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.

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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