Here’s something I meant to write back when it was timely, but I was too busy with work to get to it until now.

My partner and I attended the world premiere of the play Angry Fags, written by local playwright Topher Payne, at Seven Stages back in February. We learned about it (and were offered free tickets) because every past grand marshal of Atlanta Pride was invited (with a plus one). It was general seating, and we got excellent seats near the center of the audience; Payne himself sat right behind us.

The show opened, played its run, and closed so long ago that it seems like everyone knows its story by now. But many reading this aren’t in Atlanta, so in a nutshell, the plot is this: when one of their friends is brutally beaten in what looks like a hate crime, two gay best friends decide “it gets better” is too passive a position, and embark to “make it better”…by going on a killing spree targeting right-wing religious groups and homophobic politicians. They murder a hypocritical politician. They blow up the building of a Focus On The Family-like group, Oklahoma City-style.

I’m not interested in reviewing the play; that’s been done already by many critics better qualified than I. I will note that Payne, whose work I’d never seen before, is a very gifted playwright. The story juggles many different narrative balls and keeps them all in the air. Angry Fags is also extremely funny, and most of the humor is character-based, which is the most difficult kind of comedy to pull off. When, late in the play, we hear a voiceover of the voicemail greeting of one of the characters, it’s hilarious because we’ve come to know that character, and what we hear is exactly the greeting that character would record. There are moments like this throughout the rather long (three hours with two intermissions) play, and it was a delight to watch.

The central characters, Cooper and Bennett (those are their first names) come to believe that violent confrontation is the appropriate, even necessary, response to homophobia. If a few outspoken bigots die, they reason, and it’s clear they were targeted for their homophobia, then they’ll be afraid to engage in hateful rhetoric against gays.

Also, Cooper and Bennett believe, a gay public figure needs to die as a martyr to the cause (and they have a candidate picked out). Cooper tells us Harvey Milk doesn’t count as this martyr because Mayor Moscone was also killed by Dan White.

Out in the lobby after the premiere, some friends and I were scratching our heads, baffled. No, I don’t think Topher Payne advocates violence against anyone. But he does appear to believe that violence has been a necessary handmaiden to past civil rights advances. Cooper and Bennett are not presented as insane; in fact, Bennett seems careful and calculating. The show plays more like a political thriller than a satire; Payne is clearly going for a realistic approach. He’s careful to explain, for example, how the pair acquires all the materials they need (poisons, explosives) for their assassinations.

This is why I was so perplexed by the play. I don’t know when Payne wrote it, but it felt like it should have been written five or ten or more years ago. It’s the story you’d expect from a movement that feels like it’s in stalemate with the system, frustrated by its inability to find a populace sympathetic to its cause. When the Reagan Administration was indifferent to the AIDS crisis or when George W. Bush was talking openly about a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution: those were times when a rage-driven play like this would have seemed reasonable. Angry Fags would have been perfect as a period piece.

But it’s not a period piece. I don’t remember hearing any dates, but that unfailing year indicator of the past two decades, the size and design of the characters’ cell phones, tells us it’s set in the present day. And in this present day:

  • Four openly gay legislators are serving in Congress
  • Another four are in the Georgia General Assembly
  • Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is on the garbage heap of history
  • Ten states and the District of Columbia have full marriage equality

And all of these were achieved without violent actions by the gay community or violent reprisals from our enemies. The LGBT community’s battle has been a breeze, in fact, compared to past struggles. The African-American civil rights pioneers and their allies in the 1950s and 1960s had to deal with organized monsters like the Ku Klux Klan. People were driven from their homes, lynched by mobs, bombed in their churches. Teeth were knocked out. Crosses were burned into lawns. Sometimes local sheriff’s departments were even in collusion with the bad guys.

The worst we’ve had to contend with since Stonewall are loudmouthed cretins like the Westboro Baptist Church. They shake their offensive signs and shout their misunderstood scripture, and they’re objects of ridicule more than they’re agents of menace. They don’t scare anyone.

I don’t mean to suggest there hasn’t been, and isn’t still, violence against the LGBT community. As a transperson who reads the names of too many murdered transpeople each November, I’m acutely aware that the world is not a safe place for us yet. But the personal, one-on-one viciousness we experience is not perpetrated by the people Topher Payne targets in his play, and his characters’ jihad against them wouldn’t do anything to end it, either. If Angry Fags has a useful point to make, I’ve missed it.