When I bought last-minute tickets to see a Sunday-night play at the local community theater in Fargo, North Dakota, I didn't know it would be exactly what I needed. A group called Act Up Theatre was putting on a production of Bare: A Pop Opera, and despite knowing very little about the play's plot, I decided to go.
If you're not familiar with it, Bare is a rock musical centered on the struggles of two high-school-aged gay men who attend Catholic school. It sends a critical message about the impact that the Catholic Church's intolerance of homosexuality has on gay youth. As an ally in a conservative state that doesn't seem to be making much progress on gay-rights issues, I needed to see this play. And I needed to see it in North Dakota.
As I watched the cast brilliantly depict the identity crises of those who are both gay and religious -- all from a relatively small-town community theater -- I forgot for a moment that North Dakota was one of the last states to have its same-sex-marriage ban go unchallenged. I forgot for a moment that when I attended Sunday-school catechism as a child, the priest told me that gay people go to Hell unless they ask God for forgiveness of their sins. I forgot for a moment that suicide is the second leading cause of death for North Dakotans between the ages of 15 to 24, and that LGB high-school students are 3.4 times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.
I forgot all of that, if only for a moment, and instead turned to look at a theater full of North Dakotans who, like me, were watching two male actors share a beautiful kiss onstage without shielding their eyes or looking away as if that were offensive.
The theater, which holds 330 people, had just a handful of unoccupied seats. But when I looked at them, I didn't see empty chairs. I pictured them filled.
Filled by the Sunday-school priest who misguided me.
Filled by the boys from high school who would call each other "fag" in passing, as if it were the funniest joke they'd ever told.
Filled by the friend from college who said he struggled with homosexual thoughts but knew it was just God's way of testing his ability to overcome temptation.
Filled by any LGBT person who has encountered intolerance in North Dakota without realizing that there is a community theater full of people who would accept them.
Unfortunately, the reality was that those seats weren't filled. And to me, that was the saddest part of the play, the fact that the people who really needed to see it would never attend it. (And my guess is that even if they had, they would have walked out during the first kissing scene.)
But, still, this community theater production of a brilliant pop opera restored my faith in North Dakota, because no matter how many people never see that play, there will always be hundreds who did. There will always be, at the very least, hundreds of accepting, loving people in this conservative state. That restored my faith more than any Sunday mass ever could.