How Today’s LGBTQ Youth Programs Will Be the Armor for Tomorrow’s Equality Fight

Playbill Pride   How Today’s LGBTQ Youth Programs Will Be the Armor for Tomorrow’s Equality Fight
From gender-blind casting to unlimited outlets of expression, theatre changes the lives of LGBTQ youth and generations to come.
Cyndi Lauper with the cast of <i>Kinky Boots</i>
Cyndi Lauper with the cast of Kinky Boots Photo by Mo Brady

Just as Pride Week begins in New York City, schools wrap up for the year. However, teachers and LGBTQ youth advocates from coast to coast don’t seem to be winding down. Both in and outside of schools, a myriad of programs have cropped up to highlight and nurture LGBTQ youth in theatre. The programs are as diverse as the students they serve, but the cause is the same: to bring the queer community together at an early age to learn, explore and flourish through the theatre arts.

“We’re at an interesting crossroads for LGBT people, clearly, in that there is both a new acceptance, particularly among their generation…met by an increased push back from some of the more conservative communities that we serve,” says theatre educator E. Dale Smith at Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School for the Arts in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Smith ensures his theatre curriculum includes LGBTQ plays in the classroom where he teaches sixth through twelfth grade, but the most important thing he does is “live out at school.” His husband attends school shows and Smith compels his students to ask any questions they have about the LGBTQ community and his life. By opening the floor, students can explore without fear of being ostracized or targeted.

While Smith works to create an inclusive culture at McKinney, theatre teacher Allissa Crea is a part of the already progressive William Bryan Cullen High School in Long Island City. The institution celebrates diversity through Spirit Days and encourages students to express themselves through the arts. Gender-blind and color-blind casting is a vital part of the theatre curriculum. During her first production at Cullen, Crea had a female student ask to play a male role. “There [were] no questions asked—not just from administration, but also, more surprisingly, from the student body,” Crea says. “I think that was really beautiful to see that there was someone who identified a certain way in their own life and translated that feeling into their character and that relayed onstage.”

Meanwhile, at Manhattan’s Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts, arts education liaison Keeshon Morrow builds a new tradition: The Pride Assembly. Now in its second year, the program is a part of the school’s Pride Week, a week celebrating queer people and culture while combatting bullying. Students audition to perform in the Pride Assembly with their own original work, sharing their own experiences and their reactions to what is happening with the LGBTQ community at large. Morrow will usually knit two pieces together, for example a dance piece and a spoken word poem, and shape the 40-minute presentation, which is performed for the entire school, including gay-identifying students and allies. “A goal of mine is to let the students know that being a part of Pride is not about coming out or even about being homosexual. It’s about supporting everyone…it’s about inclusion for everyone.”

Of course, not all schools are as inclusive as these three, but LGBTQ students can find theatrical outlets nationally with companies like Pride Youth Theater Alliance (PYTA) and True Colors Fund’s Raise You Up. While New York is bursting with opportunities for gay youth, Pride Youth Theater Alliance spans the United States and Canada. PYTA engages theatre directors, entertainers, and advocates to act as mentors to LGBTQU youth. Executive co-chair Cory Barrett impresses that the purpose of the program is to nurture artists and create activists. The organization encourages PYTA participants to explore established and original work in order to tell their unique stories. Barrett explains “I think it’s really important for us to understand there’s not just one version of queer LGBTQU.”

The True Colors Fund was co-founded by Kinky Boots composer and lyricist Cyndi Lauper to combat homelessness among LGBTQ youth. The Fund’s Raise You Up Community Youth Program was a natural extension of the parent company’s mission. Coordinators for the Raise You Up program collaborate with queer youth-serving organizations and the Broadway musical Kinky Boots to show at risk queer students a variety of careers in theatre through a “field trip” to the show. Groups of young adults start the day at Type A Marketing to learn about marketing and public relations. They continue on to the Hirschfeld Theatre to meet the front of house and backstage staff, see the show and engage in a Q&A with the cast. (And, since the show began touring the United States, Raise You Up has expanded to coinciding cities nationwide.) For many of the young people, Raise You Up is an eye-opening experience. The program shows them how theatre can provide not only an outlet, but a living.

When asked why theatre is a great conduit for LGBTQ youth voices, every educator and advocate gushed with excitement. Crea said, “I think by nature theatre supports LGBT in that it’s a place where you can experience different characters and different situations and so often students are going through these new and various experiences themselves.” Garcon explained, “any and all creative outlets of expression are important.” Smith’s thoughtful and heartfelt position is that the struggle of the LGBTQ community is explored and understood in rooms like a theatre class, “We continue to fight battles for acceptance. And true acceptance and true inclusion in the mainstream is not going to be won through macro-battles. It’s going to be won through micro-battles. It’s going to be won through conversations in classes with twelve kids where they see something differently.”

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