The Problem with “Social Progress”: LGBT History Should Teach Us To Challenge The Present, Not Assume Everything Is Sorted

Inspired by responses to the recent National Theatre Live production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Adam Kirkbride contemplates the dangers that arise when we assume the problems of the past are no longer visited upon the present.

Around this time last year, I went to see the National Theatre Live performance of Tennessee Williams’ magnificent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Benedict Andrews. I found the performance stunning and utterly moving. Jack O’Connell’s Brick was visceral and hard-hitting, Sienna Miller’s Maggie tempting and primal, and Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy was heartwarming and powerful with no difficulty in finding the balance between these two personas. However, I digress; this post is not a review of that production.

Immediately after leaving the cinema I began looking for reviews and other people’s thoughts on this reinterpretation of such an electric text. I was surprised to find a number of reviews and comments that were dissatisfied with Andrews’ choice to set the play in a modern setting, rather than the original setting of the 1950s American South, a brave choice that I personally believe worked incredibly well.

Guardian critic Michael Billington calls the change in setting “questionable”, reasoning that “in the era of same-sex marriage, you feel the characters would be less shy about discussing Brick’s ambivalent relationship with his dead friend, Skipper.” He goes on to write “while Williams’s study of the conflict between truth and illusion may be timeless, it works best when rooted in the detailed realism of the American South in the 1950s.”

As a bisexual man with deep connections to the LGBTQ+ community, I feel that, although statements like Billington’s have some truth within them, these comments reek of ignorance.

When thinking about social issues, we have a strange tendency to assume that as time progresses society naturally becomes more accepting. The truth, of course, is nowhere near as straightforward as this assumption suggests. If we take the previously mentioned topic of homosexuality as an example and apply it to the idea that more ancient people were less accepting, one would assume that the ancient Greeks would have viewed homosexuality in any form despicable. However, when examining the issue, we see that not only was homosexuality thought to be superior to heterosexuality by many Greek philosophers, but scholars such as Véronique Mottier suggest that homosexual relationships between adult and pubescent males was “presented as a normal part of the education of a young man”.

This is obviously a rather extreme example, but it serves to prove the point I’m trying to make. Just because we are further forward in a timeline, does not necessarily mean we are more accepting. When Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was published in 1955, homosexuality was still a criminal offence. It was written only five years after the start of the Lavender Scare, a mass outing and subsequent firing of suspected homosexual workers from federal employment, and written only two years after Executive Order 10450, which stopped homosexuals from working in the federal government (leading to approximately 5000 suspected homosexuals being fired).

It is easy to understand that this period must have been terrifying for the LGBTQ+ community. It is also easy to detach that period from the reality in which we exist and assume that the events of 60 years ago would never happen again. Surely today there would be no reason for Brick to enter a sham marriage, right?

While it is comforting to believe this, and ultimately more realistic to believe this now than it would have been sixty years ago, there is no reason that the events of the play couldn’t happen today. There is nothing to say that Brick is specifically homosexual and not bisexual. Moreover, marriages between gay people of one gender and straight people of the opposite gender still happen and discounting the reality of this in a modern era fundamentally devalues and marginalizes the reality that LGBTQ+ people face every day.

Yes, in 2018 homosexuality was legal in the USA, but it was only in 2003 that the supreme court finally invalidated sodomy laws from the final 14 states which had not yet eliminated them. It was only in 2015 that the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage accessible in all states. Despite all of this, homophobia still exists, as much as we may wish it did not. In the USA, only 15 states have implemented laws banning gay conversion therapy (which is proven to be ineffectual and damaging), and current Vice President Mike Pence has previously supported using government funds to provide finance for those who wish to change their sexual orientation. The careful phrasing of his comment may not outright mention gay conversion therapy, but anyone with any basic skills of inference will realize what this statement means, with most recipients of this treatment being forced into it by their family.

My point is that social progress is not as simple as we often like to believe. Homophobia still exists and there is more than enough evidence to show that it does. Just because something is legal, does not mean everyone is accepting of it. We can view plays like Cat as a piece of LGBTQ+ history. I believe it is a truly amazing piece of literature surrounding the subject of homosexuality, and it accurately captures the attitudes of the time it was written. However, it captures these attitudes best in Brick’s internalised homophobia. Yes, we can view the text as history, but it is foolish to pretend that its contents are unrelated to our present day society.