Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167
Crowley’s play, radically new in 1968, was extremely popular in its original New York City production and enjoyed another successful run in London before being released as a feature film in 1970. The play was enjoying commercial success as the Stonewall Inn riots launched the gay liberation movement in the summer of 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York City, and for many years the play was performed in regional, community, and college theaters around the United States as the gay rights movement gained momentum. With its significant popular success, The Boys in the Band set a precedent for stage and film honesty in succeeding decades, paving the way for sympathetic portrayals and increasing tolerance of homosexual characters and the homosexual lifestyle. For example, Terrence McNally’s widely popular 1994 award-winning Broadway play, Love! Valor! Compassion!, certainly has its roots in Crowley’s groundbreaking comedy. The Boys in the Band became somewhat dated in subsequent decades because of its politically incorrect caricature of Emory and its pre-AIDS tolerance of sexual promiscuity.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555
The Boys in the Band opens with Michael, a thirty-year-old New York homosexual, preparing to entertain a group of gay friends at his smartly appointed East Side apartment. The party is to honor the birthday of one of the group, Harold, a Jewish man and a former ice skater. Michael is dressing when one of the guests, Donald, arrives early, dressed casually in khakis and a LaCoste shirt. Donald, who has driven in from Long Island, explains that his psychiatrist canceled his regular appointment. The conversation between Michael and Donald reveals the latter to be insecure about his career and goals, while Michael is revealed as egocentric, selfish, extravagant in his lifestyle, possessed of a sharply bitter wit, and lacking responsibility. Michael admits that he is unprepared and undisciplined, a fault he blames on his parents, just as Donald does his failure to complete his goals. They term this parental influence the Evelyn-and-Walt-Syndrome.
Complications begin when Michael learns from a telephone call that his former college roommate from Georgetown University is in New York and urgently wants to come by and talk with him. The roommate, Alan McCarthy, is a married attorney, ostensibly heterosexual, but he begins crying on the telephone, and Michael is moved to allow an immediate visit. Michael expresses concern about how Alan might react to a homosexual gathering, but before Alan can get to the apartment, other party guests begin to arrive: Emory, an effeminate, flamboyant interior decorator; Hank, a conservatively dressed schoolteacher who is awaiting a divorce; and Larry, a commercial artist with whom Hank currently is living. Michael warns the group that his heterosexual former roommate is en route, information that sparks conversation about Michael’s “coming out”—his beginning to realize his homosexuality—while in college. There is another in a series of false scares as another gay guest, a black man named Bernard, arrives.
As the various homosexual guests mingle and talk, Alan again calls, this time to tell Michael he is not coming after all, a revelation that temporarily puts the gay group at ease as the party continues. The door buzzer sounds, but it is not Harold, the guest of honor, merely a delivery boy from the bakery with a cake that has been ordered. As the guests reminisce about summers past at the gay resort on Fire Island, Emory, Larry, and Bernard form a chorus line to do an old dance routine. With the music and talk and laughter creating a din, the group does not hear the door buzzer as it sounds again. Hank innocently opens the door to reveal the now-unexpected straight college roommate, Alan, who has shown up after all.
A scene of awkward comedy follows as the gay party guests try to suppress their high spirits and gay behavior and make innocuous small talk with the formally dressed Alan. Alan is cordial to all the guests he meets, except for Emory, whose effeminacy and bitchy camp humor offend him—an attitude he reveals to Michael when the two of them adjourn to the bedroom for private conversation.
During this conversation, Alan repeatedly is socially condescending and makes derogatory comments about Emory, terming him “a goddamn little pansy” and “a butterfly in heat.” Michael becomes infuriated by Alan’s attitudes. Alan then will not tell Michael why he has come nor why he was crying on the telephone. As Alan goes into the bathroom, Michael returns angrily to the party. The door buzzes yet again, and when Michael answers, he is confronted not with the absent guest of honor, Harold, but with Cowboy, a handsome but dim-witted male prostitute Emory engaged for the evening as his gift to Harold. Cowboy mistakes Michael for Harold, kisses him, and begins to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Cowboy then amuses the guests by his lack of sophistication, but this repartee is interrupted when Alan returns and announces that he is leaving to go back to Washington. Emory baits Alan, however, by suggesting that the attorney might be gay, a taunting that unleashes Alan’s fury. Screaming a barrage of antigay epithets, he attacks Emory, and a general melee ensues as the guests try to stop the attack.
In the midst of the fight, the buzzer again sounds; when Donald moves to open it, Harold, the very late guest of honor, stands at the threshold. Cowboy again goes to work, sings his birthday greeting to Harold, kisses him, and shows him Emory’s sexually explicit greeting card. Harold reads the card and breaks into uncontrollable laughter as act 1 ends.
Act 2 begins at the exact moment the first act ended, with Harold laughing at the situation he has entered. Michael, stunned by the developments, has downed a stiff drink; his hostility fueled by events and the liquor, he turns on Harold, attacking him for being late and then for all of his private paranoia. Emory is led to the bathroom to clean up from the attack, but Alan, suddenly sick, also rushes to the bathroom, leading Emory to believe that he is again being attacked. As Michael’s hostility grows, he continues to chastise Harold for his shortcomings and to insult Cowboy for his stupidity. Michael’s nastiness is interrupted momentarily as Emory serves a lasagna dinner to the group, followed by the birthday cake and the opening of Harold’s presents. As the presents are opened, it becomes clear—from Michael’s gift of a silver-framed photograph of himself with an inscription—that Michael and Harold once had a relationship that foundered. Harold’s occasional antagonistic remarks to Donald suggest that he may have been the disruptive factor.
Alan’s return to the party provokes Michael to suggest that the entire group play a party game he has devised, called Affairs of the Heart. The game is Michael’s device not only for forcing each gay guest to face the truth about himself but also to allow Michael to gain revenge for Alan’s antigay attitudes. Each player must telephone the one person in his life he truly believes he has loved and tell that person. Both Donald and Harold elect not to play. Bernard, however, is talked into playing by Michael, and he calls a man he loved as a teenager in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where his mother worked as a domestic for the white boy’s parents. Bernard does not reach his party, and Emory follows by telephoning a Dr. Delbert Botts, a dentist, whom he worshiped from afar as a youngster in school. When Emory finally reaches the dentist on the telephone, the man hangs up. As the game progresses, Michael grows even more offensive in his hostility to Bernard, Emory, and Harold. Next, the relationship of Larry and Hank is put to the telephone test. Hank calls and leaves word with their answering service that he does, indeed, love his roommate, a statement that Alan cannot understand. Hank explains that he left his wife and family for Larry. Larry’s promiscuity is discussed, but finally he too makes a call to Hank—using Michael’s two-line telephone—and tells him that he loves him and will try to be more faithful.
Although Hank and Larry appear to be the winners of Michael’s game, the host announces the game is not over and demands that Alan also make a call. In this final confrontation, Michael insists that Alan is a “closet queen,” a secret homosexual unwilling to admit his true desires. Alan angrily denies Michael’s charges, but Michael insists with intense anger that Alan had an affair with a mutual college friend, Justin Stuart. Their argument rises to a near-violent level as each asserts his interpretation of past events. Michael demands that Alan call Justin, and as he begins to dial for Alan, Alan grabs the telephone from him. In the play’s climax, Alan tells the person he has dialed of his love. Michael, thinking that the party is Justin, grabs the telephone from Alan but is startled to learn that Alan has called his wife, Fran, in Washington. Crushed by the revelation, Michael is then told the truth of his own anger and hostility by Harold: “You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be. But there is nothing you can do to change it.”
The play’s resolution comes as guests depart. Alan thanks Michael for forcing him to see his love for his wife, Bernard helps the drunken Emory home, Hank and Larry have adjourned to the bedroom together, and Harold—having bluntly told Michael the truth about his unhappiness—leaves with his gift, Cowboy. With Donald and Michael left alone, Michael breaks down in a fit of hysterical anxiety and remorse at his actions. Donald comforts and reassures him until Michael’s natural arrogance begins to reassert itself. Assessing the events of the evening, Donald inquires whether Alan ever said why he came or why he was crying. Michael tells him that Alan did not, thus leaving open the question whether Alan may have had doubts about his own sexual orientation or, possibly, ever did have an affair with Justin. The play ends with Michael leaving to attend midnight mass and recalling a statement made by his father as he died years before: “I don’t understand any of it. I never did.”
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The Boys in the Band is—like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), with which it frequently has been compared—a drama for theater purists. In its economy of dramatic structure and the singularity of its conflict, it relies absolutely on the traditional unities of classical theater—time, place, and action—for its impact.
Like the Albee drama, The Boys in the Band confines its presentation time to exactly the amount of time the events would take in reality, from the moment when Michael is first revealed making arrangements for the evening’s party right up to the moment when he exits the apartment at play’s end. Although the play is arbitrarily divided into a two-act format, it could easily be played without an intermission, since the first act’s ending—with Harold laughing—is picked up without any time lapse at the opening of the second act. It is a pure example of dramatic time unity, and doubtless would have met the standards of either Aristotle or the French drama theorists of the seventeenth century.
The play’s use of the single setting of Michael’s apartment, on the occasion of the gay birthday party, similarly unifies the dramatic tension: The single setting forces the audience into an active identification with the developing conflict between the gay group and the intruding Alan. The play’s viewer either becomes an entrapped, unwelcome guest (as Alan is) or a horrified observer (like the gay men) as Michael presses on with his malicious telephone game. The confining restrictiveness of the apartment is an effective metaphor for the dramatic situation. As Michael tells Alan at one point: “It’s like watching an accident on the highway—you can’t look at it and you can’t look away.” Crowley’s claustrophobic setting fascinates an audience in the same manner.
The conflict between the characters is a unified action, although its metaphorical implications are many. The homosexual world of Michael’s life, particularized in the immediate instance by the birthday party in his apartment, is invaded by the unwelcome heterosexual guest who brings with him all the hostility toward gays of his straight milieu. Alan’s later physical attack on Emory and his condescension to Michael and the homosexual world in the bedroom scene motivates Michael’s determined and bitter retaliation, which provides the ongoing momentum of the drama. In effect, this single battle between Michael and Alan tends to make spectators of the other characters, who become, for the most part, merely pawns of Michael’s revenge until nearly the end of the play, when Harold emerges as the play’s raisonneur to explain to Michael that he actually hates himself.
The play’s set—the smartly appointed duplex apartment in the East Fifties specified by the playwright—serves to underscore Michael’s extravagant lifestyle and his self-indulgence, as well as capturing a more generalized drive among urban homosexuals to be at the cutting edge of fashion and taste. This homosexual ambience is seen, too, in the many references in the Crowley play to motion pictures, past and present, and to other plays. There is a comic mention of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer (pr., pb. 1958) during dinner: Michael announces that the diners have eaten Sebastian Venable. A guest is compared to a character in a William Inge play, and there is a reference to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Michael even inverts a famous line from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) at one point, saying, “Attention must not be paid.” In each case, Crowley uses the characters’ theatrical sophistication to set significant lines of dramatic demarcation for his own work.
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Secret Meeting Places
At the time that this play was written, homosexuality was primarily an underground activity. Most large cities had homosexual communities, but these tended to stay to themselves, shut off from society at large. Most cities had clandestine gathering spots that were known as meeting places for homosexuals, but their existence was never offi- cially recognized. For instance, certain areas of public parks, public rest rooms, train depots, balconies of movie theaters, and YMCAs were known among homosexuals as places to meet other gay men. Because of laws against homosexual activities and hostility toward homosexuals throughout the general public, the people who frequented these places tended to keep a low profile; still, their existence was fairly well known to the police, who would generally leave them alone, unless they were pressured for more arrests, such as when incumbent politicians were up for reelection.
Among the best-known places for gay men to gather in New York were the bathhouses. In The Boys in the Band, this is where Larry says that he and Donald had their brief, anonymous sexual encounter. Many major cities had public bathhouses dating back to the 1800s, when apartments with warm running water were scarce. By the start of the twentieth century, gay men had come to find the bathhouses, where men showered, steamed, and swam nude, to be convenient places to make acquaintances with each other. By the 1950s, there were bathhouses that catered exclusively to gay customers. Police could usually be bribed to leave these establishments alone, although they were always subject to raids. One of the most famous of the New York bathhouses was the Everard Turkish Bath, which opened in 1888 and was recognized as a meeting place for homosexuals by the 1920s. The one-dollar entrance fee included access to the pool, steam room, and a small cubicle with a cot in it. Other New York establishments included the New St. Mark’s, Man’s Country, and the New Barricks. In the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of the Gay Pride Movement, the bathhouses became more open about being places for casual sexual encounters. By the mid-1980s, though, most closed down, as fear of the AIDS epidemic frightened away customers and public health officials moved to revoke the licenses of establishments that encouraged behaviors that would promote the spread of the disease.
The Stonewall Rebellion
The Boys in the Band premiered off-Broadway just a little more than a year before the single most significant event in the history of the Gay Rights Movement: the Stonewall Rebellion in New York. This event changed the way that the world looked at homosexuals and, more significantly, at the way that gays viewed themselves.
Throughout history, most societies have had a specific homosexual minority. In America, this group traditionally avoided confrontation, realizing that public exposure was usually followed by persecution. During the 1950s, for example, when some politicians gained fame for themselves by stirring up fear of Communism infiltrating our culture, there was a rise of virulent homophobia. Gays and suspected gays were fired from their jobs regularly by people who believed that Communists could get sensitive secrets from them with blackmail, by threatening to expose their sexual orientation. In the 1960s, on the other hand, many minority groups followed the methods and reasoning of the Civil Rights Movement to gain recognition and respect. It was the start of the Black Power Movement, the Woman’s Liberation Movement, and the American Indian Movement, to name just a few. The very fact that a play like The Boys in the Band was reviewed in national publications indicates that the country was aware that there was a homosexual culture that was distinct but really not that different than the mainstream.
On the night of June 27, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The Village, as it is referred to in Crowley’s play, was home to quite a few bars catering to gay clientele: the Checkerboard, the Sewer, and the Snake Pit were just a few. In spite of laws that made homosexual activities illegal, police generally left the gay bars alone, but in the preceding few weeks they had made a sweep through the Village and shut several establishments down. Several factors came together: the growing recognition of gays and their resistance to being treated like criminals for their private sexual lives, the fact that many patrons at the Stonewall Inn were there because their favorite bars had already been closed, and the heat of the summer night. As police began to lead the bar’s customers out to paddy wagons, a crowd gathered and began to chant. The situation erupted into violence when the last patron put up a struggle; as police tried to subdue her, the crowd threw coins, bricks, and bottles. The police on the scene had to retreat into the empty bar, which protestors set on fire. When the riot squad arrived, they managed to disburse the crowd, but the following night, violence flared up again in the Village. Over the next few days, gay men and women from the outlying areas, who had heard about the fledgling rebellion, came to participate. Riots were averted, but the message was clear that homosexuals would no longer quietly accept laws or practices that relegated them to the status of second-class citizens.
As a direct result of the Stonewall Rebellion, gay rights groups proliferated. Ten days after the initial action at Stonewall, the first ‘‘Gay Power’’ meeting was held in Greenwich Village. The movement grew, working to raise society’s consciousness of the homosexuals among them and, more importantly, teaching gays to be proud of who they are. In just a few years, the self-loathing displayed by the characters in The Boys in the Band already looked dated, a relic of a time when gays had to live in seclusion and to regret being the way they were— as gay poet Allen Ginsburg, quoted in Rutledge (put it in a speech soon after Stonewall), ‘‘They’ve lost that wounded look fags all had ten years ago.’’
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The Boys in the Band is a play that takes place in New York City in the late 1960s. It re- flects a social situation in which gay men were free enough to gather together privately but were still oppressed enough to feel the degree of selfcontempt exhibited by most of the characters here. The characters engage in urbane, witty dialog that New York Times critic Clive Barnes characterized as ‘‘camp or homosexual humor.’’ Noting the effect of gay culture on New York, Barnes went on to note, ‘‘Indeed, the New York Wit, famous the world over, is little more than a mixture of Jewish humor and homosexual humor seen through the bottom of a dry martini glass.’’ From the characters’ awareness of fashion and good places to shop to the fact that Michael is characterized as a world traveler, there is every indication that these people could not exist as they do in anything smaller than the western hemisphere’s center of culture and commerce.
Even though the mood of the time and place is important to understanding the social dynamics of the characters, still, the play takes place in one enclosed place, Michael’s apartment. The world outside is experienced only through the things that the characters say about how they live their lives. The telephone is important because it connects them to society beyond that one apartment: in almost every case when they telephone out, they suffer from rejection, giving audiences of all time periods the sense of how closed and insulated homosexual society could be, even in a major city like New York.
Although The Boys in the Band does not have a strong plot line in the traditional sense, it does center around one particular idea, keeping readers in suspense over the outcome. At the center of all of the revelations that come out on the night of Harold’s birthday party is the question of whether Alan McCarthy is ready to admit to himself and to others that he is gay. There seems to be little doubt about his sexual orientation from the start, when he is described as crying, ‘‘Great heaves and sobs. Really boo-hoo-hoo time—and that’s not his style at all.’’ Later, when Alan shows up, it is clear that he can tell (or at least has a pretty good idea) that everyone at the party is gay, but he does not leave. He becomes irrationally upset about Emory’s effeminate behavior, as if he is threatened by the sight of a man who is comfortable with acting unmanly. All of the signs indicate that Alan will eventually admit to being a homosexual, leading right up to Michael’s revelation that Alan has engaged in homosexual behavior before, with Justin Stuart.
The portion of the play that takes place before Alan arrives serves to establish Michael’s normal character and behavior. After Alan reconciles with his wife and leaves, Michael stays on stage trying to cope with the changes that Alan’s presence have effected on his life. The whole drama is centered on Michael’s relationship to what Alan knows and doesn’t know and how Alan feels about himself. Michael is the central character, who is on stage throughout the play’s running time, but his character is defined by what Alan does.
The language used in The Boys in the Band is distinctive in its wit and cleverness, with frequent puns, sly put-downs, and allusions to movies, plays, and literature abounding. Just one instance would be the banter that ensues when a group of party guests arrives together:
Emory: (Loud aside to Michael.) I think they’re going to have their first fight.
Larry: (Leans on landing) The first one since we got out of the taxi.
Michael: (RE: EMORY) Where’d you find this trash?
Larry: Downstairs leaning against a lamppost.
Emory: With an orchid behind my ear and big wet lips painted over the lipline.
Michael: Just like Maria Montez.
Donald: Oh, please.
Emory: (crossing to Donald) What have you got against Maria? She was a good woman.
To a great extent, this kind of language is a reflection of Mart Crowley’s writing style, his way of keeping audiences entertained each moment they watch his play. Often, authors will write dialog that has all of the characters speaking with the same verbal style, and this is usually seen as a weakness, as a sign that the writer lacks the imagination to create different styles for each character. In this play, however, the consistency of speaking style helps to give readers a sense of the close-knit, unified worldview of this particular gay community. This is highlighted by the fact that the Cowboy does not ‘‘get’’ many of the sophisticated references: although he is gay, he is an outsider to this particular social circle, and so he is left out of the situation. The characters make fun of the Cowboy’s simplicity, at his inability to keep up with their verbal banter, even though they accept him on a different, physical level.
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1968: Homosexuality is considered a criminal act in many states.
Today: Although a few states retain anti-sodomy laws (most notably Georgia, which went to the Supreme Court in 1986 to defend theirs), they are seldom enforced.
1968: Homosexuality is listed as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association. Homosexuals go to psychiatrists to be ‘‘cured.’’
Today: The APA dropped its disease designation in 1974. There is still conflicting research regarding whether homosexuality is genetic or learned.
1968: When homosexual characters show up in movies or plays, they are often flamboyant comic characters or pathetically confused individuals who end up killing themselves. Homosexuals rarely appear on television.
Today: Well-rounded gay characters are increasingly common on television, in plays, and in films.
1968: Gays are considered promiscuous and incapable of forming lasting personal relationships.
Today: Several states allow commitment ceremonies that accord gay couples legal rights similar to those given to heterosexual marriages. Gays still cannot marry, in part due to a ‘‘Defense of Marriage’’ act signed by President Clinton in 1996.
1968: Homosexuals live in fear of physical attacks by those who are violently opposed to homosexuality.
Today: Such attacks still occur, but most states and municipalities have hate crime legislation that threatens severe punishment to anyone who attacks someone because of his or her sexual preference.
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Beams, David W. “Mart Crowley.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988.
de Jongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. 1992. A thorough and interesting history of the portrayal of homosexuals on the stage.
Duberman, Martin. Review of The Boys in the Band. Partisan Review 35 (Summer, 1968): 418.
Feingold, Michael. “Queerly Beloved.” Village Voice 27 (July 2, 1996).
Jay, Karla, and Allen Young. “Theatre: Gays in the Marketplace vs. Gays for Themselves.” In Lavender Culture. New York: Jove, 1978.
Kroll, Gerry. “And the Band Played On.” Advocate 708 (July 28, 1996): 47.
Raymond, Gerard. “Boys Will Be Boys: Crowley’s Characters Get a Second Opinion.” Village Voice 25 (July 2, 1996): 83.
Reed, Rex. “Breakthrough by The Boys in the Band.” New York Times, May 12, 1968, pp. 1, 11.
Reed, Rex. “Mart Crowley.” In Conversations in the Raw: Dialogues, Monologues, and Selected Short Subjects. New York: World, 1969.
Tyler, Parker. Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. 1972. Rev. ed. New York: Da Capo, 1993.
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Mart Crowley wrote the screenplay for the 1970 film version of The Boys in the Band, which starred the entire Broadway cast (Frederick Combs, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, etc.). It was directed by William Friedkin and is available on CBS/Fox Home Video.
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Augstums, Ieva, ‘‘Pioneering Playwright Shares Experiences with UNL Students,’’ in the Daily Nebraskan, March 13, 1998.
Barnes, Clive, ‘‘Boys in the Band Opens Off Broadway,’’ in the New York Times, April 15, 1968, p. 48.
Canby, Vincent, Review of the movie The Boys in the Band, in the New York Times, March 18, 1970, p. 36.
Clurman, Harold, Review of The Boys in the Band, in the Nation, April 29, 1968, p. 60.
Regan, Margaret, ‘‘Birthday Bash: Millennium Theatre’s Boys in the Band Is Older but Not Wiser,’’ in Tucson Weekly, July 3–9, 1997.
Rutledge, Leigh W., The Gay Decade: From Stonewall to the Present, The Penguin Group, 1992, p. 3.
‘‘The Theater: New Plays,’’ Review in Time, April 26, 1968, p. 97.
Adam, Barry D., The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement, rev. ed., Twayne, 1995. Called ‘‘the classic of its field,’’ this academic text traces the movement for gay rights back to its origins in Germany in the 1890s. More concerned with gay politics than any of the characters in the play, it is still useful for background to the world that Crowley changed.
Kaiser, Charles, ‘‘The Sixties,’’ in Gay Metropolis: 1940– 1996, Houghton Mifflin, 1997. This much-lauded history of New York contains a long section explaining the ground-breaking impact of The Boys in the Band when it first appeared.
Marcus, Eric, Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights, 1945–1990, HarperCollins, 1992. The Boys in the Band falls right in the middle of the area covered by this oral history, which includes interviews with people from all walks of life who talk about what it was like for homosexuals while the world was beginning to acknowledge gay rights.
Rutledge, Leigh W., The Gay Decades: From Stonewall to the Present, Plume, 1992. This book gives a detailed, month-by-month account of gay history right after the opening of The Boys in the Band, starting with Judy Garland’s death on June 22, 1969, and continuing up into the 1990s.
van Leer, David, The Queening of America: Gay Culture in Straight Society, Routledge Press, 1995. van Leer examines the ways in which homosexual sub-culture has been incorporated into mainstream America, a feat that The Boys in the Band is famous for.