Many of us know of stories of unrequited love.
Playwright Ginger Lazarus’s “Burning” tells us of one about a “love that dare not speak its name.” And it’s through a lens that’s often not mentioned or not imagined—the military during DADT.
“Burning” just closed its door over the weekend at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (BPT). But its depiction of the military’s shameful era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) won’t extinguish the searing message of how our courageous and brave LGBTQ service members struggle to live and love during and after its aftermath.
Inspired by the French poet Edmond Rostand’s 1897 classic “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Burning depicts a tough-as-nails lesbian ex-Army sergeant Cy Burns (played by Mal Malme) whose love for another woman named Rose (played by Jessica Webb) is expressed through the inarticulate and damn near mute character Cole (played by Ian Michaels).
Cole, being a man of few words and most of them monosyllabic utterances, become Cy’s mouthpiece. He solicits Cy’s advice on how to capture the girl of his dreams. Ironically, she’s the girl of Cy’s dreams, too.
Cy, being a natural bard who waxes eloquently, strategically teams up with Cole to exploit their advantages- Cy’s poetic musings and Cole’s heterosexual privilege- to court, woo, and wow Rose. This convincing odd couple highlights the constraints of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) servicemembers.
I love the Cy Burns character! Cy’s a complex and messy character who you empathize with both the internal (self-doubt) and external (homophobia) constraints imposed on her life.
Although Malme has never served in the military, she unquestionably brings a rich balanced dimension to her character, bringing a righteous anger against homophobia and a patriotic resolve for the right to serve her country that makes you want to stand at attention and salute her. Malme’s timing, delivery of lines and movement on the stage are absolutely flawless.
“There is no other way to play this role than to dedicate everything I have as an actor, as a lifelong LGBT activist, and as a friend of former service members who served before and during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Malme wrote on BPT’s blog.
“People I care about shared with me the unimaginable horror and injustice they experienced while serving our country. Playing the role of Cy allows me to give a voice to the torment and silence that those I care about, and countless others who served, have suffered. Moreover, it allows me to give voice to their courage, honor, and dignity.”
And Malme’s voice does just that. Back in the day before DADT was repealed, LGBTQ servicemembers who died while serving our country were either closeted about their sexual orientation or were discharged under “honorable conditions” called “Fraudulent Enlistment.”
The stories civilians often do not hear from our surviving LGBTQ service members is that of sexual assault -the raping and killing of them with impunity because they are LGBTQ by those in their ranks. After one of the performances, IMPACT Boston Executive Director, Meg Stone moderated the panel discussion “Deadly Silences: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Sexual Assault, and the Military.” One panelist bravely shared his horrendously and painstaking story of being raped twice by his commanding officer.
“I felt a great deal of responsible to tell this story to the very best of my ability, because in researching for the role, I spoke to friends and colleagues who experienced DADT and sexual trauma in the military. Their stories, their experiences, resonate with me and I carry them every time I step onto the stage as Cy,” Malme told me.
“And throughout the play, as Cy divulges her own story, the trauma she experienced, as well as she uncovers evidence of the trauma and deaths of fellow female service members those words are absorbed by me, the actor, the human being, and over time, there have been some nights when the performance is over, when I have broken down into tears because of the truth of what these soldiers experienced. The injustice, the silence, the horror that countless soldiers have endured while wanting to do nothing but serve their country, is at times, unfathomable. “
According to the May 2013 Pentagon survey revealed that more women will report sexual assaults, but actually more military men than women are sexually abused, highlighting the underreporting of male-on-male assaults.
The report also revealed that of assaults on women, 67 percent happened on base whereas for men it’s 73 percent. And Assaults on women in a war zone and 20 percent whereas it’s 26 percent for men in a combat zone.
“It has been an incredible honor to play Cy, and I only hope, that I’ll get to do it again. I also hope that audiences who have seen Burning will moved to action and ensure that sexual abuse in the military becomes a thing of the past, Malme shares.
The struggle for LGBTQ service members still goes on as “Burning” depicted. And let us not forget that while our LGB service members now have a policy in place to protect them from discrimination, the repeal of DADT doesn’t protect our transgender service members.
The war they should be fighting is the one that awaits them out there - not the war here at home.