BY NAVEEN KUMAR
Harvey Fierstein knows that a play about straight transvestites is bound to raise eyebrows, and he’s hoping it does more than that. Casa Valentina, which opened on Broadway last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, has already riled up some severe backlash. “I wrote a play that you’re either going to walk away from with all of your prejudices pushed aside or brought forward,” says Fierstein.
But the play is in fact based on true stories, from men who frequented the Chevalier d’Eon Resort in the Catskills during the 50s and 60s. Think of it as summer camp for guys who prefer makeup kits to toolboxes and makeovers to car repairs. Most of the guests were family men, who escaped there to “express the girl within,” donning women’s clothes, sharing meals and performing sing-alongs.
Casa Valentina begins as what might have been a typical summer at the resort, but for the arrival of Charlotte (played by Reed Birney), a character based on Virginia Prince. An activist for transgendered men and the publisher of Transvestia magazine, Prince was also virulently anti-homosexual.
In the play, Charlotte attempts to recruit the guests of Casa Valentina to her nationally recognized sorority of transvestite men—on the condition they agree to ban gays from their ranks. If a straight man in a dress is the first hard pill to swallow, a perfectly coiffed and intensely homophobic one is even more outrageous.
I spoke to Harvey about gay people’s responses to the play, if homophobia can ever be justified, and whether you should feel bad about saying ‘tranny.’
Naveen Kumar: What was your initial approach to writing this play?
Harvey Fierstein: I knew about the resort from my childhood, because my father grew up in the Catskills. Years later I saw the book of photographs, Casa Susanna [published in 2005 by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, who discovered a wealth of snaps from the resort at a New York flea market]. [A group of producers] came to me and begged me to write a play. I thought, you know it’s cute—a bunch of straight guys go up and put on dresses, but really? A play?
But there’s something about the photographs. There’s a certain calmness, a happiness and a freedom [to them]. It’s not like looking at pictures of drag queens. There’s a nervous energy to drag queens—they’re projecting forward, they’re pushing out at you, they’re trying to show you something. They’re not being. These people in these photographs, there’s a sort of relaxed happiness, which I didn’t understand.
CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...
So, I started reading. I read some psychological studies from back then on transvestites and I discovered Transvestia magazine, which Virginia Prince published and Susana [on whom the character of Valentina is based] wrote for. I was put in touch with Katherine Cummings, a transgendered woman who had been a guest at the Chevalier d’Eon resort [where the play takes place].
It was like a detective story: Suddenly I discovered this moment in time , before what we think of as the sexual revolution and yet it was laying the groundwork for it. I thought, here we are in 2014 with a whole LGBT community, but there’s no “T” for transvestites. We folded in every other sort of person, and I thought that was an interesting question—how they decided to separate out. So I found this story I wanted to tell, one that we don’t know anything about.
NK: Today, even men who claim to be bisexual can face skepticism from gay men (i.e., it’s just a pit stop en route to gay town). So, for audiences to buy transvestites as genuinely straight is a challenge. Was that something you considered going into this?
HF: What I learned, and what I tried to express in the play no two people are alike. It’s total bulls–t to say that gay people are all alike: It’s not true. Banding together because we sort of have something in common is a kind of a lie, and cuts you off from the rest of the world.
That’s what transvestites did, they cut themselves off from the rest of world and ended up alone. There are no two people in the play who dress for the same reason, who are the same sexually. There are probably no two people on this planet who are identical in that way.
When it comes to sexuality there is black to white and we’re all somewhere in the greys. The same goes for our gender identity. There’s black being female and white being male, and all the infinite choices in between. Your body image fits into that as well. There are no two people who see themselves exactly alike in that way. So, when you take gender and sexuality and blend them together, it’s infinitely impossible for you to be exactly like somebody else.
It’s bulls–t to say ‘the straight community’ or ‘the gay community,’ we are all individual, if we’re going to tell the truth, and be ourselves and ask the important questions. Do I believe there are heterosexual transvestites? Of course, I do. I know several. Gender identity can have absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. Are there transvestites who are more fluid than that? Of course there are.
Virginia Prince herself [on whom Charlotte is based] was virulently anti-gay and yet we know that she had sex with men. But because she was a woman, it was heterosexual sex. Are you going to call her a liar? Maybe you would say she’s in denial, but you’re not experiencing the world in her skin.
She would say you can’t express the girl within unless you express the male without. So, you had to be male part of the time and female part of the time in order to be a whole human being—that was her philosophy.
NK: It’s tempting to read that phobia as repressed homosexuality and self-hate, even as some characters in the play insist otherwise (while wearing dresses!). But, you’ve said you think that separation of gender and sexuality is totally possible.
HF: It is. We have our own prejudices when it comes to a story like this. There are going to be a lot of people who say, ‘This couldn’t have been,’ or that I don’t know what I’m talking about. The truth is I’ve worked very hard to make sure I’m expressing it right, and I don’t come to conclusions in the play. Because I think it’s bulls–t to come to conclusions when I know the truth isn’t the same for any two people.
These men believed—remember we’re talking 1962, before Stonewall, before liberation—that no decent, God-fearing society would every accept homosexuals as normal. So, in the play Charlotte is speaking politically. The feeling was, we kill two birds with one stone by banning homosexuals: We get our wives to understand that we don’t want to have sex with each other (which, like I said was not true of everyone) and we tell society there’s no reason to be frightened of us, because we’re not looking at your dicks.
There was somebody online, a gay man, who actually said I wrote an anti-gay play. Like, ‘We all know that heterosexuals hate us, why does Harvey have to rub our faces in it?’ But, for the time, I believe Charlotte was absolutely right. I think her choice was wrong for many reasons, but I could see why she made that conclusion, can’t you?
HF: Let me give you an example closer to your life. There’s been a whole rash of stories about gay men sleeping with children. And you’re about to come out as gay to your family. How do you handle the subject of pederasts with your family? Don’t you say, ‘I’m not them, they’re not me?’
NK: But in making that comparison, you’re asking me to consider a parallel between homosexuality and pederasty as both deviant. Homosexuality isn’t deviant.
HF: You’re making a decision about what’s deviant! The point is that you’re willing to stand up for who you are and your group, but you’re not going to take on the sins of someone else. You draw your lines, sometimes they’re bizarre and sometimes they make sense. What men do in prison, is that homosexual sex?
My mind was so closed when I started doing this research, I thought much the same as you do now. I thought to myself, ‘Anybody who said this s–t was probably gay and just hiding.’ There can be denial in there, but maybe not—maybe their experience of the world is different.
Katherine Cummings, who frequented the resort when she was 27, is a transgendered woman whose greatest tragedy is that she still loves her wife physically and emotionally, and would be with her if her wife would accept her. Her wife’s opinion was, ‘I’m not a lesbian. I didn’t sign up to be with a woman.’ Well, Katherine isn’t really a lesbian either.
Once you break it down to the individual, all those labels become kind of silly. The only people I now think of as totally in denial are people who think we’re all the same—that call themselves heterosexual, ‘I’m heterosexual and that’s normal.’ That’s bullshit. It may be that they’re heterosexual—but there’s no normal.
We all make choices about how we see ourselves in the world and how we move through the world. You were sitting [at the play] next to another gay man. How would you have experienced it if you were sitting next to your mother? Or your father? There are so many variations to our experience of the world, if I can change your experience of a play, what can I do to you if I offered you the variety of sexuality that’s out there, or the variety of gender choices?
It’s only when you say: ‘No. No. No. I am. I am. I am. I’m done making choices.’ That in my view of the world, you’re done living. But, life is really exciting if you’re willing to say, ‘OK, let me really have a look at who I am.’
What I found doing this play is that these people were the pioneers of asking those questions. I’m not saying any of the things they did were right, I’m just saying we need to look at them, we need to explore what they found, we need to ask them about their experiences, and we need not to judge them.
NK: How did you decide not to perform in the play?
HF: Because I didn’t want to confuse the issue. I knew I wanted the audience to believe these characters were heterosexual, or primarily heterosexual. I have, over the years, somehow become bigger than life in my sexuality, and I know people have prejudices. When it’s a play about questioning, is this gay or not, I thought I would be a distraction.
NK: There’s been some recent debate about sensitivity over language used inside the LGBT community referring to transgender and transsexual people (i.e. ‘tranny,’ ‘she-male’). Do you think words like these, especially since they’re primarily used inside the community, can be considered as reappropriated or that using them indicates a sort of ignorance or lack of respect?
HF: This has a lot to do with what the play is about. You have people struggling for identity and looking for a way to express who they are, specifically. So, you have this experimentation with titles. Some of them work, some of them don’t, some of them rile up this one or that one.
When we went from ‘homosexual’ to ‘gay,’ there were a bunch of people who got angry. I remember feeling personally affronted when people started using ‘queer.’ I got over it. People need to express themselves and say this works for me and that doesn’t.
Do you have a right to claim your own space and who you are? Absolutely, but you have to judge whether somebody’s trying to hurt you or not. Somebody bumps into you on the subway. Did they bump into you to steal your phone or to hurt you, or did they bump into you because they just bumped into you and they’re sorry? I think we get really silly.
But I know transvestites who don’t mind the word ‘tranny’ at all and use it constantly. Are they insulting somebody else even though they’ve reclaimed it? I think there are bigger problems in the world.
Casa Valentina runs on Broadway thru June 13 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:bruce glikas, matthew murphy and powerHouse books)