On ye olde facebook, someone in the theatre education sphere asked the community about creating a supportive environment for LGBTQ students, especially if the parents are not accepting. There were some fantastic responses, such as getting a “Safe Place” sign, which is easy and effective. And the person who said, “Love your kids. They will know” makes a graceful point. I had a cross-country flight ahead of me, so I had the time to think and come up with my contribution.
I am posting it here. I want to be able to look back on it and hold myself accountable, and I also think that much of this holds true for making a space for other underrepresented groups. As a mixed-Latino playwright, I also see how only a few of the bullet points below would not apply to, you know, work by mixed-Latino playwrights.
Again, other theatre professionals had some fantastic thoughts that I was adding to, so this is by no means a comprehensive guide.
Some Thoughts on How to Be Supportive of LGBTQ+ Theatre Students
1. Mention the gay people in your life. For a gay kid seeking a trusted adult, this is code for ‘this person is cool with gay people.’
2. Look at how your program can be supportive of gay and trans kids.
– Are there gay characters in your plays? How are these characters treated? (While I love The Laramie Project, it’s also about dead gay kid. What impact do you think you’re having if the only gay representation in your program is as a victim of a hate crime?)
– Are you producing plays by gay playwrights, and if so, are you examining how their identity informs the play? (If you’re doing The Importance of Being Ernest without acknowledging that it’s making fun of straight folks from the point of view of someone who was later jailed for being gay, you’re missing a HUGE piece of the play.)
– Are the plays you’re picking strictly from a straight person’s POV? Even plays with gay people are so often lensed through a straight person’s point of view. I love Rent, but this queer world is through (straight male) Mark’s eyes. I’m not cautioning against doing this, but I am suggesting that you make the space to acknowledge this.
– Does the play rely on stereotypes and assumptions? What shortcuts is it making? (Our Town literally has the line, “Almost everyone get married” – which was exclusionary to gay folks when we couldn’t get married and REALLY HURTFUL TO HEAR – is the play making a statement, intentionally or not, that’s built on the assumption that everyone in straight and cis?)
– Are you relying on canon plays, which are generally written by people with an antiquated notion of gender and orientation?
– Are you doing gender-blind or cross gender or gender-conscious casting? What is your casting saying about gender and sexuality? Do you have an idea of what a “leading man” and a “leading lady” is – if so, what assumptions are you making?
– If you have a trans kid whose parents are not accepting, are you casting them in gender neutral parts, or are you casting them in parts that will aggravate their dysphoria? (Here, too, can gender blind casting help.) Is the program and/performer bios honoring their pronouns (or intentionally avoiding this when it will trigger transphobic parents)?
– Are you thinking about the production process from the ground up? I am a playwright, so I make the plays with my students, and so pretty much every LGBTQ+ character we have came from the students originally. This is obviously not feasible for every school, but you can create spaces for LGBTQ+ students to advocate for their stories and help make creative choices.
– Are you creating the space to have the conversations? These conversations could be about what the play is saying or doing. These conversations could be about the kids negotiating their identity and experience in relation to the play.
Now, I wrote a gay Romeo and Juliet for and with my middle schoolers, which we produced, and this was a big deal. But you don’t have to make LGBTQ+ identity at the center of your work to make a play that’s inclusive. I wrote a play where most of the characters are aliens (and I realized aliens can have one, two, or ten genders) and the humans have gone through body switches. I did this so literally anyone could play any part and this would reveal nothing about any character’s gender or orientation. This is not what the play is about – it’s a dorktastic science fiction hero’s journey romp – but the world of the play is intentionally built for gender blind casting. It’s a play that is neither about gay people nor does it make heterosexuality the default.