Gavin Creel, the Singing Activist
By Jordan Shavarebi
Gavin Creel is known to most as Broadway’s handsome leading man, brimming with charm that’s one part classic movie star, one part world-class musician, and one part that guy you played soccer with in high school. Onstage, his charismatic appeal is undeniable, only rivaled by his offstage passion and conviction as a gay rights activist. Creel is one of the three founders of the mighty Broadway Impact, which has worked closely with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids and has led marches and meetings and rallies and protests. Broadway's Hair, for which Creel was nominated for a Tony, shut down completely one day so that the cast could march in Washington. He recently took to the stage in Dustin Lance Black’s 8, as well. Now, the energetic performer has released a single, the complete proceeds of which will be donated to Broadway Impact, and a music video that could make even the quietest activist noisier.
Out: Why do you think music is a good way to approach an issue like gay rights?
Gavin Creel: Because music is a common language. Music is a smile. It brings people together. It’s spiritual; it’s emotional. A song is great for the people who are still uncomfortable with the topic. It’s like, “Okay, just listen to this song.”
Have songs you’ve written in the past about related topics received positive responses?
Yeah, I got notes from lots of young people about my first record. The first track was a coming-out song to my mom. It’s still the most important song I’ve ever written. I’ve had kids come up to me and say, “I played that song for my mom in the car when I came out to her.” It’s called “For Nancy.” That’s my mom’s name. I remember I asked my mom a few days after I came out to her how she was doing because we didn’t talk about it a few days after. And she said, “It’s hard.” She said, “Gavin, just don’t go marching in any parades.” That was 10 years ago, and in 2009, my mother and my father marched with me in the National Equality March on Washington.
Would you say that since a lot more people are talking about the issue of gay marriage now in a much more public way, our fight is paying off?
It’s the start of it, isn’t it? If we can talk about it. But my worry is that it seems to only be just people talking about it all the time and so people think that it’s getting done. They think, Over there it’s getting done, so I don’t have to worry about it.
What do you think our generation’s seeming complacency is rooted in?
I recently had an insane conversation with this guy—he called our generation wimps and said that we’re not doing anything. And I said, in our slight defense, that, now, you could never leave your house and still buy all of your clothes and all of your food and date people without leaving the computer. And that’s in the advent of the last 10 years. We’re creating human beings who are lazy. It’s not just gay men—back then, you mailed letters and you called people. You didn’t even have answering machines when Stonewall was happening. You had to go out and connect. And now people are hiding behind the safety of their computers. So it is going to take more work. This guy told me we shouldn’t have to awaken a generation. I told him that that was an idealistic point of view. We’re complacent by nature of the Internet.
Who are some of your gay activist heroes? Who’s doing things the right way now?
I’ve met Cleve Jones, I’ve met David Mixner, I’ve met these amazing people recently. And Dustin Lance Black, when he gave that speech at the Oscars to that audience of a billion people when he accepted for Milk, I cried. I said, “Oh my god, someone that’s beautiful wrote a really good movie, he’s standing there, very emotionally saying, 'I hear you, I’m out there for you,' in a huge way,” and that was a huge moment for him and for me. Beside the fact that when I saw it I also said, “Oh my god that’s my husband.” Griffin, the founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, Rob Reiner and Michelle Reiner, they’re all relentless in this fight. Neil Patrick Harris is to me, without being an overt activist, a hero because there’s no one like him, no actor like him, no performer like him in Hollywood.
Like Neil Patrick Harris, a lot of artists may not make protest pieces, but just the fact that they’re out of the closet and making art is a good thing, right?
But there’s only a handful of them. And I know there’s a lot of guys who are out there and who are gay, and they’re brilliantly talented, and they’re not getting signed. And that sucks. The country singer Chely Wright came out, and that was big news because no one in the country music scene had done it, because no one in the Heartland wants to talk about it. Adam Lambert is amazing, but he’s one chromosome away from David Bowie, so Middle America often writes him off as a freak. I know him—he’s an awesome, normal, really great guy, but Middle America gets to cast him as, “that crazy gay guy,” and I hate that.
LeAnn Rimes is pretty vocal about bullying and gay rights. Wouldn’t you say that, even if there’s not many gay artists reaching out and making a connection with Middle America, it’s a good thing that there are straight people who are reaching out and delivering the message for us?
Yep. If it was just a bunch of black people marching in the '60s and only black people asking for civil rights, they would’ve never had their rights. The racial divide was going to be fixed by people of all colors, just like the gay rights movement needs the help of straights, gays, transsexuals, bisexuals...all of us.
Have you noticed divisions, though, even within our own community regarding the movement?
Yes. I had a kid write me an email that said that he really appreciated what I was doing and that he was 23 and he’d really accepted who he was as a gay man, but that he couldn’t get behind me in how I’m always talking about gay rights. Because the world is broken and right now we should all be worrying about Occupy Wall Street and going down and fighting for the injustice and the money and the health care. And I said, "Okay, let’s entertain that for a second and say that that’s what we do. When we come back, we’re still second-class citizens! We still won’t have the same rights as everybody who has healthcare, and who has a perfect economy." For me, until I have equal rights, who gives a shit if the economy sucks? The economy sucks and I still get taxed more than a straight person who looks exactly like me but happens to love a woman.
What do you say to those members of the LGBTQ community who say that we need to focus less on loudly protesting and more on quietly integrating ourselves into society?
The reason I got involved in this was because I thought about being a grandfather in 2000-and-whatever, and my grandkid asking me, “What? Grandpa and Grandaddy weren’t allowed to do this or that back then? Well, what did you do about it?” And before I started this, I didn’t do anything. I said, "I’m not gonna be loud about it, I’m not gonna be political," and I looked around and realized… I don’t want to tell my grandkid that. I want to be able to say that I organized a rally in Times Square, and that we got people to march. Being gay is not who you are alone, and the conversation doesn’t have to dominate all of dinner and all of the night and all of the week, but it’s gotta be out there. It’s up to you how loud or quiet you want to be. Denying it is not the way to do it though. “Noise” means talking about it.
Do you think enough is being done?
Cleve Jones organized that national march on Washington and half of the gay community didn’t want to go because they thought it was being hastily done. Are you fucking kidding me? Someone is willing to march on Washington on Coming Out Day. Be visible, throw your hat in the ring, and get involved. And there was all this fighting about it within the gay community. There’s less organization than you think. There are less people really truly putting the time into it because we are fickle, fickle creatures. One moment we totally support it, and the next, we go to a gay bar and say “I don’t want to deal with this right now.” That’s where these fractures are born.
“Gay” has been such a hot-button topic in the media lately that some say it’s verging on becoming a trend. Like all trends, do you think there’s a chance that interest in it could die?
You can’t let it die! It’s our duty to stick with the gay rights movement and to remind them that we’re not done, that this isn’t finished, we still don’t have equal rights. Is it only gonna take us literally being accosted and our rights being ripped out of our hands or people killing themselves to make people pay attention? Shame on us.
Seeing that it takes suicide and Prop 8 to push us into action can be disheartening for a lot of people. Do you think this may be why many aren’t going out and starting their own movements?
Of course. When I watched The Normal Heart, I felt really shitty about myself. I thought to myself, Larry Kramer is active, doing it, I’m lazy… well, I realized, I’m not lazy at all, but I’m definitely not Larry Kramer. But then I realized, I don’t have to be. Larry Kramer has to be Larry Kramer. But I can do it my way with a song. And if someone else wants to stay quiet, they’re not comfortable yet, they should not come out of the closet. But I can’t be quiet. I’m gonna die someday. And if I live most of my life without equal rights, then I am literally pissing on the graves of every man who died of AIDS. I am somehow disrespecting them. Of course, we can’t all be Cleve Jones. But we can say, “Cleve Jones, what should we do?” This guy said to me today, “Where’s the new leader?” And I said, “I’ll be it!” If you fucking need a leader, I’ll be it. Chad Griffin is a leader. Dustin lance Black is a leader to me, and he’s using his writing, because that’s what he does. I know how to sing, I know how to perform, I know how to talk to a crowd, I’ll do that. We’re going to do this together. We’re not going to do this alone.