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Essay: American Things

This essay by Tony Kushner appeared in Newsweek magazine the week before the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 1994. Kushner reflected on the spirit of liberation.

Tony Kushner: Tony Kushner as a young boy with his mother

Tony Kushner as a young boy with his mother

Summer is the season for celebrating freedom, summer is the time when we can almost believe it is possible to be free. American education conditions us for this expectation; school's out! The climate shift seductively whispers emancipation. Warmth opens up the body and envelops it. The body in summer is most easily at home in the world. This is true even when the summer is torrid. I have lived half my life in Louisiana and half in New York City. I know from torrid summers.

On my seventh birthday, midsummer 1968, my mother decorated my cake with sparklers she'd saved from the Fourth of July. This, I thought, was extraordinary, fantastic, sparklers spitting and smoking, dangerous and beautiful atop my birthday cake. In one indelible, ecstatic instant my mother completed a circuit of identification for me, melding two iconographies, of self and of liberty: of birthday cake, delicious confectionery emblem of maternal enthusiasm about my existence, which enthusiasm I shared; and of the nighttime fireworks of pyro-romantic Americana, fireworks-liberty-light which slashed across the evening sky, light which thrilled the heart, light which exclaimed loudly in the thick summer air, light which occasionally tore off fingers and burned houses, the fiery fierce explosive risky light of Independence, of Freedom.

Tony Kushner: Kushner's high school yearbook picture

Kushner's high school yearbook picture

Stonewall, the festival day of lesbian and gay liberation, is followed closely by the Fourth of July; they are exactly one summer week apart. The contiguity of these two festivals of freedom is important, at least to me. Each adds piquancy and meaning to the other. In the years following my 7th birthday I had lost some of my enthusiasm for my own existence, as most queer kids growing up in a hostile world will do. I'd certainly begun to realize how unenthusiastic others, even my parents, would be if they knew I was gay. Such joy in being alive as I can now lay claim to has been returned to me largely because of the successes of the political movement which began, more or less officially, 25 years ago on that June night in the Village. I've learned how absolutely essential to life freedom is.

Lesbian and gay freedom is the same freedom celebrated annually on the Fourth of July. Of this I have no doubt; my mother told me so, back in 1963, by putting sparklers on that cake. She couldn't have made her point more powerfully if she'd planted them on my head. Hers was a gesture we both understood, though at the time neither could have articulated it; "This fantastic fire is yours." Mothers and fathers should do that for their kids: give them fire, and link them proudly and durably to the world in which they live.

One of the paths down which my political instruction came was our family seder. Passover, too, is a celebration of Freedom in sultry, intoxicating heat (Passover actually comes in the spring but in Louisiana the distinction between spring and summer was never clear). Our family read from Haggadahs written by a New Deal Reform rabbinate which was unafraid to draw connections between Pharaonic and modern capitalist exploitations; between the exodus of Jews from Goshen and the journey toward civil rights for African-Americans; unafraid to make the yearning which Jews have repeated for thousands of years a democratic dream of freedom for all peoples. It was impressed upon us, as we sang "America the Beautiful" at the seder's conclusion, that the dream of millennia was due to find its ultimate realization not in Jerusalem but in this country.

Tony Kushner: Kushner as a teenager in his Louisiana temple

Kushner as a teenager in his Louisiana temple

The American political tradition to which my parents made me an heir is mostly an immigrant appropriation of certain features and promises of our Constitution, and of the idea of democracy and federalism. This appropriation marries morally and ideologieally indeterminate freedom to the more strenuous specific mandates of justice. It is the aggressive, unapologetic, progressive liberalism of the 30s and 40s, a liberalism strongly spiced with socialism, trade unionism and the ethos of internationalism and solidarity.

This liberalism at its best held that citizenship was bestowable on everyone, and sooner or later it would be bestowed. Based first and foremost on reason, and then secondarily on protecting certain articles of faith such as the Bill of Rights, democratic process would eventually shift power from the mighty to the many, in whose hands, democratically and morally speaking, it belongs. Over the course of 200 years, brave, visionary activists and ordinary, moral people had carved out a space, a large sheltering room from which many were now excluded, but which was clearly intended to be capable of multitudes. Within the space of American Freedom there was room for any possibility. American Freedom would become the birthplace of social and economic Justice.

Jews who came to America had gained entrance into this grand salon, as had other immigrant groups: Italians, Irish. Black people, Chicanos and Latinos, Asian-Americans would soon make their own ways, I was told, as would women, as would the working class and the poor -- it could only be a matter of time and struggle.

People who desired sex with people of their own gender, trans-gender people, drag kings and drag queens, deviants from heterosexual normality were not discussed. There was identity, and then there was illness.

I am nearly 38, and anyone who's lived 38 years should have made generational improvements on the politics of his or her parents. For any gay man or lesbian since Stonewall, the politics of homosexual enfranchisement is part of what is to be added to the fund of human experience and understanding that we pass on to the next generation-upon which we hope improvements will be made.

The true motion of freedom is to expand outward. To say that lesbian and gay freedom is the same freedom celebrated annually on the Fourth of July is simply to say that queer and other American freedoms have changed historically, generally in a healthy direction (with allowances for some costly periods of faltering, including recently), and must continue to change if they are to remain meaningful. No freedom that fails to grow will last.

Tony Kushner: Tony Kushner speaking at JP Morgan Chase about diversity in the workplace.

Tony Kushner speaking at JP Morgan Chase about diversity in the workplace.

Lesbians and gay men of this generation have added homophobia to the consensus list of social evils: poverty, racism, sexism, exploitation, the ravaging of the environment, censorship, imperialism, war. To be a progressive person is to believe that there are ways to actively intervene against these evils. To be a progressive person is to resist Balkanization, tribalism, separatism; to be progressive is to seek out connection. I am homosexual, and this ought to make me consider how my experience of the world, as someone who is not always welcome, resembles that of others, however unlike me, who have had similar experiences. I demand to be accorded my rights by others; and so I must be prepared to accord to others their rights. The truest characteristic of freedom is generosity, the basic gesture of freedom is to include, not to exclude.

That there would be a reasonably successful movement for lesbian and gay civil rights was scarcely conceivable a generation ago. In spite of these gains, much of the social progress which to my parents seemed a foregone conclusion has not yet been made, and much ground has been lost. Will racism prove to be more intractable, finally, than homophobia? Will the hatred of women, gay and straight, continue to find new and more violent forms of expression, and will gay men and women of color remain doubly, or triply oppressed, while white gay men find greater measures of acceptance, simply because they are white men?

The tensions which have defined American history and American political consciousness have most often been those existing between the margin and the center, the many and the few, the individual and society, the dispossessed and the possessors. It is a peculiar feature of our political life that some of these tensions are frequently discussed and easily grasped, such as those existing between the states and the federal government, or between the rights of individuals and society's claims upon them; while others' tensions, especially those which are occasioned by the claims of marginalized peoples, are regarded with suspicion and fear. Listing the full catalog of these claims is sure to raise howls decrying "political correctness" from those who need desperately to believe that democracy is a simple thing.

Democracy isn't simple and it doesn't mean that majorities tyrannize minorities. We learned this a long time ago, from, among others, the Moses of that Jewish American Book of Exodus, Louis Dembitz Brandeis, or, in more recent times, from Thurgood Marshall. In these days of demographic shifts, when majorities are disappearing, this knowledge is particularly useful, and it needs to be expanded. There are in this country political traditions congenial to the idea that democracy is multicolored and multicultural and also multigendered, that democracy is about returning to individuals the fullest range of their freedoms, but also about the sharing of power, about the rediscovery of collective responsibility. There are in this country political traditions, from organized labor, from the civil-rights and black-power movements, from feminist and homosexual liberation movements, from movements for economic reform, which postulate democracy as a dynamic process. These traditions exist in opposition to those which make fixed fetishes of democracy and freedom, talismans for reaction.

These traditions, which constitute the history of progressive and radical America, have been shunted to the side in an attempt at revisionism that began during the McCarthy era. Over the course of American history since World War II, the terms of the national debate have subtly, insidiously shifted. What used to be called liberal is now called radical, what used to be called radical is now called insane. What used to be called reactionary is now called moderate, and what used to be called insane is now called solid conservative thinking.

The recovery of antecedents is immensely important work. Historians are reconstructing the lost history of homosexual America, along with all the other lost histories. Freedom, I think, is finally being at home in the world, it is a returning -- to the best particulars of the home you came from, or the arrival, after a lengthy and arduous journey, at the home you never had, which your dreams and desires have described for you.

Tony Kushner: Tony Kushner at his wedding.

Tony Kushner at his wedding.

I have a guilty confession to make. When I am depressed, when nerve or inspiration or energy flag, I put on Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, "From the New World"; I get teary listening to the Largo. It's become one of the alltime most shopworn musical cliches, which is regrettable. My father, who is a symphony conductor, told me that Dvorak wrote it in America and then contributed all the money from the New World Symphony's premiere to a school that accepted former slaves. But as the story goes, his daughter fell in love with a Native American and Dvorak took the whole family back to Bohemia.

Like many Americans I'm looking for home. Home is an absence, it is a loss that impels us. I want this home to be like the Largo from the New World Symphony. But life most frequently resembles something by Schoenberg, the last quartet, the one he wrote after his first heart attack. Life these days is played out to the tune of that soundtrack. Or something atonal, anyway, something derivative of Schoenberg, some piece written by one of his less talented pupils.

The only politics that can survive an encounter with this world, and still speak convincingly of freedom and justice and democracy, is a politics that can encompass both the harmonics and the dissonance. The frazzle, the rubbed-raw, the unresolved, the fragile and the fiery and the dangerous: these are American things. This jangle is our movement forward, if we are to move forward; it is our survival, if we are to survive.

"American Things" was originally published in Newsweek's June 27, 1994 issue under the title "Fireworks and Freedom," and is included in Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, a Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer by Tony Kushner.





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