We are in New York for a long weekend, and last night, my husband, son and I went to see the Broadway musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. We’d loved the movie when it came out in the early 90s…a poignant, funny depiction of life from the perspective of three Australian drag queens.
The show was full of energy–with fabulous consumes, special effects and good music. The audience clearly loved it; there was lots of laughter and a standing ovation. But it was no longer the bittersweet portrayal of nonconformity that I remembered.
The world has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and as much as I use this space to complain about our increasingly bizarre political class, our gilded age economics and our collective historical amnesia, much of that change should be applauded.
When I first saw Priscilla, a lot of people still equated “gay” with “drag queen.” And those who were drag queens were objects of scorn within what a friend of mine called the “straight” gay community. The violence encountered by the protagonists was pretty common, and the notion that each of us should be free to be whatever it is we are was not part of the culture’s messaging.
As we were walking back to my son’s apartment, we talked about the cultural shift that made Priscilla resonate so differently a mere fifteen years later. While homophobia is still present and violence not nearly as rare as it should be, we have seen a sea change–especially in cities. (Rural and small-town America is a different story, although even there, things are better.) And it isn’t just better for the GLBT community; it is better for women and other minorities. When I was growing up, all the social messages I received defined a woman’s role very narrowly; women weren’t lawyers or college professors unless they were too unattractive to find a husband, and our worth was judged largely on how successful that husband was and how well our children turned out. Most of the African-Americans I met were servants, and if I knew anyone who was Hispanic or Muslim, I was unaware of it.
I’m approaching a very big birthday, and I’ve been mulling over the challenges and lessons that come with getting old. But living a long time also gives you a perspective that isn’t available to young people. From my perspective (which is clearly not shared by a whole lot of people), the cultural shifts during my lifetime have been primarily positive.
Constructing a society that celebrates our individuality and enables personal autonomy is a good thing, even if it makes an occasional Broadway show seem like a period piece.