Sunday, June 7, 2009
Combating Homophobia in California’s Heartland
Photo: Outspoken actors onstage at Rivera Middle School, Merced, CA. NCTC YouthAware Tour May 2009.
The Central Valley is traditionally a conservative section of California, so presenting a program that deals with homophobia or sexual orientation has been a bit of a struggle. Not because the students aren’t willing and ready to discuss such topics, but because of the prevalence of fear and resistance from administrators and parents about presenting these issues during school hours.
After two years of back and forth emails, phone calls, weak excuses and dead ends, it all came down to just knowing the right person at the right school. On Wednesday May 13th 2009, The New Conservatory Theatre Center YouthAware Educational touring program performed for the first time in the Central Valley at Rivera Middle School in Merced, California. Two performances of Outspoken, by Prince Gomolvilas, a play that deals with diversity and stereotyping around several issues including race, religion, body type and yes, sexual orientation, were presented to 600 7th and 8th grade students.
The mission of Outspoken and YouthAware’s plays has always been to open up a conversation about diversity in a safe and engaging format and to educate about California laws that prevent physical or verbal harassment around actual or perceived sexual orientation, or any issue of diversity, in schools.
The real story that came out of our experience at Rivera was what a non-issue all the controversy and fear from some parents and administrators in Merced and surrounding districts really is. With support from staff and the diverse student body at Rivera, it was an ideal setting to get students engaged in recognizing that pre-conceived judgments, labels and stereotypes only serve to build walls and create conflict and bullying among peers. Students were able to identify easily that even using a seemingly non-confrontational, but commonly and casually uttered slur like “That’s so gay!”, where gay is equal to “stupid” or “abnormal”, is not acceptable in creating a campus environment that is safe and accepting for all.
Rights of Passage begins with the young. I am sure we can all recall countless formative opportunities in our own journeys toward adulthood. Our visit to Rivera Middle School in Merced, California was one such life affirming opportunity. Along with some extremely wise, courageous educators in the Central Valley our fearless YouthAware performance troupe set the tone that diversity is something better to celebrate than divide. Rivera students learned that making an effort to understand their peers rather than label them or put them down would create a better day to day experience for all.
A special thanks to the unwavering underwriting of this program by the James Irvine Foundation. Thanks as well to NCTC Youth Programs Associate Stephanie Temple and her old high school friend, Brian Ferguson, who is the principal at Rivera Middle School. They helped us open the door to combating homophobia in California’s heartland. Additional Central Valley tours are planned for the fall. To book a tour contact us at: http://www.nctcsf.org/YouthAware.html.