Broadway Legend Harvey Fierstein Opens Up About His Gender Identity: 'I Don't Know Who I Am'

In a new memoir, the truly trailblazing actor and playwright (perhaps best known for playing Robin William’s brother in Mrs. Doubtfire) discusses sobriety, stardom, and his path to self-discovery. “I don’t know who I am but that’s never held me back!” Fierstein says.

Harvey fierstein
Harvey Fierstein. Photo: Chris Buck

Harvey Fierstein has an iconic, inimitable voice. His scratchy, raspy, Brooklyn baritone (the result of overdeveloped vocal cords and damage done to them early in his acting career) belongs in the oratory canon, somewhere between James Earl Jones and Dame Judi Dench. For this interview, to discuss his new book, that voice arrives first, booming through the Zoom screen before his face appears.

"Look at that sad orchid!" he bemoans with a laugh, sneering at this reporter's wilting office plant.

But while he's been heard for close to 50 years now, across film, stage, and television screen, the Tony-winning performer has, of late, been concentrating on written words. Now 70, Fierstein's memoir I Was Better Last Night trails his rise from his parent's Bensonhurst home to Andy Warhol's downtown entourage. He chronicles his time fighting for LGBTQ rights and surviving the AIDS crisis; Broadway success and Hollywood sound stages; his journey from the depths of alcoholism to hard-won sobriety; his tight-knit family; and drag.

"From the very beginning of my career," Fierstein says, remembering his early days in performance art productions in New York City, "my brother would bring a date to see the show and decide whether this was somebody that he would be interested in or not. Because if they freaked out that his brother was a drag queen and, you know, doing this kind of stuff, then it, he wasn't, they weren't for him!"

I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir by Harvey Fierstein

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

"I'm still confused as to whether I'm a man or a woman," Fierstein says, turning serious. He says as a child he often wondered if he'd been born in the wrong body. "I don't have answers for anybody else 'cause I don't have answers for myself. When I was a kid, I was attracted to men. I didn't feel like a boy was supposed to feel. Then I found out about gay. So that was enough for me for then."

After a career which has been defined by his turns on Broadway (he has six Tony awards, for both playwriting and performing) and in films such as Mrs. Doubtfire, it is his ease at performing as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof ("No one has ever been happier walking around with a beard and five daughters and having everyone call me papa") or Edna in Hairspray. "I don't know who I am. You wanna tell me who I am?" (Fierstein says he thinks about whether he is non-binary a lot "and it's the term that bothers me.") "But let's put it this way," he says with a smile, "I don't think I've missed anything by not making up my mind."

RELATED VIDEO: ICYMI 5 Moments From 'Hairspray Live' That You Will Love!

If anything, Fierstein's indecision allows him to see the world much more as a whole — with an intense appreciation for our differences. "No two of us are the same, not any of us." It's taught him a lot. After a life which has stretched across six decades and as may mediums of performance, Fierstein knows this: "I'm 69 years old, and still everything's possible. I can get up tomorrow if I wanted to, and shave really close and put on a bunch of makeup and walk around my town and see what that's like. Having done drag as many years as I've done drag, I know it's a lot of f--king work to be pretty."

Related Articles