To the editor:
Having seen The Amen Corner by James Baldwin at the Goodman Theater [reviewed April 6], I found the most disturbing part of the play not onstage but in the program booklet. In over two pages of biographical text covering Baldwin’s childhood, family, religion, career, influences, and politics, there is one oblique reference to Baldwin’s “sexual feelings that he had largely repressed.” I assumed that this 1950s rhetoric was the Goodman’s shameful way of insinuating that Baldwin was gay.
Yes, James Baldwin was gay. From the time he published Giovanni’s Room in 1956, he made a very brave and public statement about his sexual orientation at a time when it was dangerous to do so. I’ve seen television footage of Baldwin speaking openly about his homosexuality without the shame that the Goodman apparently attributes to it. In his own words, Baldwin described growing up poor, black, and homosexual as having “hit the jackpot.” Obviously Baldwin didn’t feel that his sexuality was such an unimportant or disgraceful part of who he was that it should be cleaned up with a tiny, closeted reference in a biography.
The Goodman should have put more thought into their words. By insinuating that the word “gay” is too dirty or controversial to mention it does a disservice to the memory of the very person they should be honoring, as well as all the gay and lesbian patrons of their theater.
It is a sad aspect of our current culture that of all places a theater, for many years a safe haven for gays and lesbians, has now joined such institutions as the military, the Republican Party and the Christian church in their policies of exclusion and intolerance. Baldwin spent his life fearlessly speaking out about the injustices around him. I wonder what he would have said about this.