Navigating my queerness in the youth performance workshop space
Over the past two years, Be the Street has been a place where I've navigated across a wide spectrum of how "public" I am about my queer identity. Although in my first year as a facilitator I was "out" at the University, I was hesitant to make my transness and queerness known in the workshop space at Be the Street. I worried less about the teenagers' reactions than I did about how their parents would perceive me. I didn't want to be the reason that someone wasn't allowed to participate in the project.
Having come from teaching public high school and middle school settings in New York--where I had to remain closeted for fear of losing my job--I know all too well the power of the "parental rights" rhetoric when it comes to how much exposure children have to LGBTQ-themed literature, let alone living, breathing queer people. I worried that I (and by association Be the Street) would be accused of attempting to "indoctrinate" and corrupt the teenage participants. I worried that I’d be accused of behaving inappropriately by talking about sex with children. (Note: gender and sexuality are different things, and neither transgender people nor gay relationships are more inherently sexual than cisgender straight people and their relationships, but Fox News doesn’t know that.) I asked my co-facilitator only to use my name and not my pronouns in our weekly workshops and not to correct the kids when they inevitably misgendered me. I was careful about which stories I shared during our devising exercises, making sure they didn't involve my partner or too much information about my past or present gender-nonconformity.
This ultimately resulted in the teen participants finding me "mysterious." They speculated about what my masculine gender presentation and feminine voice meant about me. A couple of months into the process a young man worked up the nerve to address the group's lingering questions. After complementing my distinct style of dress, he asked, "So, are you like a tomboy or something?" ... I guess you could say that, but in American culture girls stop being tomboys around age twelve. I told him I wasn't sure what they call that when you're an adult. That was a lie. We're called "butch." But I wasn't prepared to give him a genderqueer vocabulary lesson.
Towards the end of that first year, one of the participants came out to the small group she shared a scene with. Still not willing to be explicit about my own identity, I stopped taking off my Columbus Gay Pride dog tag necklace before workshops and even wore a rainbow t-shirt to one of our dress rehearsals.
In my second year as a facilitator, keeping quiet about my identity didn't seem to make much sense. At that point I had begun my medical transition, and I knew that the testosterone's effect would become increasingly noticeable over the course of the project. It's impossible to quietly or discreetly undergo a second puberty in your mid-twenties. Second, knowing that one or more of our participants belonged to the LGBTQ community, I felt like it was important to be a visible adult role model. How could I claim that our workshop was a safe place to bring your whole self if I wasn't willing to bring mine?
On the first day of the 2019 Be the Street project at the Hilltop Library, we all introduced ourselves. Moriah (artistic director for the project) explained the concept of gender pronouns, gave examples, and invited participants to share theirs along with the name they'd like to be called. I still held many of the apprehensions that I had the year before. However, knowing that one of the participants shared my non-binary trans identity, it felt important to normalize the use of gender neutral pronouns and to make this place one where this teenager didn't have to be "the only one in the room." It turned out there was another participant present in the early stages of questioning their gender, so the pronoun conversation opened up a space for dialogue about what respecting the words people ask us to use for them and how you can't always know just by looking at someone.
In our weekly check-ins I stopped censoring myself and began mentioning my partner in those conversations. If we had done something fun together over the weekend, I would tell the group about how getting to spend time with her was the highlight of my week. This seemed to help participants find me less "mysterious" and quelled rumors that I was secretly dating my co-facilitators among them. Plus, I saw these moments as providing positive, albeit mundane, stories about what adult queer relationships might look like since much of the popular media teens have access to only show them intense, depressing, and hyper-sexualized images of the LGBTQ community. I hope that my mundane anecdotes about my partner and I buying a crock pot together, trying to figure out how to fix the toilet in our apartment, or taking our pet rabbit to the vet might provide an alternative narrative about what queer life can look like.
In one of the earlier workshops I led an activity called "Map My Life" where a leader would have the group follow them around the room as they made an embodied map of the major events of their life so far. In my demonstration I talked about playing soccer and doing theatre as a kid and how both of those provided spaces where I felt I could express myself and my gender beyond what was expected of me as a little girl. Several teens included periods of questioning identity and self-discovery when it was their turn to lead. One participant who was new to the group that day told us about a book she was writing based on her experience of discovering that she liked girls. This prompted another participant to announce to the group: "Oh, by the way, I'm bisexual!"
The first time we held a "story circle" in the group, the prompt we gave the participants was "Tell a story about a time when you took a stand: a time when you stood up for yourself, for somebody else, or for something you believe in." One boy told a story about a time when he stood up to the people at school who bullied him because he was transgender. To show solidarity and to establish adult support in the space, I shared a story about a time when my high school students' Gay Straight Alliance asked people to wear purple in support of the LGBTQ community for National Coming Out Day. I came to school wearing every purple article of clothing that I owned while all of the other teachers (as was traditional for Fridays at the school) were wearing red and black. This sparked a chain of stories about defending gay and trans friends against school bullies and other stories about strong friendships among and between members of the LGBTQ community.
I can't say whether my openness about my own identity impacted who came to the group or the kinds of stories that were shared overall. However, at the very least, I think that being vocal and visible as an adult in the room opened up space for conversations about gender and sexuality to take place. I could demonstrate that this was a safe place to talk about it and that everyone in this space is accepted and celebrated for who they are. This is not a space where you need to hide. And whether they were there for a single workshop or the entirety of the project, that in and of itself seemed to be a valuable thing for many of the participants.