It’s good that South Carolina Upstate university has canceled its presentation of Leigh Hendrix’s one-woman show How To Be a Lesbian In 10 Days or Less, because now Hendrix won’t have to contend with people shouting “fewer!” whenever she says the title. Maybe that wouldn’t have been a problem at SC Upstate. Regardless, satirically-named South Carolina senator Mike Fair (R–Greenville) has convinced the university to shut down the satirically-named play, arguing that it was a recruiting tool for homosexuality. Fair, you fool—any theater on a college campus is a recruiting tool for homosexuality. Also, you played quarterback for the Cocks. But biography is orthogonal here. All we care about is the text, because it’s time for another Close Reading.
Here’s Fair on why it’s okay to be a lesbian but not okay to become one:
It’s just not normal and then you glorify, or it seems to me, that the promotion at USC is a glorification of same sex orientation…That’s not an explanation of ‘I was born this way.’ It’s recruiting.
Besides approaching English syntax the way a child approaches a broken vase, Sen. Fair captures the contemporary homophobe’s lament. He gets that we accept these people now, even though being gay is just not normal. But must we glorify it?
Fair makes a revealing distinction between “an explanation [that Hendrix] was born this way” and “recruiting.” It’s one thing to refrain from persecuting gay people, he implies, because they can’t help it. But his opposition to “glorification” and “recruiting” assumes that being gay is still bad. It’s like when Martin Luther King had a dream that one day, America would understand that it’s not his children’s fault they’re black.
Probably, this country could do with a little glorification of lesbian sexuality,* if only to make up for the centuries of active repression. But USC Upstate sided with Sen. Fair—possibly because he and fellow senator Lee Bright punitively voted against every incumbent university trustee in last week’s board elections—and canceled the show. Here’s Vice Chancellor for Communications Tammy Whaley:
The title of “How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less,” while deliberately provocative, is satirical in nature but has not been received as such. The controversy surrounding this performance has become a distraction to the educational mission of USC Upstate and the overall purpose of the Bodies of Knowledge symposium. As a result, we have canceled this segment of the symposium.
If we are going to enumerate potential distractions from USC Upstate’s educational mission, we might consider the line for an Assistant Vice Chancellor for Communications. Also, I can think of no explanation for censorship more depressing than “is satirical in nature but has not been received as such.” Most importantly, though, Whaley’s statement misreports the title of the play, changing “How to Be a Lesbian” to “How to Become a Lesbian” [emphasis mine.] Obviously, that implies agreement with Fair’s assertion that the show is a recruiting tool.
So is it? The show’s website describes HTB an L in 10 D or L as “one part instructional seminar, one part personal story, and one part wacky performance art.” As a person who worked professionally in performance art for several years, I can tell you that means three parts personal story. But the same section also describes the show as “the perfect guide to gay for budding lesbians, no matter their sexual orientation!” That necessarily implies that some people who do not identify as gay can, perhaps even will, become lesbians.
Or it’s mindless promo copy. If Hendrix is taking her lesbian confessional from college campus to college campus without hoping that occasionally some young woman in her audience will want to explore her own sexuality, she’s a saint. But that doesn’t matter, because if Sen. Fair accepts “I was born this way”—as he implies he does—then he cannot believe in recruitment.
If sexual orientation is an inborn characteristic not subject to individual choice, which we as a society have pretty much agreed it is, then recruitment is not possible. If it were possible to change people’s orientation with plays, everyone would have been straight before 1960—a proposition that the history of theatre manifestly disproves. When Fair complains that Hendrix’s show goes beyond acceptance to recruiting, he’s really complaining that she has gone beyond silence to expression.
Political homophobia today looks like political racism in the Jim Crow era. Guys like Mike Fair have recognized that they can no longer openly hate gay people, but they’re still pursuing policies that prevent homosexuals from participating in American life. Once you get down to the one-woman shows, though, you know you’ve lost.