Five Questions With… Doug McKeown

doug mckeownDouglas McKeown is the facilitator of the Queer Stories workshop – one of the results of which was the book Queer Stories for Boys. Doug has worked as a teacher, actor, writer, scenic designer, and a director of stage and screen; his low-budget sci-fi/horror movie The Deadly Spawn [1983], has been restored and released on DVD [2004]).
< one of Doug McKeown’s childhood costumes. For more photos, check the Queer Stories for Boys website.
1) With both Brokeback Mountain and Transamerica getting nominations all over the place, it’s like The Year for Mainstreaming LGBT Lives. Why now, do you think? How do you feel about straight actors getting all the good gay roles?
Well, exactly how many out gay actors are there in the upper echelons? I mean, considering that the answer to that has to be “precious few,” doesn’t one just want to cast the actor who best suits the character? Did McMurtry know or care about Heath Ledger’s sex life when he turned to Ossana during a screening of “Monster’s Ball” and whispered, “That’s our Ennis?” (Uh-oh, I’m answering with questions. Let me get my declaratives lined up.) As for why now, I have no idea. I could guess. It may be that people in this country in general (unconsciously?) have simply had it with the national bullshit of the last several years — in entertainment as well as politics — and are craving the strongest possible dose of truth and humanity (unconsciously?), especially if it shocks their systems. Like a bracing shower. Well, that may be wishful thinking. I really don’t know the answer.
2) As the person who runs the Queer Stories workshops, you’ve heard a lot of interesting tales. What kind of stories are your favorites? What kind of storytellers?
Never even thought about this, believe it or not. I guess I’ve just taken each guy’s story as a unique experience. Let’s see. I don’t know about favorite stories, but I am partial to the meatier ones. No pun: I mean the more socially and culturally illuminating. I never tire of exchanges between parent and child, or gay boy and his siblings, because such conversations remembered always reveal something about the billion ways our lives are NOT EVER thought about or discussed among the so-called straight population. That is, at least until Ang Lee, et al., this past several weeks! A bashing or near-bashing story with new understanding or unexpected outcome, can be riveting. We have had a couple of real eye-openers. And surprisingly, sometimes the most dangerous encounters or horrifying mishaps can yield stories with almost as much farce as suspense or poignancy. And then there are the extreme sexual situations hilariously and self-effacedly told (if self-effacedly is a word). As for what kind of storytellers, the answer is: Queer ones (see #3 below). And generous-of-spirit ones. The meaner spirits who show up at the workshop tend not to come back anyway. No other favorites.
3) So why the term queer? Why do you use it? When did you start? How do you think people react to it?
I have gotten questions on this, but only from outside the so-called gay community. First of all, it was named Queer Stories for Boys before I ever came on board. I never questioned the use of the word queer, having been for many years faculty spouse to a college professor who taught gender history and European history often from the standpoint of sex and gender. I heard the terms “queer studies” and “queering the academy” all the time, terms that referred to non-traditional sex and gender behavior in history, unconventional, previously-having-dared-not-speak-its-name sexuality. The whole of Western civilization, it sometimes seemed, was being re-examined in academe, if not revised, from the “queering” standpoint. And about time, I thought, though I am not myself an academic. I remember how touched and enthralled my boyfriend was with Herculine Barbin’s story, and how he used that text in his courses. Also, I had known younger people (male and female) who joined the newly formed Queer Nation in the 1980s and held kiss-ins to shock staid suburban neighborhoods. They used the word in the new way, mixing genders, sexes, what have you, and politics to demand that bigots quite literally, “Get over it!” So, by the time I happened on Queer Stories in 1995, I already thought of queer as a more inclusive word – authentic, truer; less bland, mainstream, male, and “white” — than “gay” was starting to seem to me. So, apart from the obvious re-claiming of the word from standard redneck usage, queer seemed less limiting as a label, if one must have labels. The irony was that the workshop was limited to men. Oh, and that’s another thing: the word “Boys.” Some people have assumed we’re a pedophile organization! The extent of people’s fears, prejudices, and blind spots never ceases to amaze me.Let me add another note on the word queer. When and where I grew up, gay was not common parlance for homosexual. Hell, homosexual was not common parlance for homosexual. It wasn’t commonly spoken of at all! When I heard words like queer or pervert used, they were most often being used vaguely to describe sissies rather than sexual acts, and never women. In the civil rights years of the 1960s, it seemed that queers were represented as a basic type: effeminate men, most if not all of whom cross-dressed, wore make-up, and shrieked when they spoke. Considering the status of women, men who behaved as caricatures of the feminine were beneath contempt, to put it mildly. Anyway, it’s easy to see that a kid not identifying with this stereotype would assume he was not “queer.” Hence, in “Brokeback Mountain,” the ingenuous dialogue between Ennis and Jack when each denies to the other that he is queer: they AREN’T queer, as they understand the word. As I understood it myself in 1963. For people watching the movie and understanding this crucial point, the loneliness of their love is all the more wrenching: they belong only to each other, and only when they can be together, and only far away from all other people. Even Romeo and Juliet (Tony and Maria!) can imagine their place in society. Not Ennis. And Jack recklessly pretends it doesn’t have to be an issue.
4) Why do you encourage people to develop the stories the way you do?
I certainly felt it served a lot more functions than just entertainment, but I’m curious to hear what else you think the personal storytelling achieves.Oh, well, I always go back to the time I first encountered the workshop performing at Dixon Place. It didn’t take long for me to be transfixed by real guys telling real stories that were not so much snapshots of their lives as folk art paintings in miniature. Where else had I ever heard such things? Basically they were just a bunch of otherwise diverse, real people — men who were identifying with each other. I’d say even the writer and raconteur David Sedaris, a terrific storyteller, is foremost an entertainer — extraordinary, outsize — a “personality” and, using the stuff of his life, a kind of fabulist, let’s face it. The Queer Stories guys are no less honest, but they risk not being much more than that. The stories mean so much to them, are so odd — as only real life can be — so personal, but told, I hope, straightforwardly with a minimum of artifice, that I always want to see and hear more. I don’t think the world of theatre, which I had been involved with, mind you, for a LONNNGGG time, has ever held me in quite the way that this group has. As for developing stories for public presentation (I like that you use the word “encourage,” by the way), that’s just a matter of our telling them over and over to each other and editing out the extraneous stuff, taking care not to try too hard to achieve any kind of effects, but to be oneself, to trust the unpredictable resonance of one’s life experience, to let the exhilaration of identification work its minor magic.
5) Betty has said to me that acting, for her, was a useful way of being other people when she wasn’t dealing with her transness and couldn’t quite be herself. You tell stories involving elaborate costuming and monstrous characters, which could lead a person to come to certain conclusions. What do your childhood stories mean to you, now?
How coy of you – “certain conclusions”…Oh boy. Those episodes I tell about are central to my life. I was real-life acting then! I was learning about theatre, about dramatic art while practicing it for real, teaching it to myself. From age 9 to about 13 or 14, my “monsterhood” was a full-throttle, positive creative force. I just jumped on and rode it. And yes, Betty has a good point about the relief of becoming someone else, though of course as a child, that wasn’t a conscious thing. In retrospect, I realize now that riding that force with abandon, so happily, even ecstatically, came at the expense of “normal” human desire and expression. I had to keep busy, partly because all that creativity completely replaced (displaced) sex! I look back on a seeming paradox: a melancholy kid who was at the very same time irrepressible, practically jumping out his skin with creative ideas. I took so much pleasure in the anticipation of, and then the effective realization of my monsters, or my science fiction and gothic plays in the outdoor theatre I built, or of whatever I woke up on a Saturday morning and concocted. Anyway, as an adult, I have lovingly embraced that kid, especially since no one else did then, and later on, there came a time when he urgently needed embracing. Telling his stories today is my way of honoring him and continuing to free myself from all the social restrictions and the internalized homophobia that kept him down.