OK, here’s the situation: Rather than play with little green Army men, your 6-year-old son prefers to dress up in mother’s blue dress, wrap a feather boa around his neck and sing along with Judy Garland records. What’s a Jewish mother to do?
In the case of actor/playwright Bruce Bierman, his mother admitted him to a psychiatric program at UCLA to treat what was called GIDC (gender identity disorder in children). The goal: re-engineer the kid’s self-image and redirect him toward a more traditional macho manhood.
Basically, it was a “Clockwork Orange” for “sissy boys.”
Now, years later, Bierman turns his childhood trauma into high comedy with a new one-man show, “The Blue Dress.”
“The Blue Dress” opens with Bierman’s bar mitzvah ceremony, the day a Jewish boy traditionally becomes a man. The play goes on to question what a man really is.
“Is it ethical to try to change someone’s God-given nature?” asks Bierman, who is gay. “Is it ethical to speak of sexual matters to a young child for the purpose of proving a theory? How do you become liberated after being told who you are is wrong?”
Bierman will premiere the show Wednesday, June 23, at the 2004 Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco.
“Any kind of gender variance, especially in boys, provokes a certain kind of shock in our society,” says Bierman. “Seeing the world from a different perspective has given my life much beauty — but that seemed to have made a lot of people very nervous. I was a kid when I began getting these messages from adults.”
In his own adulthood, Bierman is the creator of the gender-bending flamenco dance drama “The Passion of Carmen!” and winner of the Playwright’s Commission Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for his gospel musical “Wade in the Water.”
But as a child, he became part of an experiment that many today would deem insidious.
In the 1970s, the National Institute of Mental Health funded several studies of gender identity, including one called “The Feminine Boy Project” at UCLA. Headed by Dr. Richard Green, the project did more than merely examine boys deemed “nonconforming”: It sought to reel them back to “normal” sexual identity, often using questionable techniques, including threats and intimidation.
As a boy, Bierman liked to cross-dress, and in particular loved his mother’s blue evening gown. His worried parents contacted Green, and for seven years Bierman was a loyal patient of the good doctor. During that time, Green (who later wrote a book called “The Sissy Boy Syndrome”) persuaded Bierman’s parents to discourage their son’s feminine habits and get him more into sports.
It wasn’t easy, since Bierman’s father had the best collection of Broadway musical recordings of anyone on the block.
Bierman doesn’t remember being harmed or shamed by Green. By age 13, when he chose to stop therapy, Bierman’s parents pulled him out of the study.
It was only years later that he read about Green’s true mission, feeling a sense of retroactive rage .
“My play exposes the ‘man behind the curtain,'” says Bierman, “and questions the grand institution of psychiatry. How much trust should we really put into their hands? In my case, Green and his colleagues were wrong. They caused humiliation in the boys that were studied. And according to the Talmud, causing a person humiliation is likened to killing them.”
Though his topic has tragic overtones, Bierman deliberately kept the show light. In finding the humor of the episode, Bierman found he could finally laugh at it as well.
“I do a couple of musical numbers from Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand,” he adds. “They play an important part in the play, too. It was through lip-synching their music that I was able to express so many feelings that I didn’t have the words for.”
To Bierman, musicals meet at the intersection of queer and Jewish culture. “The greatest names in the musical theater were both,” he says. “Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins. Look what came out of them.”
Bierman tends to lace his conversation with Jewish references. He grew up in a culturally rich Jewish home, and today honors that heritage, though not in all the customary ways.
“I’ve always taken pleasure in my Jewish heritage,” he says, “precisely because of its outsideness or otherness. I’ve had to learn over the years to also take pleasure in my queer heritage as well.”
“The Blue Dress,” a solo performance by Bruce Bierman, takes place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, at the LGBT Community Center Rainbow Room, 1800 Market St., S.F. Tickets: $12-$15. Information: (415) 334-0722.