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On the Outs

Living Proof Helps Gay City Teens Cope With Coming Out of the Closet

By Jill Yesko | Posted 6/11/2003

Erin Davies says she is living proof that gay teenagers can survive the trauma of coming out to parents, friends, and family members without becoming a morbid statistic, and she's using her experiences coming out as a lesbian at her Syracuse, N.Y., high school to help others. Those difficulties inspired Davies, who for three years has created and produced queer-themed shows with her Pendulum Diaries Productions, to this year recruit a theater troupe's worth of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) teenagers from in and around Baltimore to stage a play during this year's Pride celebration.

"Gay teens are 50 percent more likely to commit suicide or become severely depressed," says Davies, 25, a former youth outreach coordinator at Chase Brexton Health Services in Mount Vernon, in trying to explain why she's mounting Living Proof. "The purpose of Living Proof is to foster positive self-images among GLBT teenagers through the creative arts." Her troupe is scheduled to perform Living Proof, a series of multimedia vignettes that dramatize the complex coming-out issues gay teens must face, at Theatre Project June 13 to 15.

"All gay teens hear a negative thing," Davies says. "You don't have any positive role models for them." Getting Living Proof's word out during Pride week is especially important, she says, because gay teens have traditionally been overlooked by the larger gay community.

Living Proof's script was written by the troupe's 15 members and is based on their own life experiences. Since February, the troupe has met every Saturday afternoon at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland on West Chase Street to hone the script. In September, the troupe will perform Living Proof in Washington, D.C., for the annual conference of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national organization that works to end anti-gay bias in school-age children.

Living Proof's plot revolves around the lives of four high-school students, whose stories run the gamut from that of a gay teen whose mother comes out to her through a letter, to that of a popular jock who chases girls and affects a macho facade to hide his homosexuality. Among the issues Living Proof deals with are self-awareness, self-acceptance, sexual identity, friendship, and love, Davies says. The play focuses on "the fact that all of these kids have gone through a lot in coming out at such a young age, but are still standing and have weathered the storm," she says.

Among those who have weathered that storm is Candice Haynes, a cheerful 17-year-old junior at Baltimore City College High School, who came out as a lesbian when she was a freshman. Haynes, who sports a tongue stud, a rainbow bracelet, and a what part of lesbian don't you understand? button, says she hopes that her participation in Living Proof will inspire other gay teens to feel safe about coming out, both at school and at home.

Haynes says her mother threatened to throw her out of the house when she told her she was gay. "Over time she came to accept me," says Haynes, who says she has also been harassed at school because of her sexual orientation.

"Guys will try to grab me," she says. "They're more powerful, I feel intimidated by them."

Despite the harassment, Haynes helped start City College's Gay/Straight Association. She says that when it comes to her sexuality she operates under a Clinton-esque policy: "If you don't ask, I won't tell."

For Dunbar High School junior Troy White, 16, being gay is important--but so is his role as junior class president and math and science tutor.

"I'm smart at school and kids need my help," says White, who came out at 13 and aspires to be an emergency-room physician. "At school you hear from all the girls 'Oh, you're too cute to be gay.'"

He says he's had to literally fight to protect his identity. "With guys at school it's all about them knowing that you're not a punk," adds White, who says he's been beat up by gang members twice in his neighborhood. "I'm still a boy, even though they know I'm gay."

Davies says some of the toughest battles gay teenagers have to fight happen not in school but at home with parents and relatives. She notes that many inner-city teens--gay and straight--"just get passed down from relative to relative." And when the relative finds out that the teen is gay and turns him or her out of the house, that kid's safety net can disappear. Even among those who are allowed to stay at home, life can be unbearable when parents won't acknowledge their sexual identity.

During a recent Living Proof rehearsal, Shawn (not his real name) a rangy 16-year-old with braces, fiddles nervously with a rubber band as he talks about his struggles as a gay teen. Slumped into a chair and speaking just above a whisper, Shawn says that his mother won't let him perform with Davies' troupe because she "doesn't want me to label myself as a homosexual at school at an early age." Davies says that many teens, especially those who come from religious families, face similar dilemmas and are ostracized not only by their families, but also by their faith communities.

"My family wanted me to stay in school, but I couldn't deal with going to school and coming out at the same time," says Robert Silver, 16, who attended Dunbar High School and is now completing his GED.

What's the hardest part of being a gay teen? "Everything," Silver sighs. "It's depressing because you have to fight to prove you are like this." Silver says that participating in Living Proof has given him a safe haven where he can feel secure about himself.

Members of the Living Proof troupe say one of the messages they hope to convey is that, although being gay is an important part of who they are, it doesn't completely define their identities.

"Even though I'm gay, I'm still the same person I used to be," White says. Adds troupe member Ebony Jones, 18, "The toughest part about being gay is that people are always trying to change you. People are constantly saying it's just a phase."

Pendulum Diaries Production's Living Proof troupe performs at Theatre Project June 13-15, at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, call (410) 752-8558 or visit www.theatreproject.org.

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