Growing up LGBT is hard as hell. Aside from the daily discrimination, there’s a dearth of role models to help guide youth through the bumpy terrain of coming out, intolerance, violence, and sex.
A new play that premiered this week as part of the Lambda Literary festival in Los Angeles confronts this stark reality of queer life. Letters From Young Gay Men features real correspondence between youth and gay elders. The production has actors reading both the letters and the responses, and is inspired by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
The play is an outgrowth of Rise Up and Shout!, a mentoring project started in 2006 by Don Kilherner, founder of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and Mark Thompson, a former editor of The Advocate who died last year. Rise Up and Shout! staged four performances — with help from their elders — in which young queer artists told their own stories through song, dance, and acting. The young participants of Rise Up and Shout! provided the correspondence that would become Young Letters From Gay Men, which is now being turned into a book edited by therapist, producer, and filmmaker Brian Gleason (Gleason also made a 2007 Sundance channel documentary about Rise Up and Shout!).
As Gleason prepares for this weekend’s batch of shows — the production runs through March and into April at Hollywood’s Studio C theater — he was kind enough to share one of the letters featured in the play. Read the emotional exchange below and click here for more info on the show.
Dear Rise Up And Shout: (letter from Eddy, 16 y.o. Latino high school student from San Fernando, Calif., dancer in Rise Up And Shout Event, 2013)
I watched as they beat him. Calling him faggot, worthless, queer and more. But it was all just a flashback. A flashback to the day I was beaten. That “him” is me. I can feel the force of their fists pressing against my face with hatred accelerating in their eyes.
“Help, help!” I screamed to the top of my fucken lungs. “I hate you!” was all across my mind as bystanders just stood there laughing, watching me bleed, watching me suffer. One more, two more, three more and even four. The punches left scars throughout my body, but besides the physical scars, it left one mental scar that is difficult to fade away to this day.
Coping with such memory is difficult. What am I supposed to do now? Well now, toleration I have none of. What do I do now when I see such brutality? Beat the shit out of them? That’s the only thing I can think of. To this day the word faggot gets said way too much for things that are irrelevant.
They use faggot as a form of hatred and gay as a form of meaning unpleasant. Every time I hear them, I feel like punching them in their fucken face and make them feel the pain I felt for being a faggot. I want it to stop. But where do I begin?
I’m sick and tired of people judging and say “gay” or “faggot” as the easy way out. Bitch, shut the fuck up! Try being beaten, trying being told that your love isn’t real. You don’t know what we face. About a year ago, I remember witnessing the same situation. Some piece of shit low lifes punching a kid for lusting after a guy. Fuck that shit.
With my thoughts racing went over and stood in between. Once again, the flashback began. They yelled at me, “Aye fucker, move. Don’t stand up for a queer.” My response was, “I am a queer and I am standing up.” They rushed toward me but I refused to stop. They punched me and kicked me but I refused to stop protecting. My anger outraged, and so did theirs. All I can think about was on how I promised myself I wouldn’t let anyone get hurt like the way I did. I’d rather take the pain. I was left hurt, physically & emotionally.
The victim yelled at me, “You should’ve let them beat me. I’m going to hell anyway.” He gave me a big “fuck you” and left. Not “thank you” or nothing. Some people just don’t appreciate things. To this day, I still refuse to let people get hurt. But I don’t know if I should regret what I did because I think to myself, “was it worth it?”
Dear Eddy: response from me to Eddy's first letter — total of four letters — by Brian, a therapist working in the L.A. area, producer of the last three Rise Up and Shout! performances, and director of the documentary film, Rise Up and Shout!, based on the first event)
Thank you so much for your letter. I’m struck by your courage, and also by your anger, which has much love in it. I too, am angry, and I also love much. I am angry about losing my first boyfriend to AIDS and I am angry that the word fag still gets used a lot (sometimes by me) and I am angry that the huge love gay men have to show the world is not celebrated as a gift.
I remember when I met you, when you auditioned for our Rise Up and Shout event with your dance and your film and I felt the passion of your refusal for anything half way. You slammed right into the floor with your dance moves, and your film brought tears and laughter. Rise Up And Shout was a great event, a wonderful show, but it was so much more than that – it had the quality that your letter has, balls and tenderness.
Your letter says “toleration I have none of” and I hear yet more passion and I feel your blood. This is a tremendous quality. It is a kind of courage of refusal; refusal of the table scraps of toleration, of acceptance, of “being OK with it.” What of celebration!? Gay men are a gift.
You ask the question “was it worth it?” Your letter itself answers that question. You struggle to make sense of all of it: the longing for love, the kicks and screams, the courage, the fear and meek betrayal from the other queer with his ‘fuck you I’m going to hell anyway’. You struggle and feel the rushing of force through your whole body. And then you yourself are the answer. You dance and make film and make music with your words and make soul with your life.
You are also vulnerable, as anyone with courage necessarily is. It was vulnerable for you to stand up. It was vulnerable for you to write this letter to me. It is vulnerable for you to be gay. But it is just this feeling, or way of being, that reaches its hand across to me as I sit and read your letter and then write these words back to you. I feel again the difficulty of love; the difficulty of you and I loving each other right now, with these words, in the middle of all the hatred.
When I came out I was both stronger and more vulnerable. I saw the world of gay people and how they are hurt again and again and both my love and anger grew and I felt our impossible struggle as the heart’s way towards freedom.
I read your letter and I struggle with your questions and with the easy answers that dart at me. I try to stay with your courage and anger and love and scars and beauty. I refuse explanation or even understanding and I just sit, no stand, and read your letter. I stand as I stood and held the hand of my first lover Steven as he died of AIDS. I stand as I stood with my partner Kevin all those years in San Francisco. I stand with friends and mentors like Mark Thompson and Malcolm Boyd and I stand with the willingness in your letter. I stand. This is the real joy, and it is quiet sometimes, soft like approaching thunder.
This standing – and this writing now that you and I are doing – this is the real courage. It hurts though, moving sometimes like glass through blood. But then this cuts your heart ever more open. It is like the duende of Garcia Lorca, that earthy, passionate, hard love that has you: "Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood."
Is there more, then, to say? I go back to your letter, and the struggle for real love that you describe. So another answer to the question of ‘was it worth it?’, then, is that it was worth it because it is a love that is real. So we are talking of gay, then, as a real love, a radical, original, root experience; something that cries out for the soul, saying: I am a man who loves men, who turns thousands of years of men killing men into the possibility of men lying down with men, living the possibility as Walt Whitman said “We two boys together clinging; one the other never leaving.”
This is difficult. As Rilke said “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us.” It is all the more difficult when you get pushed down and hit and kicked for this love or watch others get pushed down and hit and kicked for this love and then perhaps wonder why the burden of this love was ever put on you.
But then the answer, again, is in your letter and in your life. It is a holding out for that real love. It is a standing up instead of walking by. This is not a hero move, but rather a move of love. Like so much love, it suffers a first betrayal. Faith is broken, over and over. But you are not so much broken as vulnerable, strong and fragile, questioning and yet more certain that this is who you are because this is what your soul looks like. And so we arrive at beauty.
You live the life of your soul Eddy. This is the first and lasting agreement you made to come into this world: you as the Eddy who wrote these words, full of balls and tenderness and elegant cries of anger and the raw ache of a love that is more longed for than known. This is your real strength and your true love.