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Liesel Reinhart Headshot

Can We Trust Straight People?

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So, time to out myself. I'm writing and directing a new show called it gets better for the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) and the It Gets Better Project, so a lot of people seem to assume I'm a lesbian. I do have a wonderful partner of 15 years, but his name is Steve. I'm actually straight.

So how did I end up in this position, writing a show about the challenges faced by LGBTQ youth? I'm a long-time board member of GMCLA and was eager to expand the reach of this talented group, so last fall I suggested that they develop a live stage work based on the online It Gets Better Project. It would have drama! It would have video! It would have music! Seth Levy and the amazing team at the It Gets Better Project said, "Let's do it!" I enlisted my group, Speak Theater Arts, to co-produce, and a major arts management group immediately signed the show.

Now, just eight months later, the company and I have arrived in Iowa City for our first performance. Here, we are spending a full week speaking to school groups, leading discussions with community leaders and creating video projects with student gay-straight alliance members. It's quite an experiment. This "It Gets Better" message won't be mediated by cyberspace. We are all reaching deep to prepare ourselves for face-to-face conversations -- wherever they take us.

During our whirlwind of development, I wonder if anyone ever thought, "Can we really trust a straight person with this project?" It's a fair question, and one I have asked myself. Not that I did it all alone. The show that emerged blends a fictional story (dreamed up with the help of my dear friend Ken Klawitter) with the real-life stories of the cast. Music arrangements flowed from our genius music director, Morten Kier. Cast member Sacha Sacket wrote original songs for the production, as did Tony and Grammy Award-winning Jeff Marx and Mervyn Warren, respectively. Our production team includes dozens more people I don't have the space to list here -- nearly all of whom happen to be gay. They couldn't have been more supportive of me at every turn.

Still, I harbored anxiety about being straight. Sure, I grew up surrounded by an array of LGBTQ friends, colleagues, students, teachers and unattainable crushes, but was that enough? I persisted because, as corny as it sounds, I felt the calling. I have been haunted for years by the memories of my friends Mike and Marty and my student Ray. They never got to see an "It Gets Better" video.

I grew up pre-Internet, in a series of rural communities across Colorado and Utah, where "gay" didn't exist. Of course, there were LGBTQ people in my high school, including my first boyfriend (of course) and my drama club friend Mike. A lot of us fled like crazy after graduation, so I lost touch with Mike. He apparently came out in college and got a motorcycle, which he rode one night to a bar in downtown Denver. Few details are known for sure, but news stories said Mike was followed from the bar, badly beaten and thrown to his death down an abandoned silo in an old grain warehouse. Word of his brutal murder was my first wake-up call about the seriousness of anti-gay hate and violence.

Not long afterward, I lost another gay friend, this time to suicide. Marty was talented, kind and deeply tormented by his relationship with his family in Utah. I'll never forget getting the call that informed me that he'd been found inside a running car in his garage. For months I ran through our last conversation over and over again. What did I miss? What should I have said?

Years later, as a college teacher, I experienced those feelings again when I learned that one of my former students had taken his own life. This wasn't a student from a small town; we were in Los Angeles, a city where plenty of LGBTQ people still face antagonism and bullying from strangers and family alike.

My work on this project is dedicated to them.

In a short piece written for GLSEN over eight years ago, Nick Funari called on people like me to "help bridge the gap between LGBTQ individuals and straight individuals." Still, the role that straight allies should play in the movement is not always clear. I can see where some might be apprehensive about our involvement, too. Straight people are, after all, the source of stuff like bullying, DOMA and long lines for anti-gay chicken sandwiches. God, that was embarrassing.

Fortunately, greater numbers of straight allies are speaking up, and we want to do more than repost pro-gay memes on Facebook. GMCLA recently made headlines by accepting two straight singers into its ranks, and the It Gets Better Project features hoards of great videos by straight people. These are just two organizations among many creating opportunities for allies to join the cause -- and we really must respond. Though we'll never presume to lead the movement for LGBTQ equality, we are honored to find our places within it. Thanks for the trust.

Watch an exclusive clip of GMCLA performing Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger":