Proud

Anthology

Cast and crew of Proud Theater’s 15th anniversary show, Anthology.

Twenty years ago I was working at OutReach, which is Madison, Wisconsin’s LGBT Community Center. I was also heavily involved at Broom Street Theater, a unique theater company that produces nothing but original works. I was an actor, director, and playwright there. A couple of the things I have cared passionately about for many years are LGBT rights and theater, among others, so I was dedicated to doing my best in both areas.

One day I received a call from Sunshine Jones, a woman who has since become a good friend of mine. She knew of my involvement in Broom Street Theater and that I was working for a queer agency. She told me that her 13-year old daughter, Sol Kelley-Jones, was looking to start a youth theater group for LGBT youth, children of LGBT parents, and allies, and asked me if I would be willing to help out. Combining those two passions of mine struck a chord with me and so I agreed. Afterwards, I think I was a little scared, as my only experience with young people was helping out with a small youth group at OutReach for a couple months. It turned out that the intergenerational aspect of the group was one of the best things about it. The youth and the mentors learn from each other and respect has always been a tw0-way street for us. Proud Theater is not a hierarchical organization. Both the adults and youth have power and a voice.

Proud Theater started in the office of OutReach on a Saturday morning with me, Sol, and two other young people. Because of my experience at Broom Street Theater with writing new plays, sometimes with the cast, we used that as our process. The difference was that the stories came from the young people’s own lived experiences. Funny or sad, we shared the stories of their lives. We started each week talking about what was going on in the lives of the youth and then talked about how we could make the stories of their experiences into theatrical pieces. From there we would improvise, try things out, check back in about how it was working, and finally end up with a finished product.

It took until the summer of 2000 for us to do our first public performance. It was one short skit and it was performed at a large gathering of mostly adult lesbians and gay men who were eating, drinking, talking, and in general not noticing the handful of youth doing a performance under the shelter house. There were a few people who watched or listened, but not a lot. Still, the young people in that performance gave it everything they had.

As time went on, the group size ebbed and flowed, going from as few as eight performers to as many as forty-something, with sold-out audiences in real theaters around town. My partner and Proud Theater mentor, Brian Wild, decided we needed to start a parent organization, Art & Soul Innovations, so that we could officially qualify as a non-profit, tax-exempt group. Through Art & Soul, an additional five chapters were started in other locations around Wisconsin–in Wausau, Milwaukee, Sun Prairie, and Green Bay, with a second Madison chapter for young people from 18-24 years old. We have held performances and workshops in Minneapolis, Crown Point (Indiana), Milwaukee, Wausau, Green Bay, Platteville, Eau Claire, River Falls, and countless times in Madison and surrounding towns. Proud Theater was also one of the founding members of Pride Youth Theater Alliance, an umbrella organization of queer youth theater groups from around the country. Currently, two of our members serve as Board members of the alliance.

More important than our growth are the ways that we have impacted the lives of our queer youth, the audiences who see the group, and the mentors. After our first full production, we received a letter from an elderly couple who said the show helped them understand the struggles of young LGBT folks and that because of that new understanding they were determined to dedicate the rest of their lives to working to ensure equality for LGBT citizens.

There are so many stories about changed lives that I cannot even remember them all. We have had a large number of youth tell us, sometimes years later, that Proud Theater literally saved their lives. They have told us that it was their lifeblood, the one thing they looked forward to every week during a school career that was generally difficult and sometimes impossible because of bullying, harassment, dismissal, and more. In Proud Theater, their opinions and feelings were listened to, heard, and respected. They were supported in ways that they didn’t get at school or sometimes even at home.

One youth wrote a monologue in which they talked about what they felt about being transgender and that piece proved to be their coming out. Another had his mother tell him after a performance that she understood him better and that she would do her best to use the correct pronouns as long as she could still call him honey. Others explored their sexual assault, bullying, and suicide survivor stories. Still others were able to talk about their first loves. Some shared the hurt they felt from families or friends who rejected them and would not accept their identities. The short theatrical pieces created in the group were slivers of reality with all the emotion, angst, wonder, fear, joy, confusion, love, and hate that the teen years can bring to figuring out oneself and one’s identities.

When I first started on this proud journey I had no idea how many lives would be changed for the better, how much heartbreak I would feel when one of our graduates died in a car crash and when two of our young people ended their own lives. I couldn’t have imagined how many young people would tell Brian and me that we were like fathers to them, how much love I would feel for so many young people, and how proud I would be of those young folks who would overcome their natural shyness to shine on stage and in their lives despite some harrowing circumstances. I am so happy I said yes so many years ago.

But I also understand that there is a time for everything, and I feel that it is my time to retire as a mentor to these incredible young people. Twenty years of doing anything is a long time and it’s probably past time for younger mentors with fresh ideas. We have several great young mentors in place who are ready to move the group into its future. We have put the group in a place where it can sustain itself as mentors come and go.

As I age, I also realize I need more time to myself, to spend it with Brian, family, and friends, to do things I’ve always wanted to do before it’s too late. I need to know that I don’t have to be somewhere on certain nights of the week and that if I just need to sleep one night I can do that. I’m tired and if I don’t leave now I’ll likely suffer burnout and not give my best to the youth, and they deserve the best we can give them.

I will miss it. You don’t give twenty years of time and energy to anything and not miss it. I have a difficult time imagining the fall without being there at the start of the new Proud Theater season. I know there will be days when I pine for the laughter and loud conversation of the young people in our group, when I will miss guiding them both in theater and in life, and when I will look back wistfully on all the brilliant, creative, giving, and beautiful lives I’ve watched grow through various stages of their lives on a stage I helped build. The curtain is drawing on my part of it, but the show will go on.

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Not Yet Numb

March for Our Lives

March for Our Lives. Photo by Callen Harty.

Somehow, I am not yet numb.

While watching a teenage girl talk about a boy in her high school class giving his life to save others, tears come into my eyes and my swallowing becomes difficult.

So I realize I am not yet numb.

Despite another child killed in another school.

Despite a litany of shootings and killings reported at one time in the media:

  • “Baltimore’s violent weekend continues with 2 fatal shootings overnight”–Baltimore Sun
  •  “Alabama cop fatally shot; wife charged”–Fox News
  •  “Man held after shooting at Calif. state park”–Los Angeles Times
  •  “12-y-o boy charged with murder in shooting death of 10-y-o brother”–New York Daily News
  •  “Texas pastor, wife shoot and kill alleged burglar at their home: police”–ABC News
  •  “Elite 8th-grade football recruit shot, killed”–Yahoo Sports

These are the stories of our times–the random shootings, daily murders, churches set afire, mass shootings, bombings and bomb threats, hatred, terrorism from within. These are the stories we carry in our hearts.

And somehow I am not yet numb, and I wonder how that can be.

Maybe it’s because there are heroes. Maybe it’s because there are boys who are willing to take a bullet to save others. Because there are some politicians willing to take a stand. Young people like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez who refuse to stay silent. Regular folks who do what they can to promote peace.

And maybe it’s because I can’t be numb, because if I am numb I no longer feel, and if I no longer feel, I can no longer act, and if I can no longer act, then I can do nothing but lie in fear of the day when it happens to me. And I refuse to give in to that.

I will still cry for those who are lost. I will still fight to lose no more. When I die, I will know I did my best, and I will not die numb.

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Racist

Trump Chicken

Trump Chicken. Photo by Callen Harty.

“There should be no bitterness or hate where the sole thought is the welfare of the United States of America. No man can occupy the office of President without realizing that he is President of all the people.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt

The man in the White House today does not realize he is President of all the people. He also harbors bitterness and hate toward American citizens of color, and regardless of how else you feel about him, his racism is his greatest failing. There is no doubt about this. Donald Trump has provided ample evidence of his racist nature. In just the last week, these three things have been reported.

  •  Two years after the fact, Trump defended and happily reiterated his comments that there were “very fine people” on both sides at the rally in Charlottesville where white supremacists protested the possible removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, where violence broke out, and where one of them killed a young woman with his car. And Trump did so by arguing about what a great general Lee was, conveniently forgetting that the South lost the war with the slaveholding treasonous Lee commanding the losing side.
  •  After the first day of the National Football League draft, Trump tweeted a congratulatory note to Nick Bosa, the player who was picked second overall in the draft, a white player with a history of liking racist Instagram posts and who had himself posted several tweets that were construed as racist. Trump did not tweet any kind of congratulations to Kyler Murray, the first player picked in the draft, a black player who also won the 2018 Heisman Trophy. The President has the right to congratulate whomever he wants, but his choices are very telling.
  •  Since 1952, the President of the United States has been the one to present the National Teacher of the Year Award, but it was announced earlier in the week that Trump would not present it to this year’s winner, Rodney Robinson, an African-American man from Virginia. Trump did present the award the last two years to white teachers who were selected. Again, the choice to not present the award this year seems very telling, though after many news stories about the situation Trump did hold a surprise meeting with Robinson and other state winners in the oval office after the official ceremony.

These are just three examples from the last week, and it’s possible that they are completely coincidental and that no slights were intended. A lot of people, especially white nationalists who are still bitter about the South losing the Civil War, believe that Robert E. Lee was a great general, so perhaps that is what Trump has heard. But while he won a number of battles, sometimes against much larger forces, Lee lost the war. He was also a slaveholder and a West Point graduate who was offered a Union command, but committed treason by fighting for the Confederacy. The President of the United States should not be lauding those who have committed treason against the country. Nick Bosa has lauded Trump on Twitter and it’s possible that Trump just wanted to stroke the ego of someone who stroked his. His ego needs a great deal of stroking and he tends to reward those who praise him and punish those who speak out against him. Likewise, he may have been embarrassed after last year’s National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, used the opportunity to deliver letters from immigrants and wore a number of pins promoting equality for all and perhaps that embarrassment was the real reason why he didn’t want to present the award this year.

Or it could just be that Trump is a racist who signals it all the time but won’t proudly proclaim it like the white nationalists who are killing African-Americans, transgender citizens, immigrants, Muslims, and others on a regular basis. Our headlines are filled with the heartbreak of those suffering from attacks perpetrated by those emboldened by Trump’s signals.

The stories about Trump’s othering of non-white citizens and immigrants is not new. It goes back decades to him being investigated for not renting properties to African-Americans. It shocked us when he started his campaign by maligning Mexicans as rapists. It continued with his views on Muslims. It has become so commonplace that it no longer shocks us, but it should. These are not the kinds of views that most of us expect in a leader. Granted, there are racists all over the country who are glad to see Trump lead in this awful way, but most individual Americans are not like that. While we may not all recognize our white privilege or the built-in systemic racism in our country, we do believe in equality for all and we do expect our leaders to hold those same beliefs and work toward making that a reality.

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Primary Emotions

 

Unify

Unify. Photo by Callen Harty.

There are so many Democrats already announced as candidates for President, with at least one more coming this week, that it’s pretty much impossible to keep track of all of them. According to Wikipedia today, there are currently twenty major candidates, with Joe Biden about to announce his intentions on Thursday, which will bring that total up by one. There are an additional 200 declared candidates that nobody is even aware are running. The press will ignore those candidates because they have no name recognition and are not taken seriously as candidates. The bulk of the winnowing is done by the press without much input from the American public. Besides, no one can imagine organizing a debate with over 220 candidates invited. Of course, setting limits on who gets to debate and who gets media coverage or who can even be on the ballot, along with Citizens United, ensures that any candidate who ultimately wins is either wealthy themselves or has managed to garner the support of wealthy benefactors and political action committees. Those are the ones who get covered and are considered serious candidates by the news pundits.

Even with most of the candidates ignored, there is still a much larger than normal field this year. There are also a number of third-party candidates that have gotten little to no notice so far. As for the Democrats, in alphabetical order, the major announced candidates so far are Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Mike Gravel, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang. An additional five besides Biden are considered possible contenders and are currently exploring the possibility of running. Those five are Stacey Abrams, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, Bill de Blasio, and Joe Sanberg.

Some of these candidates are known in their own states, but do not have a lot of national recognition. Some of them are considered frontrunners. Virtually any one of them would be better than the man who currently denigrates the office on a daily basis. For the Democrats it is a pool of well-qualified and able candidates–even the ones who are not currently getting much attention.

One thing that tends to happen with the Democrats is that they eat their own. The Republicans don’t care if their candidate is a liar, womanizer, or anything else, as long as they can stay in power. And America and her media like building people up and tearing them down. Each of the major candidates that entered this race did so with a splash and within a few days or at most a couple weeks, articles started appearing finding fault with one thing or another, or many things. Some examples:

“Cory Booker Has a School Choice Problem”–New York Magazine

“Cory Booker Has a Betsy DeVos Problem”–Mother Jones

“Cory Booker Has a Wall Street Problem Heading into 2020”–Esquire

“Pete Buttigieg Has Everything Except Positions on Major Issues”–Los Angeles Times

“What Happened When Pete Buttigieg Tore Down Houses in Black and Latino South Bend”–BuzzFeed

“Tulsi Gabbard, the Controversial 2020 Democratic Candidate”–Vox

“Tulsi Gabbard Campaign in Disarray”–Politico

“Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 Campaign is Already in Trouble”–Vanity Fair

This could go on and on for pages. Type “The problem with X’s candidacy” and type in any of the candidate’s names for the X and you will see multiple articles enumerating all of the things that we can dislike about each of the candidates. Bernie Sanders is too old. Joe Biden disrespects women, Kirsten Gillibrand should have supported Al Franken. Beto O’Rourke benefits from male privilege. Elizabeth Warren mischaracterized her heritage.

The thing is, nobody’s perfect enough.

Nobody can live up to the expectations of everyone.

What some of those on the left don’t understand is that if they want to defeat Trump they have to compromise a little. They have to look critically at all of the candidates (and that’s what a nice long primary season is good for is to find the faults now before the general election) and vote for the person who most closely fits their values and has the best chance of winning. I don’t fault anyone for voting a third party candidate if that is the person who most closely matches their values. They’re not likely to win, but I don’t believe voting for the person you think is the best candidate is ever a bad thing. It may not win elections, but if it helps a person sleep at night, I’m okay with people making their own choices. Nobody should be able to pressure you or tell you how you must vote. We all have to make choices in our lives about what is best for us.

Personally, I’ll admit I’m a little more pragmatic. The only person I could vote for who would match my politics, morals, and views on everything would be me, and I don’t have a chance. While there are some things I may not like about all of the current crop of candidates, there are far more things I do like about all of them–I think there are a lot of great choices in the lot–and whichever one comes out of the Democratic primary on top will get my vote, even though I am not a registered Democrat and even though they may not be perfect. I believe that is the only way to defeat Trump and I believe it is important that all of us who have an early favorite in the race line up behind the primary winner if we can feel okay about that and then do everything possible to put that person in office. While we may not get everything we want (we never will), we will be rid of Trump, each of us will get some of what we want, and we will inch this country forward just a little bit more. Progress is slow and I am patient.

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30 Years

From Play with a Tiger

Me looking in the mirror, 1986. From a production of Play with a Tiger. Phoographer unknown.

This week (April 18) marks 30 years since my last drink. Thirty years ago, late at night (or early in the morning) I had an epiphany in a bar in Denver and realized I had to quit drinking or I would kill myself. Once the realization struck me there was no choice. I knew I couldn’t fool myself about it any longer. I set my unfinished beer down and headed home, confident in my new-found knowledge and determined never to drink again.

Before that night, I had spent a little over a decade pretty much in an alcoholic stupor. I drank pretty much every day and did so to excess. I could easily down a dozen and a half brandy Cokes or beers or other drinks in a night, and did so regularly. Occasionally, I drank more. Occasionally, it was less. It would have been rare to go 30 hours without a drink, let alone 30 years.

I didn’t know until many years later that I was self-medicating, that I was using the alcohol to hide from myself and an incredible amount of pain that I could not face. It was too hard. Child sex abuse has that kind of effect on a person. It fills you with shame, embarrassment, guilt, hatred, hurt, and more negative emotions than most people even realize are possible. Although it’s getting better, our society has historically been afraid to honestly talk about issues like that, so it also makes you feel utterly alone and isolated.

In all honesty, the constant drinking allowed me to be more social and less alone, at least for a time. It also allowed me not to face myself. It allowed me to ignore the harsh reality of my childhood. With a few drinks in me I could be a more sociable person than I ever could be without it. I am naturally shy and uncomfortable in groups of people, but when I was drunk I could be the life of the party–I was a fun drunk for the most part. In fact, right after I quit drinking one of my friends actually said he wished I hadn’t quit as I was so much more fun when I was drinking.

Once I quit, my life started coming into focus. I feel that I’ve accomplished a good deal in my life and none of it would have been possible if I had continued on the path I was on at the time. There are countless ways that I improved my life, including jobs, relationships, and, perhaps most significantly, I dealt with the pain of my childhood. I faced it honestly, acknowledged it, and started to move past it. It was incredibly difficult and that work still continues, but it is no longer a dark secret. It is in the open where I can face it, cry, scream out in anger, talk about it, or do whatever I need to do to continue my healing journey.

That journey and others were sidetracked for a decade while I drank myself into oblivion, and I am so thankful that I was able to see the light and quit when I did. I am as proud of myself for this as pretty much anything else in my life. On the anniversary date I will celebrate myself for a moment or two and then will continue my sober journey through this beautiful life.

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Pictures of a Lost Youth

untitled

Me at 14. Photographer unknown.

Trigger warning: This post talks about child sex abuse. Please take care of yourself.

My sister has been looking through old photos that my mother had and posting some online for those who are pictured in them. Recently she posted a picture of me in the front yard of our house. Based on the year and the season it appears to be shortly after I turned 14. I shared it also because I don’t have a lot of photos of me in my teen years, but looking at that image has proved to be a bit unsettling. At 14, I was still short and thin, my hair was still red, and I was smiling. As a young person I was always told I had a great smile. It’s impossible to tell if it was a smile for the camera or if I was really happy in that moment. While I have many happy memories from my childhood, I also have some horrible memories that are sometimes brought up by pictures like this.

The photo would have been taken when I was approaching the middle of over seven years of ongoing sexual abuse. I look at that smile and I know that behind it there was lost innocence, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, and probably dozens more emotions that I couldn’t even begin to define. I look at pictures of me when I was around ten years old and I can’t help but think how innocent I was, and how small and vulnerable, and it makes me want to cry. That’s how old I was when it started. I look at my high school graduation picture, which would have been taken when I was still 17, and I think of how much pain was hidden behind that smile. The abuse ended at some point in that seventeenth year, but the aftereffects of it lingered for years, and clearly linger still even though I have gotten so much stronger.

One time as an adult I came across a man from my hometown who tried to seduce me. He told me that years ago, when he looked out the window at me playing in shorts (like the ones I wore in the picture my sister posted), he always wanted to rape me right then and there. He was not the person who abused me. He had never touched me, or even tried, but years later, finding out that he had those thoughts was unnerving. The picture of me at 14 reminds me again of that disgusting revelation, and it’s left me a bit triggered.

Looking at childhood photos and thinking of childhood memories should be a happy pastime and for some it is, but for untold thousands of survivors it can be difficult to revisit their past. For some, the memories are so painful they can’t even be recalled. Unlike those survivors, I remember well. I remember details that it might be best to block out and forget. But I also remember that despite it all the child in those pictures, from ten to seventeen, was a positive, hopeful, idealistic person. He was a boy who lived through those awful moments of abuse, but still appreciated life for the wonder it had to offer, who believed, like Anne Frank, in the essential goodness of people. Somehow, I still do.

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On the Jussie Smollett Case

Love Your Neighbor. Photo by Callen Harty.

One of the things about our society in this era of instant electronic communications is that all of us tend to jump to conclusions about stories in the news. We hear that an actor like Jussie Smollett has been attacked by MAGA hat-wearing homophobic racists and that immediately fits with a narrative of Trump and his followers. So those on the left jump all over it and start tweeting and writing blog posts and creating memes about it. Then, when the story shifts a bit and newspapers start to report that police sources say that Smollett may have paid men he knew to stage the attack, that fits a narrative of those on the right, that liberals have knee-jerk reactions to everything and that attacks on African-Americans and those in the queer community are all over-stated and over-reported by the left, and that they really don’t happen much, if at all.

At this point, there is no way to know what is true in this story. So perhaps the wisest thing would be to wait for the police to finish their investigation and see if they charge the two brothers who were suspected of attacking Smollett or charge Smollett for filing a false report. As a people, we don’t have a lot of patience to wait for things to play out like that. We’re in a 24-hour news cycle and we want answers now and if answers aren’t available the best answers cobbled together from what little is known will do. We want to be the first to post about the latest developments in the latest stories. We accept incomplete information rather than no information at all.

The problem with that is that people can get hurt by the suppositions and incorrect reporting, whether it is the two brothers who were accused of accosting him or whether it is Smollett himself. I don’t want to suppose that Smollett planned an attack on himself, but if it proves to be true it is devastating, in large part due to his fame and the continuous reporting on it. Right now, it’s a big part of that 24-hour news cycle and right now it seems the majority of the country thinks Smollett lied.

The thing is, there are a lot of wolves out there and just because one boy cries wolf when there is no wolf there, it doesn’t mean we should ignore everyone who tells us they have been attacked by a wolf. Already, I have seen that there are those who want to use the possibility that Smollett lied as proof that there is no danger for my community.

As a gay man who has been threatened and who has known queer people who were beaten or killed, it pains me to think that Smollett may have fabricated this whole thing, and I hope that it is not true. It will make it that much harder for those who have suffered from hate crimes to be believed.

False reports of crimes are fairly rare, but they do happen. Sometimes it’s to get attention. Other times it’s to get someone in trouble, a way to get even with someone who hurt you in some way. Sometimes there’s no explanation. But when these reports happen they undercut the many true stories of homophobia and racism that are so prevalent in our society. I sincerely hope that Jussie Smollett did not orchestrate his own attack. But if he did, that doesn’t mean black men are not really dying at the hands of police and others. It doesn’t mean that gay men aren’t getting fired from jobs or getting beaten and killed for being gay. It doesn’t mean that there are no hate-filled neo-Nazis attacking Jews, or Muslim-hating Americans attacking those with different beliefs, or Trump supporters attacking those who look different or speak a different language. These things do happen. There are wolves among us.

 

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