was in Al-Anon (the group for families and friends of alcoholics), and asked for help to find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I was ready to be reborn, as it were. In AA they call it surrender. I was ready to say, OK, doing it my way has led me to a garage, let me try it your way.' Today, Fierstein confesses to not going to as many meetings as I should. Im a bad boy. Ive been sober 26 years, and most of my friends are sober. There is no one in my life who doesnt know I am clean and sober, so there is no chance of someone giving me something I shouldnt have. But I am aware that on my way home from the theater tonight I could stop and buy a bottle. Nothing stops me from buying a bottle other than 26 years of happiness.

Has his depression lifted? It has. I must be much happier than I used to be. Well, I dont put as much faith in boyfriends as I used to and thats bound to make you happy. He laughs.

Harvey Fierstein biting the ear of Matthew Broderick in publicity portrait for the film 'Torch Song Trilogy', 1988.

Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray Live! (2016).

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At the end of the book, with so much divulged, he asks on the page: Will this telling heal? So, this reporter asked, had it?

Yes, absolutely, Fierstein said. The only things that have power over you are secrets. Once you open up, once you put your secrets out there, they cant hide in the shadows anymore waiting to get you. Leonard Cohen in his song Dress Rehearsal Rag talks about memories that make you clench your fist and veins that stand out like highways all along your wrist. If you are open about your memories, if you tell someone about them, if you are honest to yourself about them they lose that power to be that frightening. Its why confession is good for Catholics. It happens in 12-step programs. You try and get that stuff out so it doesnt have that power over you anymore. Writing this book did that. A lot of stuff thats in the book is now very benign for me.

Fierstein has always lived emphatically on his own terms, even down to winding our conversation up. Alright, I am leaving you, he announced grandly suddenly at the end of a sentence. Bye, darling.

Never has a phone line gone so fabulously dead.

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