The struggle for equal rights stands at starkly different stages in different parts of the world.
Cynthia Nixon and Ambassador Samantha Power. Photo by Ian Strood for Fun Home.
Tuesday night at the Circle in the Square theater in New York City, the Broadway musical Fun Home, winner of last year’s Tony award for best musical, hosted a performance for a group of U.N. ambassadors, led by Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. After the show, the ambassadors—from countries including Australia, Vietnam, Croatia, Russia, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Namibia, and Gabon, to name a few—sat down for a talk with the cast and the show’s creators, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. Actress Cynthia Nixon hosted the post-performance conversation, which focused on ways to advocate for LGBT voices around the world.
Fun Home, which is based on a best-selling memoir by Alison Bechdel, tells the story of Bechdel’s unusual childhood, growing up in a funeral home, and her coming out in college. Soon afterward, she discovers that her father is also gay. Months later, Bechdel’s father commits suicide by walking in front of a truck. The show features the adult Bechdel, now a successful cartoonist, looking back at her life via her drawings and using flashbacks to her college-age and 8-year-old selves to reflect upon the past, as she grapples with the mystery of her father’s death as well as her own guilt and conflicted feelings about her dad.
Morbid as that may sound, Fun Home delivers a powerful, even joyful experience, mostly because Kron and Tesori know how to mine the material not just for laughs, but also for hard-earned truths about love, acceptance, and compassion. The show cuts deep and is often disquieting, but succeeds because it is so honest and human. Its very specificity is what allows it to feel so universal.
The cast and creative team of Fun Home with Cynthia Nixon, Photo by Ian Strood for Fun Home.
Having the U.N. ambassadors see the show served as a reminder that the struggle for LGBT rights stands at starkly different stages in different parts of the world. For those of us in the United States, Fun Home can be celebrated as a reflection of how much our country has changed. Bechdel’s father internalized his homophobia and suffered with great shame, but nowadays teenagers—and their parents—routinely come out in an environment that is far more accepting.
Yet even in 2016, stories like that of Bechdel’s father are common in many countries around the world. What Power, Kron, and Tesori sought to emphasize with the evening’s discussion is how important it is that people be able to express their own stories in order to put a human face on the struggle.
“In our world, too often it’s about abstracts,” the ambassador for Switzerland, Jürg Lauber, said. “Once in a while it’s important to show us it’s about individual people. So when we discuss LGBT rights in the future, hopefully we will remember that.”
Alison Bechdel in her studio. Photo by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation via Wikimedia Commons.
Too often, LGBT people around the globe are forced to live lives of invisibility and erasure, and their stories remain abstract or distant to the general populations around them. Because it’s so much easier to discriminate against an abstraction than a real person who has shared her story with you, this discrimination persists.
“Culture makes invisible lives visible,” Kron said. “We recognize people different from ourselves when they are represented in the culture, and I think the fact that Fun Home can be recognized and read by all different sorts of people is because of the work of activists and artists over decades who have incrementally been building a framework of culture that this show fits into.”
Interestingly, it seemed that the ambassadors from countries where LGBT rights haven’t yet gained political or cultural traction were the most moved by the show.
Ambassador Samantha Power speaks to the U.N. representatives. Photo by Ian Strood for Fun Home.
“I came here without any knowledge of the play,” Nguyen Phuong Nga, the ambassador from Vietnam, said. “And yet we are here with you and we feel how you are feeling, how much suffering LGBT people have to endure. In Vietnam it is very hard to accept that reality, and yet we have to accept that reality, and we have to make people happy. That is our job.”
Perhaps Ruben Ignacio Zamora Rivas, the ambassador from El Salvador, put it best: “I wondered why I could be nearly two hours so involved, suffering with you, laughing with you, when nothing really special happens onstage. What is the message? To me it is very clear. You were telling us: ‘Look, you are me. We are together and we are the same.’”