John Cameron Mitchell: ‘I’m Genuinely Optimistic, Maybe Because I Survived the AIDS Era and Have Seen Worse’
John Cameron Mitchell tells Tim Teeman: ‘Being LGBT gives you a critical mind to question authority, to form your own philosophies, as opposed to those of your parents and church.’
In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
John Cameron Mitchell is an actor, playwright, screenwriter, director, and co-writer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
When and how did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?
I guess, 19. I don’t really remember, but I think it was through fiction. I think I was reading (Edmund White’s) The Beautiful Room Is Empty. It kinds of ends at the riots. It was a sequel to A Boy’s Own Story, which scared me because it seemed so self-hating. The Beautiful Room Is Empty got to me.
I was still in college. I was reading queer classics, while in the closet: Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton. I was sort of aware of it. Even in high school I found a way to queer history. I was reading John Rechy’s City of Night and Sexual Outlaw. William Burroughs.
In college I thought more about the movement. When AIDS hit that defined queerness for a lot of people, for better or worse. Suddenly sex was political, and staying in the closet felt like a selfish thing. You had to speak out against all the injustice.
When I read about the riots it seemed like the beginning us not standing for it anymore. I was the first generation to come out into safe sex.
What do the Riots mean to you now?
Our forebears, our history, is so important to me. For a lot of young LGBT people, our history is on YouTube, and feels a little overwhelming and hard to absorb. We had to search it out. You’d say, “Oh wow, have you seen the new Almodóvar movie?” You would clear out your guilt and self-hatred with art.
And now it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. God knows how many queers are going to be showing up on my doorstep in the West Village, in the center of it all.
I went to my first Pride in 1984 in Chicago. I remember getting whistled at on the street, just like I was a pretty straight girl. My face was burning bright. It was considered a compliment back then, not harassment.
Setting up Mattachine at Julius, New York City’s oldest queer bar—where there was a “sip-in” protest that predated Stonewall—was a great way to stimulate memory while dancing and having a good time.
Stonewall was partially a raid on the Mafia by homophobic cops. People forget that element. Back then the Mafia was trying to make money off faggots. That’s why the Stonewall existed: There was money in it.
Just like in other countries, trans and drag people were at the forefront of demanding our rights. They had no other option. They didn’t want to pass. They couldn’t pass. They have always been at the forefront.
Stonewall, the bar, was pretty trashy when I first went in the mid-’80s. Crack was ascendant, AIDS was ascendant. New York City was scary and also exciting. Back then, Julius was a hustler bar. I would hang out at Boy Bar in the East Village. In a way, Stonewall was uncool and West Village-y. It didn’t have a personality. You’d think, “Oh yeah. It’s still there.” It didn’t have the personality it now does.
How far have LGBT people come in 50 years?
I feel like we’re beating up on ourselves less, and perhaps killing ourselves less. If you look hard enough you can find great role models and messages and even realize being queer, which used to be seen as a death sentence and then just uncool, is now sort of cool in a cultural way. Ultimately, in my life, it has brought me everything that is valuable to me.
When you come out you realize that if the information that was given to you about being LGBT was wrong, a lot of other received wisdom could be wrong too. Being LGBT gives you a critical mind to question authority, to form your own philosophies, as opposed to those of your parents and church. With no gender or sexual models, you build those relationships from scratch.
I don’t consider myself to be part of the gay mainstream. I don’t think you have to wear a haircut as a gay man. I’m not into orthodoxy. I understand it’s comforting for people not to have to think or explore too hard, but to me the gift of being queer is exploration. I love going to the Philippines, Australia, and St. Petersburg in Russia, and be in a queer space and feel that sibling thing.
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
To me, the anti-LGBT attacks of now feel like the final spasms of death throes of a certain generation. Queer people and immigrants, people who are not the dominant ethnicity and race, always become the scapegoats. Panics about sex are always a potent weapon. That is why they get recycled. Most young Republicans don’t care about LGBT stuff anymore.
Unfortunately, racism, xenophobia, and panic about religion have deeper roots that can’t be healed as quickly. Even so, we have made leaps and bounds when it comes to understanding the spectrum of gender. The greatest threats we face today are environmental, facing our planet.
I’m genuinely optimistic, maybe because I survived the AIDS era and have seen worse. Young queer people are intelligent, but in my experience they’ve never heard of Act Up, who are directly responsible for them being alive. LGBT history is not taught in schools and it should be.
If you could say anything to the Stonewall demonstrators, what would you say?
I’d say, “Thank you.” I’d also remind young people that standing up for your rights with other people is also very hot. It’s one of the sexiest things to know about someone. Trying to make the world better, side by side with someone else, is the biggest aphrodisiac, and that’s a wonderful thing too.
So: “Get a placard, get laid”?
Yes, get a placard, get laid. Being open is healthy.