Callen Harty hopes his ‘Queer Life’ will help heal others facing same challenges

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Callen Harty didn’t know he was gay while growing up in the Lafayette County community of Shullsburg. The realization came while he was a student at UW-Platteville in 1978. He ended his last relationship with a woman and embraced who he really was. 

Today, the Madison-based author, playwright, director, photographer and activist takes life in stride. He also writes about it, both in plays for Madison’s Broom Street Theater and, most recently, in My Queer Life — a 30-year compilation of poems, essays and blog posts released in December 2013. 

Harty, 56, has a lot to say about many things. He looked both forward and backward in discussing his “queer life” with me.

Has your life lived up to your expectations? Compiling the material for My Queer Life caused me to look deeper at the totality of my life and what I have done with it.  I moved from a young man afraid of being gay to a man who is open about every aspect of his life— from my sexuality to my alcohol and drug abuse recovery to my child sex-abuse survival.  I knew when I was in second or third grade sitting at the feet of my Great Aunt Leona and listening to her recite her poetry that I, too, wanted to be a writer, and I have succeeded at that.  I didn’t know that I would win awards as a queer activist and as a sex-abuse survivor and would cofound organizations that have made an impact on the world.  I didn’t know I would spend more than 30 years in the theater as an actor, director and playwright.  I didn’t know that I would find a life partner with whom I have already spent 23 of my years. My life has unfolded in unexpected ways and I have generally followed my heart where it leads me.

American society has become more accepting of LGBT people. How would you evaluate the progress society has made? I think it’s important to have a sense of history so that we can measure where we are against where we were.  We have made progress, but we are not where we need to be.  We can’t get complacent just because 17 states and a handful of countries allow gay and lesbian marriage.  People are still getting beaten, bullied and killed because of their real or perceived identities.  There are 29 states in which you can still be fired simply for being gay.  There are draconian laws being passed in places like Russia, Nigeria and Brunei that are setting our movement back in some ways to the Dark Ages.

How well has the LGBT community risen to the challenges of life in the mainstream? Sometimes we have a hard time looking at ourselves with a critical eye.  When a famous gay person makes a mistake, we sometimes fall all over ourselves to make excuses for the behavior instead of holding them accountable as we would others.  But it feels like, for the most part, the majority of queer folks have integrated just fine into society while still being out.  When I was growing up we integrated by staying in the closet, even marrying, so that others would not know who we were.  Queer people are much less afraid of being out and straight people are much more comfortable with us in general.

What is the next leg of the LGBT journey? I think the journey simply requires more time. The younger generation really doesn’t care about whether someone is queer or not, and with that attitude becoming more prevalent as they grow older, things will continue to get better. By the time they are my age, I am hopeful things will be much better.  Between now and then we must continue to fight for gender equity laws, eliminate discriminatory laws, and educate, educate, educate.  The key is to continue to teach our fellow citizens who we are and what it means to be queer. 

Yours has been a very public gay life. Why was that important to you? I came out only 10 years after Stonewall. There were still not a lot of out people and even fewer heroes or role models for a young man like me at the time.  I felt I had to do what I could. I believed what Harvey Milk said about every gay man and lesbian needing to come out, because if that happened pretty soon everyone in America would realize they knew someone who was gay. Then the struggle for rights would have meaning for those allies fighting for their sons, daughters, neighbors and co-workers who they realize are just regular folks who happen to like someone of the same gender. I strongly believe we have to do the same for bi- and trans people who are still greatly misunderstood by the majority.

What role have your writings played in revealing and defining your identity? Writing is my therapy.  Writing is where I turn to explore myself and my place in the world. Without the ability to process my life through writing, I may never have come out of the closet.  I was initially scared to talk to others about being gay, but I could dialogue in an essay, play or poem. Once I was out, I could use the platform of the theater to espouse my point of view. Many of my plays have been political, as I have always been a political animal. I have written about my queer experience, but I have also written plays critical of the government and society in general.  The other motif is spiritual.  Many of my plays and other works explore religious and philosophical themes. I think part of the work of art is to explore that relentless search for meaning in our existence.

Your next book, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story, explores your personal experience as a sexually abused child. Was this a personal catharsis? In 2010, I wrote the play Invisible Boy, which was an autobiographical drama based upon my childhood sex abuse and survival.  I decided I needed to write it after suffering a life-threatening heart attack. My thought about it was that I would offer my experience of abuse and healing as a way to help others. I didn’t know that it would happen, but that play was a catharsis for me as well.  It was incredibly healing on a personal level in ways that I hadn’t expected. But it also had a profound impact on others.  I’ve been invited to speak about my abuse and survival many times.  In the fall I’m going to be presenting at the 14th annual MaleSurvivor international conference in Newark, New Jersey, for male survivors of sexual trauma. There is a hunger out there for survivor stories, especially from men who have been abused.  While the play reached several hundred people, a thousand more have viewed the video online. I felt that writing a book relating my story might have the potential to reach even more people. I’m doing it for those who need to know they are not alone, that despite the pain and horror of their abuse they can come out on the other side of it and live a healthy and productive life.  

In terms of an artist, a gay man and a human being, what legacy do you want to leave behind? I would like my legacy to be something that I’ve strived for my entire life — the old adage that I leave the world a better place than it was when I entered it. I hope that I’ve succeeded in some small way.  As for an epitaph — which, by the way, I’m hoping won’t be written for many years yet — I think a simple one would work best: “He lived.”