The passing of legendary playwright Terrence McNally at 81 years old yesterday of complications from COVID-19 made global headlines, often for the wrong reasons. He was more often referred to as one of the first illustrious victims of the virus rather than as the American treasure he was, as well as one of the main contributors to LGBT+ liberation in the US and beyond.
Tony Award-winning writer McNally had previously overcome lung cancer in the late 1990s which cost him portions of both of his lungs due to the disease and was therefore particularly susceptible to COVID-19.
Today we should not forget that the LGBT+ community not only mourns one of its best cantors but also a tireless activist [read “The Inheritance” Matthew Lopez in the Los Angeles Times today: Terrence McNally showed the gay community a vision of life with dignity].
It is also a terrible and sudden loss for Broadway fans, employees and actors which were already hit the hardest by a quarantine making gatherings for shows impossible.
McNally brought to Broadway the stories of gay men, long before it was fashionable to do so. His first Broadway success, the Ritz, in 1975 takes place in a renowned bathhouse while Love!Valour!Compassion! which premiered in 1994 is about enduring gay friendships.
He continued telling these stories over the years – producing most recently “The Inheritance” often described as the seminal story of gay men in the 21st century. You can read my review here: The Inheritance”: a 7 long-hour gay Seder on the theme of Honesty.
Besides being the only redeeming part of Times Square, Broadway is often used as shorthand for theater itself in the US. I recently recollected how during my time at the UN, Ambassador Samantha Power would bring UN envoys to see award-winning shows, such as the play Fun Home which is centered around a lesbian character and her gay father, in order to get them to grasp the life experience of LGBT+ people.
At Out Leadership, we believe that storytelling is the cornerstone of gay liberation. We do not know the recipe for social change or how to explain the radical shift in public attitudes towards LGBT+ people we observed in the US and many other parts of the World. But we know that sharing our life experience is key to generating empathy and make progress in our struggle for equality.
I had the privilege to work previously at the UN on the Free & Equal campaign, which challenges negative stereotypes and prejudice against LGBT people everywhere. The reason behind the campaign is that decriminalization and overdue legal changes for LGBT people are only meaningful when accompanied by significant efforts to tackle prejudice and change “hearts and minds”. In that sense, McNally’s life work was invaluable to our community.
Today our thoughts are with his husband Tom Kirdahy. Tom met Terrence in June 2001. They were joined in a civil union in 2003 and married in 2010. Yesterday Tom posted a simple picture of the two of them with the words: “Love Won.”
The perfect epitaph for Terrence.