Ambassador of Care
Actor, activist & union boss Kate Shindle uses a new platform to speak out on HIV
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
It was a too-warm nearly-spring day in Los Angeles when I met Kate Shindle at her temporary digs downtown. It was midway through the L.A. run of Fun Home, the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name. Shindle plays adult Bechdel in a touring production of the show that won a slew of Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical.
Shindle has been an HIV/AIDS activist almost as long as she’s been acting and singing. Traveling from city to city with the cast of Fun Home has been giving her a platform to talk about HIV/AIDS, (I’ll get to that) just as she did as Miss America (I’ll get to that, too).
I wanted to talk about her two decades of HIV/AIDS work, her new role as ambassador for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and her leadership in Actors’ Equity, the theatrical actors union. And we did cover all that. But as a theater geek, I kept coming back to the show.
A “beautiful heartbreaker”
Fun Home is a challenging and true coming-of-age story—not Shindle’s—of a young lesbian growing up in central Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and the un-closeting and unraveling of a compartmentalized and ultimately unknowable father. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it a “beautiful heartbreaker of a musical.”
The “fun” is short for funeral. In addition to teaching high school English, the father, Bruce, also managed a funeral home, which provides the setting for a showstopper song, “Come to the Fun Home,” performed by the three Bechdel kids decked out in their groovy 70s bell bottoms.
Come here! Hey, right here! Right now!
You’re making me mad.
Listen to me.
Listen to me.
Listen to me….
—Nine-year old Alison, Fun Home
Shindle plays forty-three-year-old Alison Bechdel, a successful artist and cartoonist who’s trying to understand her younger self and her parents, particularly her father. As she watches the show’s events with the audience, the adult Alison narrates, presenting a scene with a caption, as if in one of her cartoon panels. Sometimes she speaks directly to the characters, though they can’t see or hear her.
Shindle, as Alison, explains how her father was obsessed with appearances, including their museum-like home decorated to an inch of its life with antiques, and the proper look of his family. His angry insistence on making young tomboyish Alison dress like other girls can strike the audience as somewhat cruel.
The LGBT and coming out themes are central in Fun Home but it appeals to anyone whose family looks perfect on the outside but on the inside doesn’t talk about a lot of things that they probably should be talking about.
Bruce is also meticulous about his appearance as a straight man though he’s been sleeping with men, and possibly underage boys, for decades. His façade cracks after Alison comes out to him, inadvertently showing him the freedom he could never hope to enjoy for himself.
It’s a twist on the typical coming-of-age LGBT story. While eighteen-year-old Alison thinks this is her coming out story, she later suspects she’s a catalyst for her father’s non-coming out tragedy.
“The LGBT and coming out themes are central in Fun Home but it appeals to anyone whose family looks perfect on the outside but on the inside doesn’t talk about a lot of things that they probably should be talking about,” Shindle says.
Toward the end of Fun Home, Shindle replaces college-age Alison on a car ride with her father. She knows this will be her last chance to see her father alive, her last chance to connect with him and say “I know who you are and it’s all right.” Through her heartbreaking song, “Telephone Wire,” we suspect that there won’t be a warm and cuddly father-daughter understanding.
This car ride,
This is where it has to happen!
There must be some other chances.
There’s a moment I’m forgetting
Where you tell me you see me.
—Adult Alison, Fun Home
In an ironic echo throughout the musical Bruce muses to himself that he “might still break a heart or two.” He’s talking about breaking young men’s hearts, but the audience knows the hearts he’s breaking belong to his family.
The car ride scene is good example of point of entry for people who don’t have a closeted gay parent, Shindle explains. “A lot of people approached me after the show and said, ‘I haven’t had that issue but I’ve definitely taken that car ride.’”
Shindle was drawn to the character despite having a very different background than Bechdel. At first she assumed the show’s subject matter—a lesbian lead character and a “shut up and kiss me” girl-girl scene—could be a difficult sell in some states. Especially North Carolina, in the era of HB2 (the state’s transgender bathroom bill), she said. What she found was a very warm welcome in every city since it opened in Cleveland in October.
“There are progressive thinkers and people who love good theater everywhere, to be challenged and not only entertained. This show gives people credit for being able to think.”
Given the amount of outrage Shindle expressed at the statements of Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX, she very well may speak out about LGBT issues when the show comes to his state later this year. She says the “red herring arguments” that Cruz and other culture warriors give about transgender people is “reductive.”
“[Cruz says] trans people won’t use the bathroom of their birth gender because they’re either pedophiles or pretending to be trans to abuse people. It’s red meat and plays into the misinformation and fear people already have about what it means to be trans. Cruz paints himself as a constitutional expert and yet he uses these ridiculous and specious arguments.”
There’s one slight drawback to playing Alison Bechdel. She needed to cut her hair short. “At first I thought I could do it with a wig but ultimately that wasn’t going to work. On the other hand, the show is a really good reason to cut it.”
Have tiara, will advocate
The journey of Fun Home is a quest for an answer to the question: How did this family get here? For Kate Shindle, the journey from Miss America to the star of a highly acclaimed musical—and two decades of HIV/AIDS advocacy—was not exactly linear.
Shindle doesn’t talk much about the year she spent with “the crown,” partly because it was well chronicled in her 2014 book, Being Miss America, Behind the Rhinestone Curtain, and partly because her career has moved so far from it. She’s been a working actor since she graduated from college in 1999. In addition to TV and film roles, she’s played Sally Bowles in a touring production of Cabaret, and was a member of the original Broadway cast of Legally Blonde, which is where she met the producers of Fun Home.
[Needle exchange] didn’t make sense to me and I think that is often the case with people who don’t know about it, because you feel like you are complicit in someone’s drug addiction. Then I understood that it encourages people to get treatment even if treatment isn’t a condition in participating in these programs.
Shindle grew up in New Jersey and during her senior year in high school she enrolled in America’s Junior Miss, which is technically not a beauty pageant (no swimsuit competition, and you got a medal not a crown).
She enrolled at Northwestern University in 1994 with a plan to study theater. But she also entered the Miss Illinois pageant during her junior year, and won. The following year she was crowned Miss America. She took a year off from college, and in that time she traveled the country talking about HIV/AIDS.
Shindle says the most fulfilling part about being Miss America was the ability to make a difference, as a twenty-year-old college student who suddenly had a national platform to talk about HIV/AIDS.
“It was amazing in ways I hadn’t anticipated,” Shindle tells me. “The platform was an opportunity that hadn’t been part of Miss America I followed as a kid, and it turned out to be the most appealing part.”
Most of her duties involved advocating HIV/AIDS prevention and education, through educating students, lobbying legislators, and helping nonprofits raise funds. “At the time there was the launch of a home access HIV test so you could test yourself, so I promoted the importance of knowing your status,” she said.
And she shared the importance of needle exchange, a concept that’s still controversial considering how many states and municipalities still outlaw it or restrict it. Shindle didn’t get the concept either, at first.
“[Needle exchange] didn’t make sense to me and I think that is often the case with people who don’t know about it, because you feel like you are complicit in someone’s drug addiction. Then I understood that it encourages people to get treatment even if treatment isn’t a condition in participating in these programs.”
During her reign, Shindle urged the Clinton administration to legalize needle exchange nationwide, to no avail. But she says that she felt her efforts helped the issue reach critical mass as a harm reduction strategy.
On de-criminalizing HIV
Though she entered college not knowing anyone who had HIV or AIDS, she left college knowing many. Over the years many theater friends, and even an uncle, contracted the virus. She remained an outspoken HIV/AIDS activist years after her reign and raised tens of millions of dollars for various organizations. She also chaired a conference session at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
Her knowledge and passion about the issue made Managing Director of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, Joel Goldman [A&U, May 2016], think of her for an ambassador position. Last month Goldman, a friend from way back, announced Shindle’s ambassadorship as well as her mission: to advocate for reforming outdated HIV criminal statutes.
HIV criminal laws add penalties, sometimes very harsh penalties, for those who don’t disclose their HIV status before having sex. Sometimes the laws tack on penalties to those who are HIV-positive for engaging in criminal behaviors that don’t spread HIV, or for activities that don’t have anything to do with HIV. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two dozen states criminalize one or more behaviors that pose a “low or negligible risk for HIV transmission.”
Back in the 1980s and ’90s these laws, all at the state level, were passed ostensibly to keep people safe, but they were largely based on misinformation and ignorance about how HIV is transmitted. And then, they were forgotten.
Many of the criminal codes are still on the books and some are still enforced. In some cases a person with HIV can get a felony conviction and decades in prison for a crime that someone without HIV would get a misdemeanor for.
Some lawmakers are paying attention. In February a group of Democratic state lawmakers in California introduced Senate Bill 239, which would update California’s 1988 HIV law to state that intentionally transmitting any infectious disease, including HIV, would be a misdemeanor, not a felony. If SB 239 passes into law, it will no longer be a felony for an HIV-positive person to donate blood, organs, semen, or breast milk. That’s because existing law ensures all donors of any bodily substance are screened for HIV and other diseases before any bodily fluids are donated.
Other states, however, are still far behind the times.
Shindle calls the laws “draconian and archaic.”
“They are a remnant of another time, when a lot of people were scared. They pushed through legislations to keep constituents safe or to appease constituents who wanted to feel safer.”
She adds that the laws are not only harsh and not based on science, they discourage people from getting tested. “We don’t need any incentives for people not to get tested.”
Shindle has another topic to speak on as Fun Home travels from city to city. As the President of Actors’ Equity Association since May of 2015, she’s been looking for ways to improve pay and benefits for more than 50,000 actors and stage managers across the United States.
Wearing her union boss hat, Shindle recently called out Trump administration’s proposal to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The day after we met, she took a night off from the show and flew to D.C. to address the National Press Club. Her message: the NEA is a “good deal” and its elimination would be a job killer.
“There is so much irrefutable evidence that the arts serve as an economic engine, even and especially in cities and towns whose factories or industry jobs have disappeared,” she said. “All together, the arts are a $700 billion industry employing directly 4.7 million Americans and millions more indirectly.”
Whether Shindle’s words are heard by the President—or, more importantly, Congress—remains to be seen.
At this cultural moment, it’s important to be ambassadors of compassion and care.
Shindle admits she was pro-union long before she got involved in Actors’ Equity. “We performers are conditioned to be grateful for jobs and feel lucky when we do work that it can translate into willingness to work just for exposure. But actors are essential to the art and the commerce of theater and Actors’ Equity is at the juncture of art and commerce. We recognize the value of performing but at the same time we say it’s important to get a wage for it.”
In other words, performers’ unions are about standing up, speaking out, and being recognized. Which brings us back to Fun Home.
Shindle says one of the important messages from the show is that people need to be free to recognize and embrace and live their identities. “And when they can’t do that, bad things happen like with Bruce Bechdel,” she says.
“At this cultural moment, it’s important to be ambassadors of compassion and care,” she adds. “We need to stand up for people who are trying to make the best of what they have, whether they’re trans, straight, gay, people of color or HIV positive. The more I can encourage and catalyze conversation and openness and dignity and respect, the more successful I feel this adventure will have been.”
Hair and makeup by Eric Leonardos.
Sean Black, a Senior Editor of A&U, photographed Alexandra Billings for the March cover story.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.