Harvey Fierstein is a living legend we can all learn from — and you can start by reading his book
"Ask the young people where they want to go. It is our job to help them get there."
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It's been nominated for a 2022 Digital Publishing Award for best column in Canada.
*This article contains explicit language.
There are few gay men on this planet more worthy of a "living legend" status than Harvey Fierstein. It's a truth I was certainly aware of when this column named him one of the most iconic queers in cultural history earlier this year, though I admittedly did not come to fully comprehend how legendary until I spent a recent week devouring his truly staggering memoir, I Was Better Last Night.
Quilting together the actor, playwright, drag queen and director's life over 59 wildly entertaining and elegantly emotional chapters, I Was Better Last Night ultimately doubles as a documentation of the evolution of gay culture over half a century, as told to you by one of its greatest assets. It should be required reading for the generations of queers Fierstein so unapologetically paved the way for.
If you do decide to rightfully add it to your reading list, may I make a recommendation: I consumed I Was Better Last Night through a method I've adopted to help my attention challenged mind fully focus on a book for more than 15 minutes at a time: physically reading it while listening to its audiobook at the same time. This resulted in spending 12 hours over the course of 7 nights with Fierstein's distinctive gravelly voice (the result of an overdeveloped vestibular fold in his vocal cord, as the book notes) in my earphones, guiding me through pages of his own words. I would now like all my future audiobooks to be read by Harvey Fierstein.
The morning after I finished, it was admittedly rather surreal to hear that same voice on the other end of a phone when Fierstein was connected with me for a scheduled interview (hence the condensed time frame of needing to finish the book). I decided to try and break the ice by telling him about my little dual process.
"You did what?" Fierstein asked.
I repeat myself.
"At the same time?"
"Yes," I say, regretting this decision.
"Well … I hope you weren't driving."
Fierstein immediately eases into joyfully telling me about his process, even though the book's been out since March and I'm surely not the first to ask him many of my questions.
"I never even attempted to write anything like this before," he tells me. "So who knew I could?"
Shirley MacLaine apparently did, because that's who Fierstein called for advice when he decided to accept the challenge.
"I thought she'd be the perfect person to ask because she's written so many memoirs," he says. "And she gave me really terrific advice, which was to allow your memory to edit your life. Write down what comes to mind as it comes to mind and trust that process. And that's what I did. I let it sort of flow. I wanted it to feel like I was having a conversation with you. That I was telling stories to somebody around the living room kind of feeling."
That's very much how the book feels, whether those stories are about Fierstein's childhood in 1950s Brooklyn or his experience in the gay rights movement of the 1970s or his many, many memorable roles on stage and screen, from Torch Song Trilogy to Mrs. Doubtfire to Hairspray. Though there was one story that felt particularly difficult to tell.
"When I recorded audio of the book, I didn't know what that was going to be like because I'm so dyslexic," he says. "They told me it would take three days and it actually took me six days because I'm so slow, which was fine. And I got through reading everything with no problem at all emotionally, except for that one part in the AIDS section where I said that I felt like the heterosexuals, you know, gave us a hug, said we're so sorry and walked away and left us to die."
Feirstein said after reading it, he had to stand up in the studio, excuse himself and go walk around the block a few times.
Just shut the f--k up and ask the young people where they want to go. It is our job to help them get there, not to tell them where to go.- Harvey Fierstein
"That didn't happen any other time during the reading of the book and obviously there's lots of deaths in the book and there's lots of heartbreak. But it was that one truth about how alone we were and how you felt that straight people wished we would all just go die and get out of the way."
The exact sentences read as follows, and I had to take a minute myself after hearing/reading them: "I have never been able to shake the feeling that the heterosexual community at large let us die. They wished us well, turned their backs, issuing sighs of relief that they had nothing to worry about. I've buried the ashes of three friends in my yard. I suppose a piece of me is out there as well.:
For all younger queers can learn from Fierstein's experiences, he also makes clear how important it is for him — and all of us — to also listen to those that come after.
"I'm so old that I'm not really comfortable with the word 'queer,'" he says, I assume referencing my repeated use of the word to identify myself. "That's how old I am. And I think I really understood it best in a story I tell in the book about when I realized that younger people were pushing for marriage equality. I thought, what a waste of time. We have so many other battles. We have gay people being medicated in hospitals. We have them being beaten in churches and thrown out of their homes. And we have gay kids out on the street. The suicide rates of our kids is so high. What the f--k do you care about a wedding cake?"
But Fierstein's instinct told him to "follow the young people where they want to go," so he did.
"They turned out to be right. Because finally, heterosexuals at large understood what we wanted. All those lies about us, you know, like 'they want to steal our children' and 'they just want to f--k your husband' and all of that kind of crap all of a sudden became 'oh, they want to get insurance' and 'oh, they want a mortgage' and 'oh, they want to be able to rent an apartment together'. All of a sudden, it made sense to a lot of heterosexuals that it hadn't made sense to before. So they were right. And it was a great lesson to me that I try to pass on to old people, which is … just shut the f--k up and ask the young people where they want to go. It is our job to help them get there, not to tell them where to go."
Fierstein does admit that he doesn't always fully understand younger LGBTQ people.
"This new generation is actually asking about gender and gender roles," he says. "And I find it fascinating. Frightening and challenging, but fascinating. I want to see where it goes. But I don't always know where we are right now, whether it's with the terminology or …'"
Fierstein trails off for a second, and then gets excited with a new thought.
"Did you hear this story? You're in Canada so maybe it didn't make it up there. But a couple of weeks ago, at the opening of Funny Girl on Broadway, there was a reporter from a gossip page out on the street, you know, in front of the theater and the red carpet. And she said to me, 'how am I supposed to address you now? Are you gay? Are you queer? Are you monosexual?' I just looked at her and I said 'honey, just call me a c--ksucker. With that, at least I understand.'"
Harvey Fierstein turns 70 next month, on June 6th. Going into this milestone, he seems extremely happy about the response to his book, which made it onto the New York Times best seller list.
"I have never heard of a bad review of the book, except one that doesn't really count," he says. "My friend told me there is a one star review of the book on Amazon, and I said, 'well don't show it to me, asshole!' It's like that line I say in the book, 'you don't need to read reviews, if they're good they'll be on the front of the theatre, if they're bad, your family will tell you.' But my friend said I have to see this review on Amazon."
The reviewer's complaint was that she bought one copy, sent it back, got another copy and that it's still damaged.
"She said the pages have been damaged and that the edges of the pages don't line up exactly. Well, it's deckle edge! You know, which costs a fortune to do. It makes the book very special. It means that [the publisher] Knopf really believed in the book to do that kind of beautiful, expensive thing. And it's like, you've taken down the entire average reaction to the book because you don't know what a deckal edge is!"
Fierstein pauses for a moment.
"Isn't that life though? Isn't there something wonderfully real about that?"
If only more of us could adopt Fierstein's approach to criticism … and everything else, for that matter.
You can wish Fierstein a happy 70th by reading his deckel edge memoir, and then giving it the 5 star review it deserves.