By Victor L. Shopov, actor
Working on the Lyric’s production of The Temperamentals has been quite the educational experience, not just in terms of the history lesson it has provided, but as a reinforcement of a famous French proverb of which I have always been fond: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Like other, similar battles throughout history, the gay rights movement in the United States, the roots of which are explored in this production, is one defined by the collision of two starkly different groups of people: those who would deny people their rights, and those who would fight to protect those rights.
Six decades later, not much has changed.
Politics play a central role throughout the production, with references to the rising Red Scare, Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, and the country’s inaction during the onset of the Holocaust. The common thread, as with most things, is the human element – what people are and are not willing to do based upon what is politically convenient or what is socially acceptable.
The 1950’s is often seen as a golden age in the United States – a post-war emergence of American supremacy coinciding with political and cultural consensus and conformity. Unfortunately, such conformity meant that challenging the status quo was simply not “acceptable.” Racism, bigotry, ignorance, and the scapegoating of minorities were commonplace, and went unchallenged for far too long. While I would like to think we have reached a point of enlightenment where such traits are less prevalent, one need only cast a quick glance at the current presidential race to see that, in fact, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The quest for elected office has always been marked by the unfortunate implementation of the politics of division – setting one group against another in a twisted cost/benefit analysis resulting in the most efficient net gain of votes. A cursory search of public comments by certain presidential candidates yields a plethora of remarks that can only be described as ignorant, inflammatory, and divisive.
In other words, they have achieved their desired result.
For all of the progress that has been made in recent years, we still live in a country where a civil institution is permitted to be discriminatory, where sheltering bullies under the guise of “religious freedom” is deemed more important than protecting their victims, and where an entire segment of the population is openly derided by unabashed politicians, lacking any semblance of remorse, for no reason other than to earn votes from those holding a very narrow, prejudicial view of the world.
And yet, while the battle itself remains the same, the battlefield has largely changed. Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society were forced to work largely in secret for fear of reprisal. Today, the campaign for equal rights is fought in the open. That transition alone is progress.
It is said that the tides of history ebb and flow, and while forward progress is occasionally marked by backward steps, ultimately, change does come. Perceptions shift, hearts and minds are changed, and the slow march of progress goes on.
Some things will forever stay the same. But, with determination and perseverance, what is right will ultimately prevail and endure, and those who fought to make it so – Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and countless others, will not soon be forgotten.