Raising the Curtain

LGBTQ students find theater a welcoming home where they can truly be themselves

By Jane Latus

Who says theater attracts people who crave attention? For LGBTQ kids, it turns out,
theater’s lure is that it’s a place where they can be themselves – or, briefly, escape.
“I cut my hair off last week because I felt comfortable with being myself – and I thank
theater for that,” says Elliot, close-shaven and purple-haired, practically laughing with a
degree of joy that only a trans male could fully appreciate over what, to many, is a mundane
grooming choice.
For Elliot, 15, a part-time student at Southington High School and the Greater Hartford
Academy of the Arts, “transition and theater, they kind of work hand in hand.”
For Aaron, a 16-year-old trans, bisexual male who attends Canton High School, making
props and painting sets started out as a way to both express himself through art and as a
respite.
“It was an escape, because although now things are really good at home, then they weren’t,”
he says. Now, he adds of theater, “It’s like a home. No one judges you for anything.”
Kyla, 18, of Hartford, credits theater for helping her figure out she is gay. She performed in
the Classical Magnet School’s production of The Children’s Hour, which explores the
aftermath of accusations of lesbianism.
“Being in the play, it made me realize who I was. It was a lot of help,” says Kyla.
For other LGBTQ kids, if nothing else, being where no one cares about their identity or
orientation is a precious chance to catch their breath.
“In a way, theater is a bit of a safe haven for kids who don’t feel safe with their bio family, or
who are questioning who they really are themselves,” says Jay, 16, of Tolland, who is
questioning and fluid. In theater, “you don’t have to fit into your little box as you have to in
everyday life.”

2/6/2019 “Jay” student at CREC Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in Hartford.

It’s complicated

 

Safe is definitely not how most queer teens feel most of the time, according to students and teachers.

Most are not fully out. Some are out at home, but not at school. Some are out at school, but not at home. Many who attend the Arts Academy part-time are out in that setting, but not at their home schools.

It can get stressful.

One 16-year-old trans male is out with his family and school but asks not to disclose his name, town, and school. He does happily proclaim one identity: “I’m a Broadway nerd!”

“I have support at home and I’m really grateful for that. But in my school, the administration is good but the students are very closed-minded. People are okay with LGB, but the transgender part they don’t know about. I’ve had people harass me, but since I started testosterone, and once I started to pass, it stopped,” he says.

“In school, I’m very anxious when I’m around people. I’m very closed off and don’t really smile much. I wouldn’t say I’m grouchy, but I have an angry-looking face. That’s to protect myself from other people so they won’t bully me. My therapist says I’m putting up a wall. When I’m at play practice or at GSA, I can relax and be myself,” he says.

Elliot’s situation is different. He isn’t out in the morning at Southington High but is out in the afternoon at the Arts Academy. He is “not entirely out” at home.

The Academy, he says, “is a very welcoming environment. Not so much at Southington High School. People are not very accepting in Southington, I’ve gotta say.” At home, “My mom refuses to call me Elliot or use male pronouns. It prevents me from having a conversation with her.”

In theater, says Elliot, “It’s such a diverse group of people that everyone’s accepted when they’re there. It’s really easy to be open there, because you’re creating stuff, and no one really cares who made it – they care what’s presented.

“The thing I enjoy most about theater is I’ve made almost a home with it,” he says, adding, “Going through this situation [being transgender] and being in theater, it’s helped me in my general life more than I’ve ever imagined.”

Two simple facts are big deals to him:

“I’m able to wear makeup there and be called by the correct pronouns, and I can’t do that anywhere else.”

And: “The first role I got this year, it was a male. It made me feel very great. And the playbook had my name – Elliot – and that made me feel great.”

“The word seems to get around that we’re open and unilaterally accepting,” says Ken Jones of Canton, who teaches theater craft at public schools, the Farmington Valley Stage Company and Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor. Jones is straight and cisgender, and has a gay son and a transgender son. (He is also married to the author of this article.)

Jones learns of students’ identities through the pronouns they ask to be referenced by, and often by their confiding in him once they reach that level of comfort.

“Some have very supportive parents. In theater, they can be the rest of themselves,” he says. “Some parents live vicariously through an ideological, fictional character who they use as a litmus test for their own children.”

One student shared that when she came out as gay, her father said he’d prefer she was a drug addict.

“Relationships are already really hard enough as it is, as a teenager, without added stress or conflict,” says Jones. Theater “gives them short periods where they can thrive and be themselves, and think about something else. The rest of the time, they’re just trying to survive.”

That isn’t always its initial attraction

Based on her 15 years as an instructor, including 10 at the Arts Academy, Missy Burmeister thinks she has figured out why theater attracts kids “who are marginalized in any way, including being LGBTQ.”

“Many of our students, I would say, are closeted from their families, or ostracized from them. Most are not even out with their friends at their home school. My theory is that theater [initially] feels like a place where they can cover up and hide, where they can be someone else.”

She says while they may not necessarily see it as a safe harbor in the beginning, they stay because they learn that “it’s a place where they can be who they want to be.”

At the same time, “the very personal journey in theater, particularly for students who are struggling with identity, is often very hard and scary, and shouldn’t be glamorized as being a beautiful and natural process. A lot of hard work goes into learning how to accept oneself, and theater can serve as an excellent tool in helping with this process.”

 

Her wife, Tate Burmeister, is technical director at Ivoryton Playhouse and has worked at community theaters, colleges, and public and private schools.

“It does happen still now that parents don’t like to accept children’s identity or sexual orientation. I’m like, ‘Really, in this day and age?” Tate Burmeister says. She relishes seeing kids grow into themselves – remembering one who explored an evolving presentation. “It was a cool thing to watch.”

Finding a home – and affirmation

Hazell, 18, of Hartford considers herself a fortunate trans female. “Home is very supportive. They just feel like the real me came out.”

Still, she says, studying theater at the Arts Academy has helped. “I get a lot of female roles. A lot of people, when they see me, automatically think I’m a female. It makes me feel comfortable – I don’t get looked at like, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ ”

“A group of outcasts adopted me – they were gender fluid and gay,” says Aaron. He joined theater with them “to get out of my shell,” he says, but now it’s “like another home.” It helps, he adds, because “school is such a tough environment. Everyone here [at school] is so straight, cis and white.”

Jay says theater changed her life in sixth grade, when she sang “Freak Flag” in Shrek. “That made a deep impression on me – that whoever you are, you’re beautiful. It’s a really beautiful and powerful message.” It felt pretty good to a 12-year-old to realize that questioning one’s orientation “was a thing people could do.”

And here’s a plus for any queer students who join Jay in theater: She vows that if anyone hassles them, “I’d go full-on Mama Bear and go straight to the administration. Because I’m protective of the younger LGBT students.”


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