TIME: How do you know when you’re ready to write a memoir, I Was Better Last Night?
Fierstein: It’s very simple. You set up a worldwide pandemic. The first step is to clean out your desk and then look for things around the house. I made five quilts. I also walked my dog. And then the next thing—the only thing—I could possibly come up with, besides cleaning the refrigerator, which is nothing anybody ever wants to do, was to write my memoir.
It’s either that or cleaning out the basement.
This is what I managed to do. You know, I’ve never written any prose of that length. I’ve never written a book; I don’t know that I ever would have written one if we weren’t in lockdown. I can tell you it’s very different. But in the end, it’s been thrilling, really thrilling.
You’ve said that many of your plays’ characters have embodied parts of yourself. I’m curious how different it was when it was just you, and also the whole you.
You try your best to be a dramatist and not get involved in the story. When you hear the author’s voice, you’re being cheated. So it’s very different to all of a sudden sit down and engage with that voice; I would say the experience was much more like having a really good conversation with a friend. It was my goal to make it feel as if I were sitting down with the voice; that it was actually me hearing it. The other thing I tried to do—and I hope I accomplished is—is that I tried not to judge myself. I’ve tried to leave that up to my audience.
What is your favorite pastime?
It is true, I like it to be between my friends and me. Yes, I do. You know, I’m in the theater! The same eight fucked shows are repeated every week. We have no other activities. But there’s no real gossip in the book. There’s one story about an actress, for example, that I don’t name. Badly behaved actress. This is what it felt like Was that the point? It’s just as selfish to hurt my wife for me hurting her. And I didn’t want her to get anything out of it! I didn’t want to give her a platform to speak. In fact, I don’t even tell the story [of my experience] with a second badly-behaved actress because I couldn’t think of a way to tell that story without revealing who it was.
The real question with showbiz news is who’s feeding it to you? That’s the real gossip. From the stories I’ve read, it is easy for me to identify who created them. You can laugh at me because, That was the press agent!. Because it’s just not true. And I think we’ve gotten much worse at knowing what’s real news and what isn’t. People now listen to gossip as if that’s the truth, but they’ll read news in the newspaper and think it must be a lie.
How do you reckon with the time-old tradition of gossip columns and blind items as a vehicle for speculating on someone’s sexuality?
It is true that gossip has been much more about hiding gay men than it being openly. It was supposed that gossip columns were doing just the opposite. They’d make up these stories of people being straight, having girlfriends. People thought Liberace was straight.
It was a terrible and terrible time of outing for us all, which I hate. However, I was able to understand it. You had openly gay people losing their jobs left and right because of fear of AIDS—and people who were in the closet were just raking in the money by being in the closet and leaving the rest of us to die. While we worked hard, they collected our checks. This was terrible. I don’t talk about a lot of that crap in the book, but I did, I think, put in one sentence where I said, Fake them. While I do still feel anger and sadness, I am also able to see the good in them. I am familiar with many of these people and know they are cowards.
The rehearsals of the Torch Song Trilogy, and a scene specifically where Estelle Getty took issue with a line from her character, when she tells her son, “It gets better.” She’s talking specifically about grief, but that phrase has become such a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community more broadly—and maybe too generally—in recent years. Do you think that’s been the case?
What you can survive is a victory, right? It is true that time does improve things. Is it able to bring someone back into life? No. It makes it much easier to breathe without feeling the immense pain beneath. Does it make things better politicallly just because the time goes by? No. The work is yours to do. One thing that people don’t understand, and I don’t understand why they don’t understand, is that you can’t go backwards. You can’t go backwards. If you want to go backwards in time, you’re just kidding yourself. Especially these days when you see this ‘Make America Great Again’ idiocy; I look at those people and what I see are these walking skeletons. People who are dead. They’re not looking to the future, and if you’re not looking to the future you’re not alive. This is what you are saying I no longer have any power in the world. You are just a piece of my memory. And that’s no way to live.
Speaking of Estelle Getty, I think it’s fair to say the world is a lesser place without your landing a cameo on The Golden Girls.
No. When I did my internship, I also worked in the same place. Daddy’s GirlsDudley Moore was there, as well as me. There was some discussion of me playing Bea Arthur’s son, but I think Bea thought I was way too old. Bea and I were close friends. However, I never received the offer to be part of her relationship.
Continue reading: These rare photos of early Pride parades capture a shifting movement
You’ve long been at the forefront, or in the public eye, as an activist and a leader in the gay rights movement. Do you feel that you are being left behind by the gay rights movement today?
First, I have never considered myself a leader. You can’t really have leaders for a group of people who are all so different. We should be celebrating the fact that we’re all different. But I can give you a great example—years ago, I remember showing up to the Pride Parade, as I always do. It was one of the years that we started at Central Park and walked downtown; I looked over at the fountain and there was this group calling itself “Marriage Equality.” They were standing there performing gay marriages. Then I thought, With all our problems, why not have a divine wedding cake? Do you believe this is the cause we should all be fighting for.Then I just stopped. Und ich sagte: Wait a minute Harvey. Take a look at them. They’re young people. They are the cause. Maybe they know something you don’t?
The future is always defined by young people, and those of us who are old—granted, I was maybe 35 at the time—owe young people all our support. What they think the movement should be, I’m going to get behind that. It turned out that they were correct, God bless them.
Your body dysmorphia is reflected in your writing. Over time, do you feel you’ve come to terms with your body and identity?
I haven’t. I’m no clearer on any of that than I was when I was four years old. Because I do what I do, and because I’ve done so much drag, I’ve found a place to put ‘it.’ I’m very comfortable being a boy most of the time; being a girl is a lot of work. In the role of Edna Turnblad, Hairspray, and I was in that armor of Edna with the gorgeous wig, the heels, those big rubber tits—which probably weighed 25 pounds—I was in heaven. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life. Everyone called me Mama backstage. It was my favorite thing to be Mama. To this day, my cast calls me Mama whenever they see us. Six months after I left HairsprayOnce again, I was inspired to do so. Fiddler on The RoofI was the father to five little girls and grew my beard. The girls called me Papa and my friends called me Papa. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life. They were both the same to me. Do I think I felt more of one or the other? I don’t know. I don’t care. I felt immense joy from both of them.
Growing up as a gay kid, my parents would take me to older people who were also gay. we didn’t have it this good. They’d say: I don’t know what my life would have been like, had we had this. I now understand what they’re talking about. Would I give it up to be young? But no. I was able to have my adventures.
You wrote in the book’s preface that memoir-writing is all about looking back. What are you looking forward?
I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. There are a couple of projects that, you know, I’d love to get another crack at—but I consider that looking forward. It’s too easy to look back in the face of all that is good about life.