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Nuns, LGBT Youth and the Power of a Single Song

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A simple message: "You're a perfect child of God." Simple, yes, but it is also a profound message that everybody can and should hear -- hopefully repeatedly -- and one that seems especially urgent for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth in an era of entrenched bullying, depression, and suicide. America's recent strides to support such youth are remarkable. The Trevor Project and the It Gets Better project are the most headlined, and they are bolstered by waves of community-level activism like the Out in the Silence campaign for justice and equality in rural and small town America.

Amidst this groundswell of much-needed activity, however, a single song stands out to me for its clarity of message and its beautiful simplicity.

"You're Not Alone," developed by lyricist Jon Hartmere and composer Lynne Shankel for the current off-Broadway revival of the musical Bare, will become a new anthem for LGBT youth. Bare churns in tempo with the lives of a group of sexually awakening teenagers who are struggling within the confines of a Catholic school. "You're Not Alone" comes late in the second act and represents the show's emotional pinnacle, piercing through the turmoil. (Although no official recording of the song yet exists, a demo version is available to stream here.) Sister Joan, an empathetic nun, is consoling one of her gay students who is caught in the whirlwinds of the drama. She uses the clearest words imaginable:

You're created in His image. /
You're a perfect child of God. /
And this part of you /
It's the heart of who you are. /
It's who you are /
And you just need to know /
You're not alone.

"I feel so honored to be able to sing that song every night," says Missi Pyle , the accomplished actor who starred in the Academy Award-winning The Artist and plays Sister Joan in this production. Pyle, who grew up Southern Baptist in communities where being gay was "wrong in the eyes of God," explains the power of singing the song each night:

The song itself is so beautiful. Just looking into somebody's eyes and saying those words: "You're perfect just the way you are." I try to get my own ego out of the way and just perform. It's all right there in the song.

(Pyle also volunteers at a suicide prevention hotline, which she describes as "one of the most important things I've ever done.")

In developing the song, which is new for this production of Bare, Hartmere and Shankel first settled on the hook -- "you're not alone" -- and then fleshed out the remainder of the lyrics and music. As they did so, both felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to create a song that would resonate with LGBT youth and provide them with assurance and hope amidst hostile environments. Hartmere explains, "You don't have to look very far to find examples of intolerance, places where you can't be different." Indeed, as I write this article, I have just learned that 15-year-old Jadin Bell has passed away after hanging himself on his school's playground in Oregon. "If we can just reach one kid," says Shankel. "If they think about this show and they can feel better about themselves, or it makes them not make a sad choice, we feel hugely responsible."

That the song is sung by a teacher to her student illuminates the special role that teachers can play in supporting their students while opening new horizons. "I think that teachers have such an amazing opportunity-slash-responsibility to their students to open a kid's eyes to what is possible beyond what they think is possible," says Shankel. Hartmere himself was a teacher who spoke frankly to his classrooms about his sexual orientation and the offense he felt at hearing insults tossed around. "One day on the yard," he describes, "I heard a kid call someone else gay, and one of the girls from my class said, 'Don't use that word because my teacher's gay, and I like him.'"

In addition to being a teacher, Sister Joan is obviously a nun. Hartmere, who was raised Catholic and whose great aunt is a nun, believes that this character and her song should help to provide a counter-balance to conceptions of the Catholic Church as a monolithic, doctrinaire haven for sex offenders. "There's another angle here," says Hartmere, "another way of looking at things. Nuns are an amazing group of people who have an amazing worldview that should be listened to more."

I couldn't agree more. Listening to Sister Joan send her clarion message to the struggling student in a recent performance of Bare transported me directly to 1992, when I was a freshman at a Catholic high school in Charleston, South Carolina. I was coming to terms with my sexual orientation, lonely, lost, confused, and yes, suicidal. My Sister Joan was Sister A.J. -- short for Alice Joseph -- of the Sisters of Mercy order. Sister A.J. was in her 50s when she taught me and passed away some years ago now; God rest her soul. Much like the teacher whose supportive note to a gay student recently went viral, Sister A.J. wrote the following note on one of my essays:

By the way, you were born homosexual, overweight, and with a loving heart. Don't worry about your homosexuality. One day the pope will understand. PS...I love you.

"You're Not Alone" and such notes are crystal lasers of love, beaming direct and clear from the hearts of nuns to their LGBT students. May such love go viral.