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For Billy: It Gets Better

For Billy: It Gets Better

When gay Los Angeles writer Michael Anthony created his It Gets Better video, he didn't think much would come from it -- until he received an anonymous letter in the mail. With no return address and signed simply "Billy," it was a cry for help detailing one boy's painful struggle with his sexuality and the unimaginable high school bullying he regularly endured in Wheeling, Ill. -- a suburb of Chicago and also Michael Anthony's hometown. For Billy documents Michael Anthony's return to Illinois to explore LGBTQ bullying in the Midwest and to combat homophobia through art and activism -- while attempting to rectify a painful mistake he made 10 years ago.

I have been home sweet home for eight days and have (literally) gained eight pounds. Chicago-style pizza and subzero can't-cardio temperatures rarely have a way of making for six-pack abs. But my crew and I are work 18+ hour days while filming this documentary, and craft services is the only way I can express my gratitude. So I say thank you a lot, and then we eat a lot.

I have gone to bed crying each and every night. Why? Because I am being berated and "gay-bashed" on Facebook by a few of the local high school students; it's not a pitchfork-wielding mob, mind you, but it's a few bad apples with snarky control-alt-delete-key fingers. Most of it is just the occasional underhandedcyber cutting. They continue to call me a "YOB." I have no idea what this means, but students have alluded to the fact that it's a northwest suburban slang for "faggot."

However, there is one student in particular who's gone for my homosexual jugular. He continually professes that it has nothing to do with me being gay, but that "Michael Anthony, as a person, is the problem."

You see, I am a writer-comedian-activist-actor-artist. For four years I served as creative director of alternative programming at Celebration Theatre (the country's longest consistently producing gay and lesbian theater) and currently cohost my own show (The Village Variety Pack with Dennis Hensley and Michael Anthony) at the the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. Plainly put, we're a really good gay ol' time; sketch, comedy, dance, music, and everything in between -- even the occasional drag dance number, which I usually (and painfully tongue-in-cheekishly) front.

This anti-Michael Anthony Facebook-bashing student has researched me, YouTubed me, read me, watched me, and is now sharing each and every wig-wearing, tap-dancing, bawdy-bellowing clip he finds with the city via the Net -- and people (perhaps only slightly rightfully so) are apprehensive about trusting me now. His ultimate point: "Trannies like this have no place in our town and should not be allowed around children." And people who have little exposure to homosexual culture perhaps (not so slightly rightfully so) agree.

First, I am far from a transsexual. I have not shaved my 5 o'clock shadow in years. Second, every transsexual should be allowed around children -- unless he/she chooses not to be. Kids could learn a lot from a good man in high heels. Thirdly, he is right -- I was, in essence, not welcome in my hometown, and it is happening again. Perhaps I have no place here. I am making this doc to discover if I am welcome here anymore.

Fourth, I am insanely proud of myself and the face I have put forth in the world. I have made people laugh, think, contemplate, rage, come to life. I have changed a few hearts and minds, and I have also helped raise nearly $200K for civil rights and youth advocacy causes. Fifth, why is this kid so obsessed with me, my accomplishments, and my art? Why does he care so much?

Finally, he is exactly the kind of teen I am trying to reach. I will not rebut him, insult him, or try to embarrass him, as he has tried to do to me. But I will continually put it out to the world -- this project and I are here to lend an ear and offer participation, especially for those like this young YOB-hating man. (Anyone and everyone are welcome to call the production office at 323-87-0849 with questions or concerns. I will put down my deep-dish pizza and answer anything.)

Last week I made this basement YouTube video -- my personal plea to the students of Wheeling and the surrounding suburbs. Hopefully this will quell some fear. I've laid my heart and soul on the line, and now let's see if any of them decide to salmon-swim up against the raging waves of cultural normalcy and join the For Billy project.

The For Billy crew and I have done eight major interviews thus far. I have cried in seven of them and walked out of one of them. Have I really become such a "heart-on-my-sleeve emotional L.A. artist?" No, I don't think so. The stories people are sharing with me have hit a deep nerve. We met with the local PFLAG chapter, so beautiful and moving in their loving conviction for their friends and family LGBTQers. We were welcomed into the home of a man whose partner died in a recent and tragic accident. We had coffee with a recent student who did not complete high school due to daily physical assaulting and verbal taunting. And these people have not held back; they look into my eyes and answer each question, and I really see them. How can that not move one to tears? Without sounding cliche, I now "know" these people, and I am excited to share them with you in 2012 when For Billy is finished.

They are beautiful; they are worthy of equality and love ... as am I.

Our large-scale art installation ("BE: the exhibit") goes up for one night only this Friday (March 18) at the European Crystal in Arlington Heights, Ill. Please share the invitation with your Chicago-based friends, fans, and family. I think (maybe thought) we'd have 551 people; now I am not so sure. My brother thinks we'll have 20. My mother projects 75 -- and the crew has agreed on "15 or so." But even if the numbers stay in the low teens, I know it will be a moving, changing, extremely unsuburban night.

What is "BE" exactly? Professional Chicago-based artists have taken anonymous student letters about their personal bullying experiences and created original works of art -- paintings, photography, sculpture -- to be shown and auctioned off for charity. There will also be a live stage show at 7:45 p.m., featuring music, dance and spoken word from some of Chicago's most talented gay, lesbian, and supportive straight artists and activists -- all created from the secret thoughts of bullied teens.

"BE" is also an interactive exhibit. Guests will have the opportunity to write their own anonymous letters about their fears, create original art that will be auctioned off for charity, share their personal stories with our "5 Question Confessional Cam," participate in our stage show, and meet other Chicagoland teens, families, and activists -- all with the same aim: to combat homophobia and teen bullying through art and activism.

DATE: Friday, March 18, 2011
One-night-only Event
TIME: Doors open at 6:30 p.m./Show at 7:45 p.m. LOCATION: European Crystal Banquet and Conference Center
519 W. Algonquin Rd.
Arlington Heights, IL
COST: FREE -- Donations Accepted/Charity Auction

All are welcome -- All ages, all races, all religions, all orientations, everyone! I hope you join us; please come. Show your support for the LGBTQ antibullying cause ... and even your love for young, scared Facebook YOB-haters.

This project is no longer about "helping us"; it is about "saving them."
Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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