History of LGBT: Theater and Performance

Joe E Jeffreys. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

As with the arts in general, the performing arts have been a haven and arena of excellence for LGBT people. The worlds of theater and performance are no exception, and any listing of LGBT people’s contributions to these lively arts would be long and include some of the most well-known and respected artists in their fields, from playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner to actors and actresses like Eva Le Gallienne, Cherry Jones, and Nathan Lane; costume designers like Irene Sharaff and William Ivey Long; directors like George C. Wolfe and Michael Mayer; and performance artists like Holly Hughes and Kate Bornstein.

What Is LGBT Theater?

Plays with central characters that are LGBT or deal in a substantial fashion with themes or issues of same-sex sexuality or transgenderism may safely be considered LGBT plays or theater. Some argue that an author, director, or actor’s LGBT aesthetic or imprint is in many works that seemingly have little to do with LGBT subject matter or themes. Any full analysis of a work is surely enriched with a consideration of the creator’s sexuality and gender identity, whether or not the work is overtly LGBT.

LGBT theater can also describe a group of fairly recent theater companies and artists. Arising after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, this largely community-based theater phenomenon can be seen as an agitprop arts movement that came about in part to satisfy LGBT people hungry to see more positive representations of themselves. Denied these images on television or in film, LGBT people began their own theaters, staging plays that arguably reflected their realities more accurately as well as extending their own community through the bonding experiences that come along with the intensive task of staging plays. Companies like The Other Side of Silence and The Glines in New York City or the Theater Rhinoceros in San Francisco were established across the country. Yet as defined above, the history of LGBT theater in America begins much earlier.

Early LGBT Theater

Ceremonies involving Native American berdache (or two-spirit people) are arguably the starting point of LGBT theater in America. Highly regarded by their tribes, these mixed gender individuals undertook a variety of roles, including performative ones, in their communities.

LGBT characters, subjects, and themes were dealt with in European and Asian dramas long before their American counterparts. A European legacy can be traced through plays from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1594) to such works as Carle Lionel Dauriac Armory’s The Gentleman of the Chrysanthemums (1908). Likewise, in Asia as early as 1603, characters, themes, and aesthetics that today we would consider LGBT are found in kabuki dramas.

The first plays to be performed in the United States with LGBT content or characters were European imports. While LGBT people were most certainly involved in theater from the colonial period onward at all levels, from playwrights and directors to performers and producers, only a few, like nineteenth-century actress Charlotte Cushman and possibly actor Edwin Forrest, are recognized as LGBT today. The first known U.S. play with same-sex desire at its core is At Saint Judas’s, by Henry Blake Fuller. Published in 1896, its Chicago-born author is best-known as a novelist. At St. Judas’s, a highly stylized play, is a closet drama in that it appears to have been written for reading rather than performance and no record of performance is known to exist. It is also a closet drama in that it concerns the intense friendship between two men. With characters known simply as the Bride Groom and the Best Man, the play is set before a wedding ceremony where the Best Man confesses his obsessive love for the Bride Groom. Fuller’s stage directions, which include changes in the postures of the figures in the stained glass windows, leave the final images of his allegorical play of same-sex desire ambiguous, but one of the men dies on a sword.


The first Broadway plays with major LGBT characters and themes appeared in the 1920s. This decade also saw the establishment of censorship laws that forbade the production of such plays on these stages. In this period the plays staged on Broadway with major LGBT themes or characters were European in origin and concerned lesbian desire. Sholom’s Asch’s The God of Vengeance, first written in Yiddish in 1907 and presented in English on Broadway in 1923, concerns a Jewish family that runs a brothel out of its basement. The sheltered daughter of this religious home becomes involved with one of the female prostitutes. While the play had been successfully produced around the world, only after being translated into English and presented on Broadway did it attract much of an outcry over its content. The Captive, by Edouard Bourdet, translated from the French and presented on Broadway in 1926, concerns the pull a mysterious offstage female admirer has on a young bride. At the end of the play, the bride walks out on her husband.

The U.S. playwright who can rightly be credited with putting gay male characters center stage for the first time is Mae West. Primarily remembered for her over-the-top vampy film performances, West’s career began on stage, where she was enormously successful as a performer and playwright. Her 1927 play The Drag, written under the pseudonym Jane Mast, concerns the hidden gay life of a newlywed who hosts a drag ball. Rife with period camp dialogue, a sea of swish characters, and medical and legal ponderings on the subject of same-sex desire, the play was never formally presented on Broadway, but its New Jersey production caused a scandal and contributed to West’s arrest.

The production of The Captive on Broadway and the imminent threat of West’s The Drag resulted in police raids of several Broadway productions on the night of 9 February 1927. These raids led to revision of the New York State penal code. Section 1140A was amended in 1927 to prohibit the production of stage plays “depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or sex perversion.” Known as the Wales Padlock Law, under it any commercial theater presenting such work could be padlocked for a year. While enforcement of the law was threatened more than carried out in the years to come, the law remained on the books until 1967.

Broadway can be read as a cultural barometer of America’s taste and attitudes. Over the years it has had a tempestuous relationship with LGBT content but has produced many works with significant LGBT characters or concerns, including Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934), Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953), and Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George (1965). Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1982) stands as an important coming-out play as well as one of Broadway’s longest-running plays. More recently, such dramas as David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly(1988), Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993), and Richard Greenburg’s Take Me Out (2003) have added to the legacy and diversity of LGBT works that have played Broadway.

Off-Broadway, Alternative, and Community Theaters

Like Broadway, Off-Broadway is also a commercial theater form. Its somewhat more adventurous reputation and audiences make it a potentially richer ground for LGBT theater work. In fact, the birth of the idea for a separate category of Off-Broadway theaters is credited to the 1958 production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, whose central story revolves around the grisly death of its offstage gay character at the hands of a band of boy street urchins.

Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band (1968) is a landmark in LGBT plays as well as Off-Broadway theater, where it ran for over one thousand performances. In the play an eclectic group of gay men gather to celebrate a birthday at which a party game of telephone turns ugly. Off-Broadway has also produced any number of LGBT plays and playwrights from Maria Irene Fornes and Terrence McNally to works like Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1985) and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998).

Like the Off-Broadway movement, the noncommercial Off-Off Broadway movement can also be credited to a gay man. Joe Cino and his Café Cino, which opened in 1958, are viewed as the creators of Off-Off Broadway. The stage of his small New York City coffee bar nurtured early works by LGBT dramatists, including Lanford Wilson, H. M. Koutoukas, Robert Patrick, and Jeff Weiss, as well as directors like Andy Milligan.

The post-Stonewall era saw the formation of any number of LGBT theater companies across America. Mainly community theaters, these groups dedicate themselves to the production of plays with LGBT content. Developing resilience in the face of discrimination, these groups assert independence through representation. Some of the better-known companies have included San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros, New York City’s W.O.W. Café and The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS), Los Angeles’s Celebration Theater, and Minneapolis’s Out and About Theater Company. These theaters have nurtured many original works, such as Jane Chambers’ Last Summer at Blue Fish Cove (1980) and Ana Maria Simo’s Bayou(1977).

Types of LGBT Plays

Today, the most obvious type of LGBT play is the comingout play. In it characters reveal their sexuality to someone who does not know or come to accept themselves as worthwhile individuals. This type of play is exemplified by Torch Song Trilogy.

The LGBT problem play is another type. The sexuality of the character or characters is the work’s central conflict or problem, which must be resolved. In many such problem plays, the LGBT character is eliminated by the final curtain in any number of ways, from suicide to sickness or murder. Closely related to the LGBT problem play is the conversion play. There, the LGBT character is tempted by a heteronormative life. Tea and Sympathy is the classic example of a conversion play. Common plot devices in all of these types include whispering campaigns or outright accusations, as well as denials and confessions.

LGBT history plays are works in which actual events in LGBT history are enacted. While the events are historical, the dialogue is largely fictitious. Such works include Doric Wilson’s Street Theater (1982), about the Stonewall Riots, and Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979), about the experience of LGBT prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Related to this is the LGBT docudrama, in which a real life event in LGBT history is enacted and most dialogue is based on original source materials. Examples include Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice (1984), about the murder trial of Dan White, the man who killed openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, and Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company’s The Laramie Project (2000), which deals with the brutal murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. His story brought the issue of hate crimes to the fore and the docudrama was the second most produced play in America during the 2001-2002 season.

A category of theater works particular to LGBT theater are “cute boys in their underpants” plays. These works are characterized by the inordinate amount of time the performers are asked to appear in varying stages of undress and in sexually suggestive or explicit situations.

AIDS hit the performing arts communities particularly hard. Many plays and theater pieces deal with the epidemic as a subject. AIDS plays include William Hoff-man’s lyrical As Is (1985), the first Broadway play to deal with the disease; Larry Kramer’s angry Off-Broadway The Normal Heart (1985); Robert Chesley’s Jerker (1986); and Harry Kondoleon’s Zero Positive (1988). The theatrical community also responded to AIDS by founding organizations like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which raises money for AIDS-related services across America.

LGBT Performance

Performance or performance art is distinguished from theater in that it is frequently much more intimate and boundary breaking than traditional theater. Many of the form’s best-known artists are LGBT. Frequently, their work is highly autobiographical and provides direct reflection and sly relation of their experiences as an LGBTQ person. The works of solo performance artists like Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and Kate Bornstein tell stories and spin fantasies from their authors’ lives. Miller’s Naked Breath (1994) tells intimate stories of past boyfriends. Hughes’s World without End (1989) looks at her queer Michigan childhood. Bornstein’s Virtually Yours (1994) turns its transgender author and performer’s life into an Internet game. Performance groups expressing a range of LGBT life experiences include Pomo Afro Homos, Medusa’s Revenge, the Five Lesbian Brothers, and Split Britches.

In the 1990s the work of four performance artists who had received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts became the focus of a heated national debate about the content of tax-dollar-supported art. The work of three of the performance artists, Hughes, Miller, and John Fleck, dealt directly with LGBT subject matter and was labeled offensive and inappropriate for public monies by anti-LGBT activists and politicians. The NEA Four, as they became known, brought the issues of government funding, sexuality, and censorship dramatically to the foreground.

Varieties of Performance and Beyond

Recently, some scholars and artists have argued that everything can be studied as performance. Beyond narrower notions of performance or performance art lies a large swath of live art that should be adopted into the tent of LGBT theater and performance. This type of LGBT performance work includes any situation in which a performer-audience relation exists. This expansive notion includes but is not limited to such things as pride parades and nightclub, ball, or circuit party experiences. An entire and little-examined tradition of fan dancing exists in the gay male community. LGBT choirs, like the Portland Lesbian Choir or Connecticut’s Gay Men’s Chorus, as well as male burlesque theaters, including the Gaiety in New York City or the Nob Hill in San Francisco, where men strip for the pleasure of other men, are also part of the tradition. The umbrella also properly shelters “passing” as straight and “reading” as gay as a type of performance. Bathhouses and cruising can also be thought about in this way. Gay stand-up comics, singers, and performers who play a wide range of comedy clubs, piano bars, and cabarets across the country should be brought in as well. Activist demonstrations and tactics are clearly theatrical and more than merit inclusion.

Arising out of private performances at parties and LGBT bars, drag performance is perhaps indigenous to LGBT peoples and is a type of performance most frequently and closely associated with them. Female impersonation has found an appeal in mainstream theater from the days of vaudeville female impersonators like Julian Eltinge and Karyl Norman to more recent examples like RuPaul. Variously outlawed and policed across the country at various times, the LGBT community has always supported and championed drag performers like Jose Sarria, Ethyl Eichelberger, and Lypsinka and drag theater troupes like San Francisco’s The Cockettes and New York City’s Theater Couture.

As the lines of identity politics shifted in the 1990s, the notion of queer theater, as distinct from lesbian or gay theater, gained popularity. Queer theater, like queer politics, is more in your face and aggressively skewed in aesthetics or approach than LGBT theater, much in the same way that theater is distinct from performance.

Is “LGBT” Still a Useful Category?

The tradition of LGBT theater and performance traces its origins deep into the taproots of U.S. drama. LGBT peoples have historically proven some of the genre’s most elite and accomplished artists.

Plays with LGBT content can still cause protests and firestorms. However, as LGBT characters become an increasingly more integrated presence on stages, a call for a special category for LGBT plays or performance seems less and less useful. This has not always been the case. Immediately after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the idea of a category of LGBT works, whether they be in theater, literature, or visual arts, took hold. As identity politics solidified, the notion of LGBT works was empowering and established a tradition. Artists of all types, however, like playwright and Ridiculous Theatrical Company founder Charles Ludlam, resist labels. They argue that the term LGBT theater ghettoizes their work.

Any play or performance should be judged on its own merits. Consideration of themes and sexuality are frequently relevant to a full appreciation or understanding. A great play or performance, however, is a great play or performance regardless of its themes or the sexuality of its creators or performers.