Op-ed: Why Aren’t We Making LGBT Acceptance a Community Affair?

A new tour associated with the It Gets Better project is headed to places where LGBT activists have for too long ignored.

BY Jimmy Nguyen

October 23 2012 12:07 PM ET

From the premier performance at the University of Iowa

Last week in Iowa City I realized the LGBT movement spends too much effort preaching to gay urban audiences.  We need to invest more time gathering support from straight neighbors, especially in suburban and rural areas, so that LGBT acceptance becomes a full community affair.

Although I was cold from the rain during my few days in Iowa City, my heart was warm from seeing firsthand a local community energized to advance LGBT acceptance.

That was the impact of it gets better, a new touring live stage work that premiered last Friday at the University of Iowa. A collaboration of the online It Gets Better Project,  Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Speak Theater Arts, the show depicts the need to help LGBT youth with a blend of theater, music, and multimedia.  But it also adds a vital dose of community by interacting – both on and off stage – with straight and LGBT students, teachers, residents and singers from the town.  

I’ve been active in gay causes for many years.  I served on the board of an LGBT political organization.  I attend fundraising events and blog about rights issues.  And if you’ve got the latest funny pro-gay meme, I will gladly share it across Facebook and Twitter.   But often, I find myself and fellow advocates delivering our message to the same people: gay friends and loyal straight allies in big metropolises such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. I accept my own responsibility for that.  Like many gay men, I like the comfort of big cities and don’t often stray far from my gayborhoods.   Indeed, after departing their suburban or rural hometowns, it’s hard for many LGBT people to look back.

That’s why I was so intrigued when Liesel Reinhart, the writer/director of it gets better first talked to me about helping produce the show.  Liesel is one of my most creative friends, so I expected innovative ideas.   Right away, it was clear that her priority was to engage local communities.  The show would tour around the country – not just to gay meccas, but to smaller cities and towns where the “It Gets Better” message is most needed.   That’s why places like Iowa City and Lawrence, Kansas are on the itinerary.

In each tour stop, the show is preceded by a week of outreach activities.  In Iowa, the cast members visited gay-straight alliances at Iowa West and City high schools (where one of the groups is superbly named GLOW - Gays, Lesbians Or Whatever).   At the University of Iowa, they spoke to graduate education students about teachers’ responsibility to create a bully-free learning environment for all students.   After the show’s technical rehearsal and premiere performance, they held Q&A sessions with the public.  Engaging community dialogue is a critical component of the tour.

And during the show itself, the community is brought on stage, both virtually and literally.   Voices of some local residents are heard when their own It Gets Better videos are played, and they are brought up to speak directly to the audience.  In one of the most powerful moments, a local choir arrives on stage to tell LGBT kids, through song, that “You Have More Friends Than You Know.”

With these novel twists, the it gets better tour does not just speak to a passive audience.  It depends on the community to get actively involved.  And it asks the all-important question – once the show leaves, what will local residents do to help their LGBT youth?

That critical question must be answered to solve not just bullying of LGBT youth, but to achieve progress across all LGBT issues.   Even when a show like it gets better comes to the heartland, it doesn’t have all the answers.   The answers already lie somewhere within each community, and the tour’s job is to motivate the residents to discover and share those answers for themselves.  

It is the local residents who must continue the dialogue after the tour packs up its last costume.  They are the ones who must talk face to face with the bullies, who must open the minds of intolerant neighbors, and who can show gay kids they have more friends than they know.

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