When I retired last spring from a career in education and research, I wondered what effect the transition would have on my identity. I was joining the first big wave of LGBT baby boomer retirees. What did that mean? Would I feel liberated, at loose ends or useless? Little did I know that my ideas about identity would be challenged in such fundamental, and intellectually curious, ways by a new generation of queer activists.
For the past few months I've been helping produce a documentary film about an amazing theater troupe of queer teens and their straight allies. Initially I was attracted to the overt activism of a group of young people who produce their own scripts about being LGBTQ and perform them as a vehicle for understanding and social change. But as I watch the filming of Boston-based True Colors: OUT Youth Theater in rehearsals and listen to troupe members chat about their daily lives, I have come to a realization: These youth are waging a revolution, and the rest of us will either jump on the train or be left behind.
When I came out as a lesbian in the 1970s at age 21, staying closeted was so commonplace that we made a distinction between coming out to oneself and coming out publicly. In my community, that was the level of ambiguity we could manage in our identities. I remained closeted as a teacher for four years, mostly scared but sometimes secretly thrilled at my outlaw status. Eventually the label "lesbian feminist" gave me the courage to be an out high school teacher, and I have proudly worn that badge of identity for 40 years. I loved my label. For me it represented a fierce resistance to heteronormativity and limiting gender roles. It said, "I'm not just gay; I'm a lesbian. I'm not just a woman; I actively reject sexism." How long will I adhere to this label? Forever and a day! I'll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.
For True Colors, a project of the wonderful Theater Offensive, labels may be useful, but they are by no means indelible. While the majority of True Colors members see themselves on the spectrum of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, few seemed comfortable with any one definition of who they are. In this supportive atmosphere, examining one's sexual orientation and gender is a given. Figuring out the core of a gender identity is ongoing as well. We watch and listen as over time members try on different names, different appearances and different preferred pronouns. "I identify as female. You can use 'she,' 'her' and 'hers', but that's OK if you mess up. After all, I look like a boy, for now."
True Colors members repeatedly express relief that they have found a place where they are not judged for labeling themselves or for trying on new identities. In fact, being who they are in a world that so relentlessly resists both sexuality and gender ambiguity is the core of their political act and the inspiration for their art. Not that it's easy. They are wrestling with disproportionate amounts of family rejection, school violence and isolation.
I admit that at first I resisted this fluidity. My unspoken preference was that they would come onstage flaming with the familiar gay passion that ignited my own development. Resist! Revolt! Fight back! But as the filming progressed, I realized that these young cultural workers have their own, well, culture. Being young and living in a rigidly constructed world is shaping them, and this world is different from mine. I still need practice wrapping my head around what "genderqueer" really means, for example, but at least they have helped me realize that I have a lot to learn.
The scenes they perform make powerful theater, and the troupe changes hearts and minds wherever it goes. Because our film crew wants the message of True Colors to reach far beyond the Boston area, we are making this movie.
Check out a video about the True Colors: OUT Youth Theater and the film we're making about their extraordinary work:
If you are interested in what we're doing, check us out on Kickstarter.