With a new album in stores and a movie on the way, everyone can get a dose of gay America's sweetheart
By Jeff Walsh
Harvey Fierstein has earned three Tony Awards for "Torch Song Trilogy" and his written version of "La Cage Aux Folles." His starring performance in the movie version of "Torch Song Trilogy" has helped hundreds of thousands of people accept their own sexuality and the sexuality of other family members. And younger audiences are sure to remember his hilarious role as Robin Williams' gay brother in "Mrs. Doubtfire."
But when Fierstein called this reporter to do our interview in late December, he immediately responded with an enthusiastic "It's Harvey!" and the call seemed less like an interview with an esteemed writer and actor and more like two friends talking.
Harvey has that effect on people. A quick listen to his new album "This Is Not Going to Be Pretty" produces the same reaction. The first thing you hear is that gravely voice reaching through the speakers to give you a hug like an old friend.
Gay and American icons
Fierstein is a gay renaissance man. He's equally talented on stage, on film and on television. His new album features songs, dramatic monologues and Harvey dishing and dissing everyone from Barbra Streisand to Bob Dole, Carol Channing to Pat Buchanan.
The album was recorded during two shows Fierstein performed at The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village during last year's gay pride days. He says he did the shows because the previous year, despite featuring the Gay Games and the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, he didn't have any fun.
"I realized I did all these events for everybody. I didn't stop," he says. "I was running here, running there -- doing this event, doing that event. In the long run, I didn't have almost any fun at all, and I didn't make any statement of my own.
"I was simply sort of being the gay icon," he says. "Drag out Harvey again. Here he is, he's still alive. That's the way I felt. I didn't feel very productive. I didn't celebrate this momentous occasion in my own way."
In 1995, he did his show his way for two nights with his message -- live free and proud.
"I wanted to do a couple old things, and new things, and the rest would be totally unplanned," he says. "It would be where I am, and 'How are you?' I really thought of it as, even though it was going to be in this space, that it would be my living room, kind of.
"My brother, who was one of the producers on Torch Song, has a record label. And he says, 'Why don't I record it? And if you like it, we'll put it out. If you don't, we won't.' So, I said 'Cool' and that's what we did. The reason I wanted to put it out is because I have so many requests for appearances and I can't get everywhere. So, I thought this would be a nice way to visit everybody, at least audibly."
The CD cover features many American flags, a point Fierstein addresses from the stage, which was also strewn with flags. In one of many pointed barbs he hurls at the Christian Right, he says: "If they want to hide behind something, let them hide behind their guns, let them hide behind their Bibles, let them hide behind their lies ... but not behind my flag."
Fierstein distances himself from the role "Torch Song Trilogy" has played in the lives of so many gay and lesbians accepting their sexuality. Whenever gay films are mentioned in online discussion groups, or just passed from one gay teen to another, his film is invariably mentioned as a film that has helped people deal better with their sexuality.
"It's a wonderful thing to know," he says. "But when you write a piece, it's like giving birth to a child. Once it's out there, it's like a grown child that you hear from every now and then. It's got a life of its own."
Fierstein says he still gets letters from people who used the film to do their coming out to their parents for them.
"Some kids sit them down with no sort of preparation -- well, they've had a lifetime of preparation. What parent doesn't really know?," he says. "All of the sudden, the parents get sat down in front of the TV. 'We're going to watch a movie now.' And the kid is looking at them strangely, following their every eye movement as they watch the movie."
Fierstein says every generation has had some pop culture way to tell your parents you're gay. "In my day, we used Both Sides Now, the Joni Mitchell song," he says.
Fierstein says he never had to come out of the closet. "I always knew," he says. "There was no big hullabaloo. I went to a high school in the city that I always tease about. I say it was an all-gay high school, but they bussed in heterosexuals.
"I had gay role models from the beginnings, both adults and people my own age, so it was a very easy access to the name, at least, the label," he says. "Finding love on the other hand... that's everybody's personal struggle. Finding someone to do it with."
Harvey's advice to gay teens
Fierstein understands not everyone's growing up was similar. But he says that every gay teen can grow up to be happy, healthy and find someone to love.
"I think the most important thing you have to do is take care of yourself, that's the first thing," Fierstein says. "You've got to take as good care of yourself as possible. I say this to gay kids whenever I talk to them.
"The best thing they can do is to insist on the best education they can get. If they're having trouble in schools, because of being gay or whatever, get help, get into a special school," he says. "Do not let them take that away from you. You're going to need that education in this really rough world. And we are better, you know?, so why not take everything life has to offer and then be better.
"More important than that is to control what goes in and out of your own body. Nobody can give you AIDS, you've got to go out and get it. And we know how not to get it, and we just have to do it," he says. "The older generation that's been through 15 years of the AIDS crisis has done a horrible, horrible job of getting kids to understand. With a 17-year-old who grew up in the age of AIDS, using a condom should be second nature. There shouldn't be any question at all, and yet there is, because we still have kids getting infected.
"You've got to be master of what goes in and comes out of your body. Gay life is too good, you don't want to throw it away by being unconscious," he says. "Alcohol, sex, drugs -- you're in charge of your body. You can say what it's going to be and who it's going to be.
"And you don't have to be alone. There's lots and lots of other people out there," he says. "You can reach out to them via cyber, just keep reaching out and you'll find a group of people. There are great friends out there.
"You may feel like you're the only one in your small town, and you feel alone," he says. "Well, guess what? Nobody's alone, you just have to reach out, and somebody will be there."
Fierstein also thinks it's a good idea to join a national gay organization to give something back to the community.
Harvey does Hollywood
Fierstein will be featured in his first big budget Hollywood movie this summer. In "Independence Day," coming out July 4, he joins an all-star male cast featuring Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Will Smith and Judd Hirsch. The movie revolves around aliens attacking the earth.
"For me, it's exciting because it's one of those 100-million dollar big budget movies which I've never done before," he says. "And I'm one of the boys. It stars ten men, these regular male stars. It was real fun not to be in a women's picture."
But is his character gay? It is to Fierstein, since there's no indication he's not gay.
"When I play it, I play it as a human being, and I think all human beings are gay," he says. "But, what the writer and director have in mind, they don't tell me.
"In the heterosexual world, they perceive everyone is heterosexual, unless they say otherwise," he says. "In my world, I assume everyone's gay, unless they say otherwise."
But for Hollywood, having gay actors play gay roles is still an anomaly, Fierstein says.
"Usually if it's a good gay role, the last person they want is a gay person to play it. Look around," Fierstein says. "What good gay role has been played by a gay actor, except for Mrs. Doubtfire?
"And really, though it was great visibility for me, and for whatever reason the audience really latched onto my character, I'm only in three scenes," he says. "I'm on screen for 10 minutes out of a two hour movie. It was really wonderful, but that's actually a three-scene role. I mean Antonio Banderas had a lot more screen time in "Philadelphia."
Philadelphia -- the movie that fractured the gay community. While some liked the visibility of Tom Hanks playing a gay man for Middle America, many gays criticized Hanks' and Banderas' portrayal of a gay couple that barely kissed and the movie's lack of openly gay actors in the finished film.
"I was basically a critic of the director of 'Philadelphia,' who went out and said I'm going to hire openly gay people for the movie and then bandied about that he'd hired Quentin Crisp and a bunch of other people," he says. "And when the movie opened -- did you see this? -- they were all in ONE party sequence. I thought that was pretty disgusting.
"Even though I'm not a fan of Philadelphia, I certainly don't take it out on Tom Hanks. If I was offered that role, even if it was the part of a heterosexual, I would have taken it. I don't blame him.
"But it would have been nice if a gay person had a line in the movie... Well, (openly gay actor) David Drake has three. There was no reason for David Drake not to have played the lover," he says. "It's homophobia. But gay people don't like seeing themselves on screen. We'll write more about ourselves, but when it comes down to seeing ourselves, we don't care if we're on the screen."
The road to equality
Fierstein is no stranger to criticism of his work, either. He says many people approached him after "Torch Song Trilogy" which featured Fierstein as the lead character -- an effeminate, Jewish drag queen. Fierstein recalls some of the internalized homophobia that lurked in conversations he had with people:
"Oh, but Harvey, you played that role and it was kind of a stereotype because he's Jewish and he's kind of effeminate," he says. "Well, excuse me, I'm Jewish and kind of effeminate. What should I do? Pretend to be someone else? Affect a heterosexual manner so not to put down the movement? Should all drag queens be killed? Should we take all butch lesbians and give them Oprah makeovers? What do you want from us?
"When people say they don't want to see that, what they don't want to see it that in themselves," he says. "And it's sad and what holds us back in the long run."
Even today, whether to mainstream or whether to be ourselves is a constant struggle in the gay community's quest for equal rights, Fierstein says.
"It goes back and forth," Fierstein says. "When Stonewall first happened, you had the organizations that existed at that time like The Mattachine Society. They held the first meeting after Stonewall. They sat there in their white button-down shirts and skinny ties, which was the normal people clothing of the day, and said: 'This is how we protest. We must look like them, we must act like them, and show them that we are the same.' That's always the way the gay movement has been. So (with Stonewall), for the first time, a bunch of drag queens stood up and said 'Excuse me, we are going to show them that we are different.' So, you have that yin-yang and they've always existed.
"There were years where they encourage people not to come in drag to the gay day parade, and not to wear your leather jacket," he says. "And there were years where they encouraged people to be outrageous as possible."
"It's the media's fault how we're covered," Fierstein says. "When you get a couple hundred thousand people out for a gay day march, and on television they show you a bunch of drag queens for 30 seconds and then for 45 seconds show you the five anti-gay protesters in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral. That's called fair coverage? We shouldn't change because the media does a bad job."
No Newt is good Newt
Fierstein hopes the media is out in full force for the 1996 Republican National Convention. At the 1992 convention, Pat Buchanan's anti-gay speech was a highlight.
"I'm hoping for a good, bloody Republican convention. They're really high now after the last election and the Newt Gingrich revolution," Fierstein says. "Unfortunately, the polls are starting to come out now saying America is no longer falling for it. But, I'm hoping that they're still high enough on what they do to go out there and make the last convention look like a nursery school meeting.
"People say all the time, we've got to shut them up, shut them up," he says. "No! The best thing you can do is give them the biggest microphone you can get and say 'Come up here and tell us who you are.' Because in the long run, they hate us because they can make money on us. So, it's a simple solution for them to keep getting their money: we have to fight these scary homos who will play with your children. And they've made a lot of money off of us.
"In the last convention, there was a certain percentage of the Christian Right there, but they are already guaranteeing four times more. So, it should be good and disgusting, not that the last one wasn't, but this one should really turn people off and let people know who they are.
"These are the very same people who when you ask them about Iran, they tell you it's disgusting, with the Ayatollah running that place, and pushing people into this religion," he says. "And then they turn around and try to do the same thing here, and they don't get that it's the same."
"'Oh no, that's Islamic crap, this is Christian values,'" he says, mimicking a Christian conservative. "It's the same crapola -- 'I've got the answers, my God's the good God, I'm going to heaven and you can't' -- it's the same bullshit."
If Fierstein seems angry, he says anger is something "any gay man living" should have.
"All in all, we are not treated very well," he says. "When any idiot, any stupid ... dropout, low-life piece of shit that will never do anything in their life at all has more rights than the greatest gay person that contributes to society and the world, I think something is terribly wrong and anger is an appropriate response."
Another thing Fierstein says he constantly has to respond to is people who know they know him, but can't remember from where. "That happens all the time. 'I went to high school with you, I know I know you from high school.' 'You used to work in the mall, didn't you?'
"It's kind of amusing," he says, "but it can be a little annoying sometimes, if they absolutely insist. The other day a woman came up to me and said: 'Are you who you look like?' I said 'That's really a deep question and I don't want to give you a flip answer, so give me your address.'"
But that's not the worst case scenario of fame.
"What's worse is anyone who has a head cold," Fierstein says, quickly imitating a sickly "Ooh, I sound like you." When this reporter points out he has a head cold and didn't mention anything, Fierstein says: "I'm so proud of you. You get ten points in my book for that."
Aside from his future movie projects, Fierstein enjoys taking life easy and living it to the fullest. "I've got a couple things I'm writing now," he says. "One thing the AIDS crisis taught me is life is really short. So, I do my work that I have to do, get my charity work done, and leave a lot of time to enjoy my family and friends. I'm not a workaholic, never have been."
Fierstein recently joined America Online, finally caving in and buying a modem in September. "At first, I did online chat and GIF trading," he says, laughing. "I got this great Antonio Banderas, have you seen that? It's Antonio Banderas nude."
But seeing the amount of naked celebrity GIFs proved detrimental to Fierstein. "I was at a nude beach a lot this summer, and it kept me from ever taking off my clothes," he says. "Like, what if there's someone around here with a camera? It's going to be online in 20 minutes. I'll go online, and someone will say: "Hey have you seen the new Harvey Fierstein GIF?"
He still has a modest collection of celebrities on his hard drive. "I have two Brad Pitts. I have one where it's obviously not him, with a head glued on. And then .. did you see the one of him by the pool? It made lovely Christmas cards," he says, breaking into infectious laughter.