The closet door was, I think, a one-way mirror. Those inside could see out; those outside saw only their own reflections. That this has changed and that the existence of the closet became known is due in part to a few pioneers, and I honestly don’t believe Harvey Fierstein gets enough credit for being one of them. And that’s not just because he remains one of the best celebrity guest stars in the history of The Simpsons, not least because of his delivery of the line, “My mother told me never to kiss a fool!”
I admit I haven’t seen Torch Song Trilogy; the library didn’t have it. But it seems, from what I know, to have been a deeply personal play to Fierstein. At the time, he still did stand-up and drag performing, and he’s been open about his sexuality from the start, so far as I know. For a while, it seemed as though, if you wanted a gay character to appeal to mainstream audiences, you’d cast Fierstein. There is something too lovable about him to make it okay to hate him for who he is. Though Gods know I’m certain plenty of people managed it nonetheless.
While The Celluloid Closet is more about characters than performers, Fierstein’s experiences are nonetheless deeply relevant. In part, this gets back to the whole “representation matters” thing. Fierstein identifies with the sissies played by the likes of Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, he says, and I think the idea that some children saw these characters—coded gay but never referred to as such, of course—and felt seen does mean something, though of course it’s much better that they can now, you know, just see Harvey Fierstein instead. As I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you. And of course, there is his work as Approachable Gay Man.
Honestly, he’s also on my list of “why haven’t we done more for his career?” It’s not that he’s ever really out of work—if nothing else, he seems to be able to get voice work when people want to joke that a woman has an extremely deep voice, which I wish people would stop with—but I think most people, when they think of him, think of the cameos. They don’t think of his talent. He’s not a comedian or a dramatic actor in their minds; he’s a bit part. That’s not fair to him, and it’s not fair to us to leave that amount of his work unacknowledged and miss out on the rest of it.
And, okay, if I personally still mostly think of him in The Celluloid Closet first, well, that’s also where I think of Tom Hanks. And Gore Vidal. That’s pretty decent company to be in, and I still recommend the documentary to people every chance I get, especially if they grew up in the days when the closet door stood open. And if it’s still dark in there, and you can’t always see who’s in the shadows, at least we are all now aware that the closet is there. And the door is open, with Harvey Fierstein one of the people who made sure it would be so.