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Identities in America: Discrimination and Intersectionality Patricia Uruguai Lobato Cunha

Abstract

This research paper aims to explore the intersecting identities of the characters Louis and Belize in the play “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and how these identities create a representation of America, which diverges from the melting pot. This research aims to show that the play portrays America through the use of intersectionality in order to dive more in depth on the complexity of discrimination and how people with different overlapping identities have different opportunities and treatment in society, causing multiple Americas to be formed. It will dive into Louis and Belize’s intersectional identities by focusing on their physical attributes, verbal and physical acts, and into their experiences and opportunities in America through their interactions with each other and other characters. The analysis of Louis and Belize aims to show that a white queer male, such as Louis, might experience America in a different way than a black queer male, such as Belize, because even though they share the same queer identity, they have different racial identities. This way, this exploration hopes to enlighten people that discrimination caused by identities is much more complex than many think and to help solutions be found.

How do the intersectional identities of the characters in the play “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” represent America?"

Essay

Louis and Belize talking outside the diner, showing how their intersectional identities impact their experiences of America (from miniseries).

“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” is the first half of Tony Kushner’s play, which is set around the 1980s and focuses on two couples: Prior and Louis, and Joe and Harper. However, other characters such as Belize are also crucial to the development of the play. There was an AIDS epidemic during said time period that was connected mostly to drug addicts and homosexuals, as Roy Cohn states in the play. Moreover, during that time, Ronald Reagan had just been elected for another term in the White House.

Louis is a white, Jewish, and homosexual male with light colored eyes in the miniseries whose family immigrated to the United States. After his grandmother’s funeral, Louis does not introduce Prior to his family, saying he “always gets so closet-y at these family things” (Kushner). Moreover, Louis is shown saying “Reaganite Heartless Macho Asshole lawyers” when talking about the supporters of Ronald Reagan, and his voice contains indignation when he discovered Joe voted for him (Kushner). Finally, when interacting with Belize, Louis says that America is different from all other nations given that it has people from every race and thus is not defined by race. He also says that “there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past,” acknowledges that he is racist, and states that he believes most black people are antisemitic (Kushner).

The actor that portrays Louis in the mini series. These pictures show the way the character dresses. In the second he is wearing a long coat and a suit. In the third he is wearing a sweater with a blue t-shirt. (from mini series)
Louis expressions after criticizing Reagan' s supporters and finding out Joe voted for him. (from mini series)

Belize is a black homosexual that used to dress in drag. When talking to Prior in the hospital, he is in colorful clothing, holding a purse, and wearing earrings. When talking they address each other with ‘female words,’ and it is shown that Belize considers this “girl-talk” conversation to be “political incorrect” given that they gave up drag a while ago (Kushner). Moreover, Belize gives non-Western medication to Prior, and we discover he is a nurse. Belize also says that if he wanted to “spend [his] whole lonely life lookin’ after white people [he] can get underpaid to do it” (Kushner). Furthermore, during the conversation with Louis stated in the previous paragraph, he maintains a serious face and orders food as Louis talks, staring at him and later mentioning that some things Louis said were offensive. Finally, Belize says he does not know what is love and when Louis states that he is dying, Belize responds: “[Prior] is dying, you just wish you were”(Kushner).

Belize physical attributed and clothing when visiting Prior at the hospital. A purse colorful pants, blue shirt, red scarf, jacket, and earrings can be seen. (from mini series)

Although the presence of intersectional identities in the play “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial in terms of today’s concern over discrimination and social equity, as it helps to portray a new view of America that diverges from the commonly used melting pot and shows discrimination through a new lens.

Throughout the years, one of the ways America has been represented the most is through the melting pot view, largely focused on immigrants. The melting pot style of representing America is connected to the idea that immigrants can be Americanized by getting everything to ‘melt together’ and create a common culture (Americas). However, the idea of becoming an American is also closely related to ‘whiteness’, as mentioned in episode three of “Race – The Power of an Illusion”, suggesting that for the ‘melt’ to occur, an immigrant needs to let go of other cultures and religions and melt into the white American lifestyle (Race). In the end, the melting pot view is not truly about acceptance of other religions and cultures, but about those other cultures and religions merging into one, losing their characteristics and getting the American’s. In many plays this view was used to portray an image of America and oftentimes a message about discrimination present in society.

In “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” the melting pot view is not the lens through which America is represented. In this play the intersectional identities of the characters, especially Louis and Belize, help to portray America through a different lens. The theory that intersectional identities refer to is known as intersectionality, which addresses how discrimination and disadvantage is created by the overlap of multiple identities of a person, including race, sexual orientation, religion, class, amongst others (Alemán). It portrays the fact that all identities are important in defining a person’s opportunities and experiences, as each one contributes to one’s life (Alemán). We can see the intersectional identities in multiple characters of the play, especially Louis and Belize. Louis is white, homosexual, Jewish, male, and has immigrant roots. On the other hand, Belize is black, male, and homosexual. Simply because both of these characters are homosexual, for example, does not mean they both have had similar experiences and opportunities, because their other identities, such as Louis being white and Belize being black, also impact said things. Not only can some of these identities be seen, such as their race through skin color, others can be seen by their speech and the plot, such as the fact that the play begins with the funeral of Louis’ grandmother, who was a Jewish immigrant to the United States. These intersecting identities end up showing America through a different lens, showing how each individual has multiple aspects of their identity that makes one different from the other. This play does not define characters as either American or immigrant, but instead makes sure to define each identity of the characters. This portrays America through a much more complex and individualized lens, showing its diversity and thus highlighting the fact that each person experiences a different America.

Belize' s facial expressions as Louis makes his speech about race in America, politics and power. The larger photo shows his serious and kind of sad expression, the first to the left shows indignation and a bit of disgust, while the second (first to the right) one shows annoyance and indignation. The bottom left shows Belize almost leaving looking a little mad and the bottom right shows Belize ordering food as Louis talks. (from mini series)

This presence of intersecting identities highlights the discrimination still present in society in a different light, giving more insight into the issue. As mentioned, Louis and Belize have a variety of identities, and their interactions with each other and other characters help to highlight how said identities formed their experienced and opportunities in America. Even though both characters share the oppression caused by their homosexual identity, that does not mean they have the same opportunities, which is clearly shown in the conversation that occurred between Belie and Louis. One of the most important moments where this is shown is when Louis stated that America is different from other nations due to the fact that multiple races are present and because of this people aren’t defined by race, giving the impression he believes that racism is not an issue in America and that there isn’t a “racial past” (Kushner). Throughout this conversation Belize shows indignation and disgust in his facial expressions, contributing to the understanding that he does not agree to what is being said and finds it offensive. This represents how intersecting identities impact a person’s opportunity and experience, because even though they are both homosexuals they have different views of how America is and the discrimination present because of their other identity: race. As mentioned by Michael Omi and Howard Winant in "Racial Formation", there is the temptation of seeing race as a simple illusion, as shown by Louis, instead of an "unstable and 'decentered' complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle" (Omi 15). Louis has not experienced racism, so he does not see it as an issue in America, but Belize has and clearly disagrees that it is not an issue. The fact that Belize has experienced the lack of opportunity that comes from racism is also shown when he interacts with Prior and talks about how if he wanted to look after white people, he could get underpaid to do so. The fact that he explicitly says “white people” and “underpaid” highlights the discrimination and lack of opportunity he suffers that comes from his race, when he wouldn’t even get paid a normal amount to take care of people from the ‘superior’ race (Kushner). This way, Belize is part of two minority groups, being both black and homosexual, and both impact his opportunities and experience in America. The use of intersectional identities helps to depict the complexity of discrimination; after all, factors that might be contributing to the discrimination might be being overlooked as people focus on only one identity.

In conclusion, the play “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” portrays America in a different way by utilizing intersecting identities, and it contributes to the understand of an ongoing problem in society: discrimination and social equity. It is fairly easy to blame discrimination to a certain aspect of one’s identity when in reality the issue might be deeper and its causes might involve multiple identities. While both characters are homosexuals, they still do not have the same opportunities because one of them is also black, impacting Belize's life in a way Louis’ life will never experience. It is important for activists and the community to discuss and analyze how experiences differ amongst people with different overlapping identities to understand better discrimination and its causes.

Works Cited:

Alemán, Rosa. “What Is Intersectionality, and What Does It Have to Do with Me?” YW Boston, 2 Aug. 2019, www.ywboston.org/2017/03/what-is-intersectionality-and-what-does-it-have-to-do-with-me/.

“Americas | 'Melting Pot' America.” BBC News, BBC, 12 May 2006, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4931534.stm.

Kushner, Tony. “Angels in America.” Season 1, episodes 1,2,3.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. Theatre Communications Group, 1993.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Second ed., Routledge, 2015.

Race - The Power of an Illusion. Dir. Christine Herbes-Sommers, Jean Cheng, Larry Adelman, Llewellyn Smith, Tracy Strain. California Newsreel, 2003. Kanopy. Web. 15 Nov. 2019.