In a world that wasn't safe for LGBTQ people, a play in a leather bar changed the game.
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NBC's Rise

1977 was a risky time for a play about fighting back against gay bashing. But that didn’t stop Allan B. Estes.

To pull off Doric Wilson's play, “The West Street Gang,” Estes had to work with what was available — and in the '70s, that wasn't much.

Estes was a playwright and a young gay man living in a time when politicians like Anita Bryant openly insulted gay folks and violence against LGBTQ people was all too common. The world wasn’t exactly welcoming his vision for a creative space for queer people.


Gay Rights protesters in 1976. Image by Warren K. Leffler/Wikimedia Commons.

He also didn’t have a theater to work in. So he decided that his production of “The West Street Gang” wasn’t going to be just set in a leather bar, it would also be performed in a leather bar.

Described as “a queer bar farce about sitting down for drinks and standing up to oppression,” the show was a huge success.

It was so successful, in fact, that Estes got enough recognition to help him produce more plays.

And he soon secured a downtown San Francisco location to open something that didn’t exist but was sorely needed: a theater dedicated to art by and for queer people.

By August 1977, Theatre Rhinoceros became official — and it still exists today as the world’s longest-run queer theater.

Kathryn L. Wood and Elaine Jennings as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Photo by David Wilson/Theatre Rhinoceros.

Theatre Rhinoceros filled a huge need as a space that reflected the lives of LGBTQ people who were invisible in mainstream arenas.

“In 1977, there was no queer representation,” says current executive director and artistic director John Fisher. “There was just really nothing where queer people could see their lives portrayed. And so it was very important that there was a place where they could go and see plays.”

With founder Allan B. Estes as the first artistic director, Theatre Rhinoceros began producing plays exclusively for gay men. A few years later, Estes opened the company to include lesbians, paving the way for the theater’s current content, which continues to expand to represent more letters in the LGBTQ+ rainbow.

Among the early performances were works by noted playwrights, including Harvey Fierstein, Terrence McNally, Adele Prandini, and many more.

Harvey Fierstein, Lanny Baugniet, Allan B. Estes, and J. Kevin Halon at San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros in 1981. Photo courtesy of Theatre Rhinoceros.

In 1984, tragedy struck: Estes died suddenly at the age of 29.

He was one of the many lives lost to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

The AIDS epidemic devastated the community of artists and audiences that came together at Theatre Rhinoceros. They lost leaders, actors, and loved ones. “This disease almost destroyed the theater,” Fisher says.

But, through unfathomable pain, Theatre Rhinoceros carried on.

The company members kept doing what they did best: providing visibility, safety, and love for their community.

In fact, the same year as Estes’ death, the company premiered “The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival.” It was the first play in the U.S. to address the AIDS crisis.

National attention followed, including a PBS documentary with Academy Award-winning directors and a tour of “The AIDS Show” around the United States.

This attention was crucial. Victims were rapidly dying of AIDS without knowing why, and their communities were terrified. Theatre Rhinoceros helped give its community representation on the big stage and educate huge audiences about AIDS.

Today, resilience through art continues to shine in the spotlight at Theatre Rhinoceros.

In August 2017, the theater celebrated its 40th anniversary with a staged reading of “The West Street Gang.” After all, their very first play's theme of resistance through struggle remains relevant in new and evolving ways.

While there are more queer theaters now than in 1977, for instance, many have shut down in recent years as their neighborhoods become less and less affordable for these theaters and their actors.

André San-Chez and Charles Peoples III in "The Legend of Pink." Photo by Steven Ho/Theatre Rhinoceros.

And they are continuing the tradition of reflecting contemporary LGBTQ lives.

One recent show, “The Legend of Pink,” received rave reviews for its story of a black transgender woman who was once one of the 40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ. The Rhino’s current show, “Transitions,” is a witty take on being queer during the Trump presidency.

And, in spite of the risks of covering such touchy topics, The Rhino has reached wide audiences and touched an abundance of lives.

Daniel Chung, Donald Currie, and John Fisher in "Flim-Flam." Photo by David Wilson/Theatre Rhinoceros.

The Rhino’s lasting legacy reminds us of why representation is so meaningful for LGBTQ communities.

Whether faced with a devastating epidemic or hateful politicians, queer artists have always looked out for their communities. When they had nobody else to help them survive violence and grief, Estes and his company turned to their own creative power to build hope and visibility.

Art like the Theatre Rhinoceros’ helps us reach each other, express ourselves, and send our stories into corners of the world they’ve never seen before.

These artists prove that we have the tools for change right at our fingertips.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

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President Biden/Twitter, Yamiche Alcindor/Twitter

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Not that it took any of those things to make racial issues in America real. White supremacy has undergirded laws, policies, and practices throughout our nation's history, and the ongoing impacts of that history are seen and felt widely by various racial and ethnic groups in America in various ways.

Today, President Biden spoke to these issues in straightforward language before signing four executive actions that aim to:

- promote fair housing policies to redress historical racial discrimination in federal housing and lending

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True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

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via TikTok

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