Triptych image: "Lance"
Credit: Julie Gorton
I WAS ONCE INVITED to write a biopic about Lance Loud by his mother Pat. In the 1970s, the Louds were America’s most discussed clan, thanks to the first-ever reality TV show, An American Family, the experimental 12-part PBS documentary that sought to present unfiltered truth by filming the Louds of Santa Barbara virtually nonstop for seven months. When the series aired in 1973, unexpectedly huge numbers of viewers tuned in. Americans took one look at the handsome couple with their five handsome children and barely submerged problems, and they were hooked by this new way of storytelling. By the time the final installment aired, 10 million people were watching, including every pundit in the country. The chattering class saw the Louds as an example of what was going terribly, terribly wrong in the world at large; the show inspired a virtual phantasmagoria of national projection. To this day the family is still sorting out what the hell happened to them.
In the center of that maelstrom was Lance, the oldest and most vivid of the five Loud children. Just 22 at the time American Family aired, Lance was funny and flamboyant, and in love with the prospect of confronting the world and starting some wild dialog. He is sometimes described as the first gay man to “come out” on TV, but that is inaccurate. Lance just was. His family adored him and didn’t question his “orientation.” That he became a cultural touchstone wasn’t exactly his fault, nor was it his mission. He spent the rest of his short life alternately bemused, befuddled, and, finally, proud that he had accidentally become a beacon for other gays and outsiders and artists who longed to find community in truth.
Lance formed a punk band and became a cultural journalist and had success at both careers, but his most seductive talent was his way of making anyone within his orbit feel like they were in the center of some magically twisted universe. If you were with Lance, whether you were getting gritty soul food at some dive on Avenue D at 4 a.m., or catching the Jobriath concert at the Bottom Line (tickets of course were complimentary; Lance knew everyone), you were where it was happening, and you didn’t want to be anywhere else.
His exuberance was offset by its dark twin, an occasionally morbid obsession with worthlessness and isolation, documented in his sardonic and engaging writings. In his final interview for Details he described his writing as clumsy and dull witted and his work as “some loser’s musings on his own mortality.” On December 22, 2001, Lance died of an AIDS-related illness. He was 50 years old.
I met Pat Loud, Lance’s mother, around 2000, through my longtime best friend Kristian Hoffman (who had known Lance since high school). The most devoted of moms, Pat was seeking a project that would, in a way, extend Lance’s life and bring his buoyant spirit into the present.
After convincing Pat of my credentials (I have 20 produced plays to my credit), she handed over a stack of Lance’s writings, essays and interviews — as well as the entire American Family series on VHS which I’d watched, along with my mom, in confused fascination as a nine-year-old. Ten years later I watched again, this time with an avid sense of appropriation (in the intervening years I had discovered my own gayness and had, like ...