By Elizabeth A. Harris
Originally posted by the New York Times on August 25, 2016.
The volunteers visit schools in pairs. One person is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and the other has a family member in one of those categories. They stand at the front of a classroom and tell their families’ coming-out stories.
This month, about two dozen of these volunteers received an invitation that could, perhaps, happen nowhere but New York City: Would they like to get some public speaking lessons from the cast of a Broadway show? It’s called “Fun Home,” and it won a bunch of Tonys.
The show, adapted from the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, follows a woman through phases of her life as she learns that both she and her father are gay. The show, which won the Tony for best musical, among other awards, is now approaching the end of its run. It is scheduled to close in September and go on a national tour a few weeks later. The volunteers were invited to attend a workshop on Wednesday, and then to stay to watch the show.
“We thought they could learn a lot from professional actors about public speaking skills,” said Drew Tagliabue, the executive director of Pflag NYC, an organization for family members of gay and transgender people. The group runs the Safe Schools Program, which sends those emissaries into classrooms to talk about coming out.
And so it was that about two dozen Pflag volunteers, some in their 20s, clad in sneakers and tattoos, others comfortably into retirement age, found themselves in the very guts of the Great White Way — a windowless, subterranean room in Midtown Manhattan with gray linoleum floors below the Circle in the Square Theater.
Before them sat six cast members from the musical: Michael Cerveris, who plays Bruce, the father; Judy Kuhn (Helen, the mother); Beth Malone (Alison, the main character); Emily Skeggs (Medium Alison, the character in college); Roberta Colindrez (Joan, the college girlfriend); and Kally Duling (the understudy for Medium Alison and Joan).
But what was planned as a class about how to hold onto an audience became something different. There were two sample presentations, but instead of coaching, there was a conversation between two groups of people, strangers to one another, about how what they do — whether on a Broadway stage or in a busy public-school classroom — is actually quite similar. They tell stories that are not often told.
“I have some advice for anyone who is thinking of coming out, or if you have friends who are thinking of coming out,” said Samuel Nathanson, 24, a Pflag volunteer who tells his story of coming out as transgender to his mother. “Don’t do it while your mom is driving.”
The Safe Schools Program in New York City began about 15 years ago, not so many years back, but at a time when gay issues received an immeasurably chillier reception in this country than they do today.
“We got a lot of pushback in the beginning,” said Suzanne Ramos, a Pflag NYC board member and the mother of a gay man. “Back then, schools used to say: ‘Oh, we don’t need anything like that. We don’t have any gay kids here.’”
Today, Mr. Tagliabue and Ms. Ramos said, schools are much more open. During the last school year, volunteers spoke to almost 6,000 students. That is many more students, and often much younger children, than they used to address.
Still, there is resistance. Councilman Daniel Dromm, a Democrat who helped found Pflag Queens, and who quietly found a folding chair toward the back of the room on Wednesday, said it took years to get Pflag into certain schools. Mr. Dromm, who is gay, has been involved with the group for a long time.
When Ms. Malone takes the stage, or when Mr. Nathanson stands up to face rows of young people at desks, they are not just speaking to the most obvious audiences. There are gay people who come to “Fun Home” eager to see a story even a little like their own sung on a stage, just as there might be gay teenagers in a classroom relieved to see that when they grow up, they might just be all right. But there are others.
“There are people who come to New York, who show up in the summer and they just want to see what won best musical — ‘We’ll just go see that!’” Mr. Cerveris said. “Those audiences are, in some ways I think, our favorite ones, because we’re not preaching to the choir at that point.”
“And as you go into schools, you may have a couple receptive kids,” Mr. Cerveris continued. “You’re trying to give those kids a sense of confidence and help them feel not so alone, but you’re also, maybe even more, helping other kids who don’t know that their minds need to be opened.”
“The thing that we have discovered so fully,” he added, “is the value of showing up and telling stories.”
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