While staged biographies tend to pretty up the historical record to maximize the virtues of the main character, you wouldn’t think it necessary in the case of a tragic genius like Turing. His lying to the police to mask his sexual activities is presented as noble protection of the man with whom he had sex. The young mathematician, in real life, panicked and lied to protect himself. The enhancement is gratuitous; the true version of events dims not at all our appreciation of Turing’s heroic life of achievement and suffering. British laws criminalizing homosexuality mandated either prison or estrogen treatments (Turing chose the estrogen treatments), and the ordeal drove him to suicide in 1954 at age 41.
A dash of character-sweetening in “Breaking the Code” becomes a tsunami of molasses in “The Temperamentals” – and if the molasses had a tint, it would be red. Harry Hay was a foot soldier of the Los Angeles branch of the Communist Party. Jon Marans’ play, the off-Broadway hit of 2010, acknowledges this, but reduces Hay and his fellow Reds to cheerful 1950s social-worker types standing up for the poor. There is no hint of the nasty positions Hay pushed as a devoted Stalinist (like supporting Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea). The Mattachine Society, Hay’s pioneering “homophile” group, is whitewashed; the audience never learns of Hay’s having modeled it on Communist Party cells. This falsification carries through to the climactic moment, when we see new members taking over the organization because they are conventional, diffident men who can’t abide the out-and-proud integrity of gruff but lovable Harry Hay. In real life, the ranks rebelled against a furtive, conspiracy-style structure that only a communist could love.
Hay’s story is more bizarre and fascinating than the one Marans tells. Still, the highly professional production I saw gave some impression of the profound differences between then and now — the secrecy, shame, and degradation that shrouded same-sex relationships in the mid-20th century.
None of which implies that keeping marriage what it has always been perpetuates mistreatment of gays and lesbians. It is quite a stretch to go from the dark homosexual underworld of an earlier era to Question 6 in Maryland. A stretch, I say, but not a bad public relations move, in the sense that generalized sympathy helps, or at least potentially helps, the cause. This points up what has changed about the culture war over marriage: that combatants on both sides have grown more skilled in democratic politics and finding what persuades an electorate.
Gays and lesbians are making big strides toward marriage, helped by the fact that they have largely stopped letting outré postmodernists speak for them. I recall one Yale scholar, back in 2004, telling National Public Radio that the institution of marriage is boringly bourgeois and therefore, as we homosexuals demand entry into it, we ought to “decenter” monogamy. The following year, Princeton historian Hendrik Hartog posted online at History News Network: “And those of us who advocate for gay marriage as a right in various states should acknowledge that we stand in much the same position as defenders of Mormon polygamy did in the second half of the nineteenth century, confronting a mobilized community of religious marital orthodoxy.” Nowadays groups like the Human Rights Campaign feature marriage-seeking gays and lesbians who are regular folks, more a part of mainstream America than Ivory Tower radicals.
Meanwhile, traditionalists fight a rearguard action. They have established strongholds (31 states have banned legal recognition of same-sex marriage), mostly by avoiding expressing their belief that homosexual relationships are wrong. The belief is still there, especially among the religious, but highlighted instead is that “Everyone has a right to love and respect but no one is entitled to redefine marriage.” That’s from the ad campaign for “No on 6” in Maryland; I agree.