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"Bent" and The Nazi Bullies in the Time of Jamey Rodemeyer

BUA enters its 20th year paving the road to "better"

I did something shocking this week. I used electronic social networking to look for the guy who bullied me for being gay in junior high school. I hadn’t seen him or heard a word about him for 40 years.

It took less than 30 seconds to find him.

He lives in California. He went to culinary arts school. He and his wife have a cute little house on a suburban street. He has two young adult sons: One loves fishing; the other loves football. One of his sons has a serious girlfriend.

There was his smiling face. Rodney. For me, he aged 40 years in an electronic instant. His hairline has receded and he has gained weight, but there was no mistaking it. This was the very guy who, with his friend Darren, followed me in the halls of Van Wyck Junior High School in Wappingers Falls, New York, abused me verbally, and threw paper clips at me in class; who taunted me in the cafeteria; who intentionally injured me on the football field; who urinated in my gym locker.

As I look at his face, I wonder if Rodney might remember me. I’ll never forget him.

I was tempted to send him an email message. It would be so easy:

“Dear Rodney—We attended junior high together. Do you remember me?”

I did not write to him. I am not a bully. “Rodney” is not even his real name.

I see a paradox in my ability to use the very same electronic medium that today’s bullies use on their targets with such facility and impunity to find the man who made a year of my life a misery so long ago.

Why did I bother?

I’d been thinking a lot about Jamey Rodemeyer, the gay 14-year-old Williamsville boy who committed suicide on September 19. Jamey had endured unrelenting bullying while he was a student at Heim Middle School in Williamsville. This year, he started high school. Three weeks into his freshman year at Williamsville North, he realized that he had not left the bullying behind him. He decided that he would rather die than face one more day of that reality.

My bullies did not follow me to high school. I was able to survive a horrific eighth grade year, in part, because I knew I was going to a different high school from Rodney and Darren.

Reading the details of Jamey Rodemeyer’s story, I realize that I had several other advantages over him. Despite teachers who were ineffectual at handling the situation and administrators who all but implied that gay teens bring the bullying upon themselves, there were adults who took swift and decisive action.

My guidance counselor, Mrs. Lange, summoned my tormentors to her office, one at a time, and informed them that the jig was up. She didn’t ask to hear their side of the story. She simply laid down the law. She promised to become their worst nightmare. She promised them suspension from school and that their parents would be called in for a meeting. This blunted their enthusiasm.

Decisive good people intervened in time to help me at a critical and frightening period of my life. I am grateful that my bullies backed down quickly when they were threatened with reprisal. They were, ultimately, cowards.

I am not a coward. In part, I owe that to those bullies. At their hands I developed a certain kind of courage and a sense of justice that I carry with me still today. I am not grateful to them for that.

I thought of these events when I went to see Martin Sherman’s play, Bent, at BUA this week. Set in Germany before World War II, Bent follows Max, a sexually liberated gay man who is unwittingly swept up in the events of “The Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, when Hitler sought to purge the Nazi party of drunkenness, debauchery, high living, and homosexuality (and at the same time to eliminate all of his rivals) by having members of his own party murdered.

Max ends up at the concentration camp in Dachau at a time before most of the world knew the camps existed. Here, after a scene with a particularly abusive Nazi officer, a gay prisoner named Horst remarks that he knew a kid just like that at school.

The quip elicits a laugh from the audience. I suspect it is a tragicomic laugh of recognition. A holocaust is the ultimate triumph of bullies. It’s what happens when bullies are not stopped before they grow up. Despite the difference in setting, context, timeframe, and tone, Jamey Rodemeyer’s story and Max’s have identical endings.

It is the same story told again and again. Jamey Rodemeyer never had a chance to become a grownup, but in very significant ways, it is the same story. 1934 and 2011.

BUA had originally placed a poster advertising Bent outside of their theater on West Chippewa Street. They have promoted their shows that way many times before. This time, however, the poster, with its image of Max holding Horst in a gay pietà, was deliberately and pointedly defaced. The theater knew better than to try to replace it; you can see the blank space of black wall between the glass doors where it used to be.

There are still bullies among us.

Think, for instance, of the grown bullies in the audience of the Republican debate last week who actually jeered and booed at an openly gay serviceman serving in Iraq, and cheered when Rick Santorum declared that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was tantamount to recognizing a group of people and giving them a special privilege.

Hmmm. To me, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” seemed to single out a vulnerable group and leave them prey to bullies. During the years DADT was enforced, 13,000 men and women were discharged from the United States armed forces, simply for being gay.

Thinking back to my junior high school bullies, I realize that I had another advantage over Jamey Rodemeyer. My tormenters suspected I was gay, but they did not know for certain. In those days, gay boys kept quiet. We didn’t tell.

Yes, the bullies could surmise that I might be “a faggot” from my lack of athletic ability, from my gentle manners and my good grades, from my enthusiasm for The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and Maude. But they had no proof.

How different the situation was for Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, whose future freshman year roommate, Dharun Ravi, learned that Clementi was gay before the two had even met, through a simple Internet search during the summer of 2010. Ravi would eventually spy on and broadcast a romantic encounter between Clementi and another man using a webcam pointed at his bed. After sending an email about the violation of his privacy and announcing his intention to kill himself on Facebook, Clementi threw himself off the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010.

Maintaining my secret, at least officially, afforded me the protection of denial. Yes, I saw my best friends from Honors English class, afraid of attracting similar abuse, pretend not to know me when we were in wood shop or gym—yes, I remember the silence of my friends as vividly as the words of my enemies—but the bullying did not spread far beyond Rodney and Darren. They were not able to recruit fellow bullies by the dozens, in part, because I did not surrender the ammunition.

I thought of that, watching Bent, during a touching scene between Max and his gay Uncle Freddie, who tries to help him escape Germany. Uncle Freddie is terrified for Max and cannot understand why he needs to be so obvious. If he had only been discreet, married some girl, and had his male lovers on the side, he would not have brought this terror down upon himself.

What Uncle Freddie advocates is horrible, but in the context of the Nazis, he is not exactly wrong. I fear that today we encourage gay youth to be proud of and comfortable with themselves, which is wonderful, but then we abandon them to fend for themselves, almost entirely unprotected from the Nazi bullies in our mids—which is criminal.

I am saddened and dismayed by the death of Jamey Rodemeyer, but also by the life he did not have. At the age of 14, being gay has only started its preliminary declarations and explorations. There is more to being gay than enthusiasm for the music of Lady Gaga (or for my generation, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand). We all need to arrive at adulthood before coming into the full joy of being ourselves.

There are reasons that for so many of us—gay, straight, and otherwise—our college friends, or the friends we make in our early adulthood, are the most potent friends of our lives. It is during those years that we are able, finally, to exercise power over our own destiny, and experience the realization that we can determine for ourselves what is cool, what is in style, what it means to be popular—and, ultimately, to experience true romantic love.

That is what we mean when we say, “It gets better.” But it bears mention that the road between middle school and “better” can be treacherous and long. What happens when a person doesn’t care that it might get better, if the wait means enduring one more day of abuse, one more trip to the cafeteria, one more ride on the school bus?

A play like Bent reminds us why the theater can be so important as a vehicle for community health and cohesion. There are moments of Bent that the audience watches with hushed reverence. Using the setting of Germany in the 1930s, playwright Martin Sherman is able to strip the issues down to their starkest structure, and audiences recognize their contemporary resonance. Watching a performance of the play during the week of Jamey Rodemeyer’s death, I recalled the times in my life when I had experienced Bent before.

The first time was in 1979. I was still in college in Hartford, Connecticut, and saw a contraband copy of the unpublished script, obtained by a friend who was working at the Hartford Stage Company. We devoured every page. The play was supposed to open in Hartford, before moving to Broadway, but when movie star Richard Gere signed on to play Max, it went directly to New York. This warranted a trip to Manhattan with my college friends. In those days, it was still controversial to include homosexuals in a discussion of the Holocaust. For us, the experience was world-changing.

At a later stage of my life, in Buffalo, I saw the play again, when the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre had a space upstairs in the Jackson Building, before it was a hotel. Bent was powerful in that intimate setting, directed by Nancy N. Doherty with Richard Lambert and Brian Fraley as Max and Horst. It was a different experience for me to see the play again, having so decidedly arrived at the “it’s gotten better” stage of my life.

It was yet a different experience seeing Bent performed a few years later in 1999 when Buffalo United Artists inaugurated their first theater with the play, upstairs from Roxie’s on Main Street, under the direction of Javier Bustillos. Previous productions had seemed sympathetic; this production, performed by a theater specifically devoted to GLBT theater, seemed activist. Chris Kelly and Brian Riggs played Max and Horst.

Moments from that 1999 production that resonate in my memory include Jimmy Janowski as Greta, the drag performer and club owner who fingers Max to the S.S. He does it for the money, but then, in a fascinatingly conflicted moment, he surrenders the cash to Max in order to aid his escape. I remember Janowski, as Greta, boldly admitting what he has done. In that gesture, I recognized those middle school friends who pretended not to know me when threatened by bullies themselves. (I also recognized former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who regrets not speaking up when the audience booed the gay serviceman at the Republican debate; and Rick Santorum, who claims he did not hear the jeering, even though he was standing right there.)

I remember, with admiration, a moment at the end of the scene between Max and Uncle Freddie when the great Buffalo character actor, John Buscaglia, as Uncle Freddie, gazed back into the scene before his exit with a look that was both ambiguous and haunting. Was it concern for his nephew? Was it one last glimpse at the man—maybe a cruising gay man, maybe an undercover police officer—whose proximity so distracted him as he and his nephew engaged in their urgent and furtive conversation?

This time, as BUA rehearsed for their current revival of Bent, they were intrigued to realize how many young gay men have never heard of the play. They also learned, during rehearsals, that Rudolf Brazda, the last survivor of the Holocaust known to have worn the pink triangle that marked a man as homosexual in the Nazi concentration camps, had died on August 3 at age 98.

As they enter their 20th anniversary season, BUA is seeking to revisit highlights from their production history, but also to connect with a future generation of theater-goers who are invested in GLBT issues.

This time, under the direction of Drew McCabe, who reclaims the minimalist staging that is BUA’s signature, Marc Sacco plays Max and Chris Labanca plays Horst. Jonathan Shuey plays Rudy, Max’s vulnerable boyfriend. Michael Seitz plays Wolf, the trick whose one-night visit sets the action of the play in motion.

Timothy Patrick Finnegan steps into John Buscaglia’s formidable shoes to play Uncle Freddie. James Wild plays the grown up bully.

Christopher Stephen Parada plays Greta, wearing a gown that once belonged to Buffalo drag legend Tangara, who died in 2007 at the age of 95. Tangara was a star of burlesque and gay clubs across the country, with a career dating back to the 1930s. I love knowing that Tangara is, in spirit, a part of this production, connecting gay men of our cultural past to our present.

A GLBT theater can bring people together in profound ways, sometimes celebrative, sometimes provocative, sometimes informative. Buffalo has had BUA serving its GLBT community for 20 years. In that time they’ve produced regional premieres, classics, and original productions. They’ve launched careers and built a loyal audience. They’ve helped things get better.

After Bent, the BUA season will continue with The Divine Sister, a spoof of every Hollywood nun picture ever made, by BUA favorite Charles Busch (The Lady in Question, Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die, Mommie, Die!) starring Jimmy Janowski. This will be followed in January by a new version of Bill C. Davis’s Avow, about a gay Catholic couple who ask their priest to marry them; and then by Jonathan Tolins’ Secrets of the Trade, about the complicated relationship between a gay playwright and his mentor.

Seeing Bent again was both life-affirming and thought-provoking. The play reminds us just how terrifyingly far things can go when bullies go unchallenged, whether in Germany, or Rwanda, or Mississippi, or Williamsville.

How very far we’ve come; how very far we still have to go.