Why are we still haunted by The Boys in the Band?

by Mark King
Guest Writer

When I was 15 years old in the mid-1970s, I couldn’t wait to attend a local community theater production of The Boys in the Band. I was intrigued by the play’s dark and mysterious reputation and had heard it included a lot of homosexuality (funny how that word isn’t used much anymore).

It sounded like exactly what this budding young queer needed: some lessons about the yellow brick road ahead.

I didn’t like what I saw. The characters were mean and sad and angry with one another. They were all presented as weird, exotic animals, bitching and crying. I left the show feeling terribly disenchanted, fearing my life was destined to be drunken and pathetic.

It was the theatrical opposite of an It Gets Better video.

When The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway in 1968, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. The play’s behind-the-scenes peek at gay men in their natural habitat was fascinating to audiences and greeted with enthusiasm from the gay community.

Yes, they were maladjusted, self-hating f*gs, but they were our maladjusted, self-hating f*gs.

But in 1969, as the movie version was being filmed only blocks from the Stonewall bar, a riot occurred at the club in response to constant police harassment. The modern gay rights movement was born.

By the time the film version of The Boys in the Band opened in 1970, the story and its troubled characters felt like a politically incorrect relic.

Watching the original film today, I’m struck with an odd compulsion. I see these characters laughing and bitching, and I want to reach through the screen and shake them and warn them, to tell them about something coming, something too awful to describe, of a plague they can’t possibly comprehend that is coming to kill them all.

Indeed, near the end of Making the Boys, we are shown photos of the actors who played these iconic characters we loved and then hated and then, finally, simply accepted. Listed under each of the actors’ names is the year he died of AIDS. 1984. 1985. 1988. On and on it goes, through what appears to be a majority of the cast.

The moment brings about such emotional confusion, of regret and interrupted affections. It’s like hearing of a death of a long-lost friend with whom you had a troubled relationship.

Our boys continue to live on through the film, performing their roles on that screen the same way, defiant in their stereotypes, no matter how many times we revisit the movie.

The cast of the 2018 Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band, produced by Ryan Murphy.

What has changed, for better and for worse, is us.

Mark S. King is an award-winning writer (www.marksking.com), and HIV/AIDS advocate who has been involved in HIV causes since testing positive in 1985. He lives in Baltimore with his husband, Michael.

​​​​​​​The Gayly. March 18, 2018. 8:00 a.m. CST.