Accepting sexuality both by society and by one’s self in Kushner’s Play Angels in America
In today’s world, the topic of sexual orientation is a very sensitive one. Even though society has made huge strides towards accepting homosexuality, it still is a delicate topic to many people. When you are getting to know someone, your first questions probably would not be about the sexual orientation of the person. Tony Kushner, however, is not afraid to explore the topic of sexuality in his 1993 play, Angels in America. In the play, Joe and Roy each struggle with their sexual identities, and they both have a hard time accepting who they truly are.
Joe struggles with identity because he attempts to live as someone he is not sexually. For starters, Joe is a gay man in a heterosexual marriage with his wife, Harper. He tries to convince his wife that he is okay with it, but deep down he really isn’t. In scene nine of Act 9 in “Millennium Approaches,” Joe tells Harper, “I knew this when I married you. I’ve known this I guess for as long as I’ve known anything, but…I don’t know, I thought maybe that with enough effort and will I could change myself…but I can’t…” (83). Joe struggles with his sexual identity because he knows deep down he can never change who he is, but he still loves Harper dearly. After Harper, Joe moves on to a relationship with Louis, who just broke up with Prior because he contracted AIDS. With Louis, Joe finally feels like he has found someone who will truly understand him. Even with Louis, however, Joe still struggles with his identity throughout the play, as he tells Harper he loves her even though he would rather be with Louis. Joe is a very troubled character, and he is one of the main characters who struggles the most with identity.
Roy Cohn, Joe’s boss, is deeply smitten with his ego, which causes him to struggle with his true identity as well. Roy’s issue is that he cannot fully come to grips with the fact that he is homosexual, and he tries to hide the fact that he is. When he goes to visit his doctor in scene nine of Act 1 in “Millennium Approaches,” he is told that he has AIDS. Henry, his doctor, tells him this happened because he has slept with men and one of them gave him the disease. Roy, infuriated that Henry would propose such an accusation, tells Henry, “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men…Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows” (51). Roy is angry because AIDS is forcing him to defend his identity. The last thing he wants to be known for is his homosexuality. He goes on to tell Henry, “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with other guys” (52). Not only does speaking in the third person make him sound egotistical, but referring to himself as a straight male who messes around with other guys just makes him sound foolish. You don’t “fuck around with other guys” and still refer to yourself as heterosexual. He is ashamed of his sexual orientation, obviously, and he tries to play it off to Henry as casual frolicking with men. Roy’s ego is off the charts, and this causes him to struggle with his true identity: a homosexual man.
Even though they are both homosexual, Roy does not approve of Joe’s sexuality. In scene one of Act 4 in “Perestroika,” Joe visits Roy in his hospital room where Joe reveals that he has been cheating on his wife with a man. Roy, disgusted, tells Joe, “I want you home. With your wife. Whatever else you got going, cut it dead…Do what I say. Or you will regret it. And don’t talk to me about it. Ever again” (219). Roy is completely against the idea of Joe being in a homosexual relationship, especially since he already has a wife. The interesting part about this scene is that when Joe tells Roy he left his wife, all Roy says is, “It happens” (217). But when Joe goes into detail and reveals that he left his wife for a man, Roy becomes outraged and doesn’t wish to ever speak about it again. Perhaps Joe’s homosexuality has made Roy feel even more embarrassed by his own. You can see a glimpse of Roy’s fatherly advice when he tells Joe he will regret it if he doesn’t go back to his wife. Roy does not want Joe to contract AIDS like he did, so he is telling him to go back to his wife and forget about his relationship with Louis. Both Joe and Roy have a hard time accepting their true identities as gay men, and even with each other, it is not welcome to openly speak about their shared sexual orientation.
In Angels in America, Joe and Roy struggle with their gay identity and cannot open up to one another about their sexual orientation. Joe lied to Harper throughout their marriage and faked being attracted to her. He just wanted to fit in, but he also claims to love her. Joe knows deep down of his homosexual nature, but he desperately wants a heterosexual relationship because of how homosexuality is looked down upon in the 1980s. Roy, on the other hand, truly struggles with identity, especially when he becomes aware the AIDS virus he contracted. Because of his stature in the justice system, Roy believes he is invincible and that it is okay to fool around with other guys. He doesn’t truly accept his nature as a gay man and instead becomes infuriated with the idea. In the play, he acts as a father figure to Joe by wanting to see him succeed. However, he cannot truly act as a father figure when Joe reveals to him that he has left Harper for Louis. Instead of defending Joe’s decision and telling him he’s glad he has truly accepted himself, he goes off on Joe and tells him he will never speak about the matter again. Roy wants nothing to do with homosexuality. He lies to himself to cover up his sexual identity, and he is quick to let Joe know how wrong homosexuality is. One of the major themes of the play is sexual identity and how it was very hard for people to accept their homosexuality in the 1980s.
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