The MacArthur Foundation Has A Long History Of Recognizing Queer Geniuses

alison bechdel
Alison Bechdel

The MacArthur Foundation awarded nearly two dozen genius grants this week, and there are three fabulous queers among the recipients.

Is “genius” too strong of a word for Mary Bonauto, Samuel Hunter and Alison Bechdel? No, we don’t think it is. After all, we have Bonauto to thank for leading a massive component of the crusade for marriage equality since the ’90s; and Bechdel and Hunter are responsible for some major literary works that are basically required reading.

A native Idahoan, Hunter’s plays include A Bright New BoiseA Great Wilderness and The Whale, all of which feature regular folks whose values are tested by pain and loneliness. The settings are plain and stark, and the characters unassuming. His work kind of makes us feel like we’re watching the play that we only catch a glimpse of at the beginning of Barton Fink: the poetry of real working people whose everyday struggles tell the story of contemporary culture.

If that sounds a little too serious, how about some comic books? You probably know Bechdel for her strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which chronicled lesbian life for 25 years. Her work isn’t just a collection of funnies, though: she’s a serious memoirist, working in a graphic form. Bechdel was last on our radar when some idiot politicians in South Carolina freaked out when they learned that colleges were assigning a lesbian’s books. She’s also responsible for the Bechdel Test, which determines whether a film respects women by analyzing whether female characters actually speak to each other about anything other than men for a decent length of time.

Mary Bonauto
Mary Bonauto

As for Mary Bonauto, all we can say is that it’s a shame MacArthur doesn’t have a “hero” grant as well, because that’s what she deserves. For literally decades, she’s been litigating for LGBT equality along with GLAD. We also have her to thank, in large part, for the long multi-decade strategy that gradually brought us civil unions, and from there, full marriage. Wherever there’s been a major lawsuit that’s improved our lives, in most cases Mary Bonauto was somehow involved.

These are not, of course, the first queers to be recognized by the MacArthur Foundation.

Last year, gay recipients included Kyle Abraham (a dancer), Tarell Alvin McCraney (a playwright) and Jeremy Denk (a writer and pianist).

Denk’s essays have appeared in The New Yorker, but he’s mostly known for his mastery of the piano. He also looks swell in a bow tie. McCraney’s plays explore growing up poor and black, and how people learn to navigate the worlds into which they are born. And Abraham’s dance is electrifying, such as his show “Pavement,” in which dancers explore the nature of violence.

The same year, they granted $150,000 to Loki Films to produce The Arrivals, a documentary about a gay couple that immigrates from Mexico to the US. This is the same company that produced the outstanding and disturbing documentary Jesus Camp, but as far as we know The Arrivals hasn’t been completed yet.

Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz

Author Junot Díaz won an award in 2012, and while we are not sure if he’s gay, he did once call noted homophobe Orson Scott Card “a cretinous fool,” so he’s at the very least a good friend.

In 2008, MacArthur awarded $45,000 to the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, a Chicago organization that used the money to train LGBT leaders working in extremely challenging countries like Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

They also awarded conductor Marin Alsop in 2005. Alsop’s partner, Kristin Jurkscheit, is a french horn player, and the couple has a son. The family attracted some controversy — most of it, in our opinion, manufactured — since for a time Alsop was conducting the same orchestra in which Jurkscheit played.

And way back in 1996, Michael Bérubé won a grant for his scholarship, activism, and community leadership. You might not recognize his name, but Bérubé book Coming Out Under Fire is the one of the most important queer works of the 20th century, detailing the closeted lives of service members in World War II.