Last Saturday, October 11, was National Coming Out Day, when the privately gay among us are encouraged to go public.
As it happens, in the South End neighborhood of Boston, Saturday also marked the final performance of Bent, a chilling two-act drama that handsomely illustrates why coming out can be a terrible and deadly idea.
We’ll call it an unfortunate coincidence.
The play, first performed in 1979—with no less than Ian McKellen as its original leading man—chronicles the torture, imprisonment and mass murder of gays by Nazi Germany before and during World War II. (At the time, “bent” was another word for “queer.”)
For all that European Jews suffered as a singular target of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich during the Holocaust, Bent argues that the plight of the continent’s homosexuals, while not on the same scale, was no less ugly—and far less known by the public, then and now.
(From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Between 1933-45, an estimated 100,000 men [in Germany] were arrested as homosexuals, and of these, some 50,000 […] were sentenced. Most of these men spent time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 of the total sentenced were incarcerated in concentration camps.”)
The Boston production of Bent, performed by the Zeitgeist Stage Company, centers on a volcanic performance by local actor Victor Shopov as Max, a promiscuous gay coke user/dealer in 1930s Berlin. In the opening scene in his apartment, Max witnesses his one-night stand getting his throat slashed by a group of bloodthirsty SS officers as part of Hitler’s 1934 crackdown known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” Soon enough, Max and his boyfriend, Rudy, are themselves apprehended and forced aboard a train for Dachau, from whence they will never return.
Upon arriving at the camp—in the play’s most controversial sequence—Max finds a two-tiered system amongst his fellow prisoners: There are the Jews, who are made to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing at all times, and there are the gays, branded with an inverted pink triangle. While the Third Reich abhors and mistreats both groups, an inmate explains to Max that homosexuals are considered the lowest life form of all.
Quick-thinking schemer that he is, Max endeavors—successfully—to convince the prison guards that he is Jewish and not gay, in order to secure a yellow star and (comparatively) favorable treatment.
That’s right: As the Holocaust was getting underway, certain victims determined—perhaps rightly—that assuming a Jewish identity was the least bad option.
That, in short, is what it meant to be gay in Germany in 1934. That was the reward for “coming out” as the person you really were.
(How, you may ask, does Max go about “proving” to the Nazis that he is heterosexual? The phrase “you don’t want to know” may be an overused cliché, but in this case, you really don’t.)
Faced with this horrifying yet undeniable epoch in recent human history, we could content ourselves with the belief that the tenets of Nazism have long since vanished from the Earth, replaced by such appealing alternatives as pluralism, tolerance and democracy. That announcing you are gay—or merely being suspected of it—is not the potential death sentence that it once was, and that everyone today is free to be precisely who they are.
We could say these things as many times as we like, but they wouldn’t be any less of a lie. The point of Bent—much like every creative work ever made about the Holocaust—is that the past is never really past, and that all the evils perpetuated by preceding generations are forever at risk of reasserting themselves in all corners of the globe. That is, when they haven’t been there the whole time.
When it comes to the systematic persecution of gay people, the contemporary examples thereof are almost too numerous to count, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. When open homosexuals are not being rounded up and massacred by the score—as they are, in some cases—they are being denied the basic dignity and autonomy of straight people through legal proscriptions on their employment, their sex lives and their freedoms of speech, assembly and expression.
I underline this grim reality—on the heels of National Coming Out Day, no less—because, as I have said before, this is the best time in the history of the world to be gay. A closet case in 2014 has fewer reasons to remain as such than anyone at any other point in time—particularly here in America, where gay marriage did not exist in 2003 but is now legal in 29 states and counting.
(I would be remiss not to mention that Berlin, where the Bent horror show begins, has had a gay mayor since June 2001.)
In other words, the act of coming out is probably always going to suck in one way or another. For the typical person, it will never be an easy or obvious thing to do and will forever carry all sorts of risks, even though the rewards are as legion as ever before.
I realize this is about as ambivalent as coming out advice can possibly be, and slightly less than encouraging for someone currently weighing the pros and cons, knowing that in announcing one’s homosexuality, there is no turning back.
However, as a general rule—and based on personal experience—I maintain that being honest about your sexual identity is a prerequisite to true happiness in life. Coming out does not solve every problem, but staying in the closet means denying yourself the possibility of being loved by another person. In the absence of that possibility, the pursuit of happiness—the notion of having a fulfilling life—is not merely difficult, but impossible.
The moment I first took coming out seriously was seeing Gus Van Sant’s movie Milk, because it showed how much fun being openly gay can be—particularly for someone with an outsized interest in politics. From then, it took me about eight months to work up the nerve to break the news to my closest friends, and another three years to tell my parents, who provided unconditional support without batting an eyelash. That I could have ever feared otherwise, in retrospect, seems just plain silly.
But I am not necessarily typical. In this and other ways, I consider myself just about the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, with a loving family in an open and welcoming society. I have never suffered because of what I think or who I am, and have never felt that pursuing my true desires was either dangerous or brave.
And so seeing a play like Bent, as I did on Friday, was as much of an eye-opening experience for me as it would be for the average straight person, since it takes place in an environment no less alien to my own than, say, the story of Anne Frank, even though she, like me, was a Jew.
In perhaps the play’s most audacious moment, Max and his most trusted fellow prisoner, Horst, stand several feet apart, both looking straight ahead, and begin a steadily-intensifying erotic verbal exchange that would put a present-day phone sex hotline to shame.
You see, the two of them have been employed by the SS in the task of carrying a large pile of heavy stones from one end of a field to the other and back again, 12 hours per day, every day until further notice. This exercise, they soon understand, has no purpose except to slowly drive them both insane and squelch any hope they might have of ever getting out of Dachau. What is more, under no circumstances are they permitted to touch or make eye contact—a detail torn straight from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four—and speaking to each other is frowned upon as well. At the start, a heavily-armed guard assures them, “I will always be watching.”
In this environment—one that is inhuman by design—they decide to make love the only way they can. Yes, it might get them killed, and it certainly won’t improve their physical circumstances in any case. It doesn’t matter: Their love for each other has become unavoidable and, to them, is worth following through on. Their act of love is also an act of defiance. Before they die, they are going to live.
That, finally, is why coming out is worth it in the end: Because it’s the key not just to happiness, but to life itself. There isn’t one without the other.