Recently an article in Playbill announced that Actors' Equity Association would be renaming the Gypsy Robe ceremony, "which celebrates ensemble members of Broadway shows, after the current season. The decision—a response to the cultural implications of the term—follows a vote by AEA’s National Council." Following this, and an e-blast from AEA to its members asking for name suggestions was a hailstorm of snarky comments from friends and enemies alike on my social media feed.
I've spent the better part of the morning thinking about this. Asking myself what traditions do I hold that are SO important to me that renaming them would fundamentally change what they were. I confess, I don't have that many traditions. Or, at least, my traditions are pretty malleable. I'm okay with getting a Christmas present on December 26th. Frankly, I'm happy to have a present at all. (I'm notoriously hard to shop for.) But I get off topic. This thought exercise led me to the below. I know this will probably irritate some of you. I really... wish that mattered. You're on the wrong side of this if you think it shouldn't change. And people are going to remember it. So maybe re-evaluate? Here's why:
1. Nomenclature matters
Anyone who has gotten an email from me in the last two weeks may have noticed I changed my signature from a quote by Maxine Hong Kingston (“Breathe. Pay attention. Tell the truth.”) to something a little bit simpler: he/him/his. I admit, I should have made this change the moment I made my first trans friend. The moment that struggle ceased to be an idea and started to be a person. But I am a stubborn mother-fucker and generally slow on the uptake. But if the price I pay for learning empathy late is that I actually learn it and hold it, then sign me up. Nomenclature matters. It matters not just to the people who are asking for clarity and respect, but to people who do not know that their bias harmfully affects someone else. Not a single person I know would ever question that my gender identity and gender representation is male. That’s never been my struggle. But I include those pronouns now because I allow for the possibility that it is someone else’s. And personally, I’d prefer my privilege to betray me in the way I complain about Moviepass on Facebook then something that actually matters. Nomenclature matters.
2. We can actually care about more than one cause at one time.
I am a feminist. I am a queer ally. I believe Black Lives Matter. And I have spent the better part of sixteen years representing Asian men and women on stage by writing almost exclusively for them. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in a 1936 issue of Esquire “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling myself a first-rate intelligence. I’m actually calling YOU a first-rate intelligence. Because you are. And you can do this. Just because a little bit of time is being spent considering the consequence of re-appropriating a culture doesn’t mean less time is being spent discussing fair wage on stage. One might even argue that these conversations are all tributaries to a greater river of equality. Don’t bite off your nose to spite your face.
Which brings us to:
3. Just because it doesn’t benefit you doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit you because it actually does.
But Tim, you ask, we don’t even know any Gypsies. Who even is this affecting? The answer is, whoever proposed the name be changed to begin with. The conversations happen when the conversations happen. When someone is finally ready to be a squeaky wheel about them. We don't get to decide if they are trivial, for every time someone has, it has only resulted in their downfall. As recently as fifty years ago our LGBTQ forefathers started a riot because they knew that the systems of power in place at the time would never elect to consider their humanity. They rioted because literally everyone else on the planet was saying “why do I have to respect someone else’s perversion? Who even is this affecting?” Without Stonewall, there is no SCOTUS decision. Who is this affecting? History would answer “literally everyone.”
4. Old comics are lazy. And you are not an old comic.
This has been going around a lot. Where middle-career comedians are saying they can't go to universities anymore to do their stuff because university students are snowflakes and take everything too seriously. The students themselves would counter that their awareness is impossibly high, and jokes about rape aren't funny anymore. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. (Not that bit about rape jokes, which are not my kind of funny.) You can extrapolate this to, let's say, white male playwrights lamenting that they lose out on opportunities because of the inclusion of women and writers of color. That's one that's in my orbit right now. I'm going to stick with comedy though because it's something I like, and something I am wholly outside of.
What the comics seem to mean when they say this though is when they started out, people were allowed to be misogynistic and racist, and now they aren't, and they don't have the skill set to find humor where none existed before. They can only re-iterate, not innovate. For better or worse, this is the path of progress. It starts with a resentful conversation about something no one has ever considered before, and in the face of that tension and adversity, results in some of us becoming irrelevant before our time and others of us realizing that someone we didn't know was there, has been there all along. The thing these old comics don't know? They can choose either.
5. How we choose to respond to discussions like these is the benchmark of our civilization
Dostoevsky says “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” But prisons are more than just cells and yards. And he didn’t mean it literally anyway. We allow ourselves to be trapped within social confines on a daily basis. And within those confines, we allow ourselves to value people differently. There are websites alive today that still maintain that the Three Fifths Compromise in the Constitution of 1787 does not inherently devalue a human being. Many things we think are givens are actually not, and rolling our eyes at something we deem unimportant only demonstrates our own privilege. What is the actual harm in having the conversation? What about this name change threatens the actual tradition it represents? For a community whose benchmark is inclusion, whose union name boasts the word EQUITY itself, being resistant to a discussion about a name change essentially says: This tradition is for us. Not for you..