Dreams of Hope performing troupe gives confidence to LGBT teens

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It's not easy to get up on a stage when you're 15 and gay and to sing about it.

Nor is it easy to re-enact that moment in the principal's office after you were bullied -- bleeding, confessing to your mystified parents that you were being picked on because you are gay -- and your parents walked out on you.

But those are the real-life stories being told, through spoken word, movement, drama, percussion and song, by young members of the Dreams of Hope performance troupe -- lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Dreams of Hope: Kaitlin Hunter performs 'Let Me Be Me'

Kaitlin Hunter, a member of Pittsburgh's Dreams of Hope performance troupe, performs "Let Me Be Me" at the U.S. Dept of Education in 2012.

On Saturday, Dreams of Hope is celebrating its 10th anniversary at Rodef Shalom in Oakland with an "Absolute Swing" fundraiser, sponsored by WYEP and headlined by Etta Cox.

They've performed before judges and CEOs, probation officers, union members and, last year in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -- who heard Kaitlin Hunter, 16, sing:

"I am not the clothes that I wear, I am not the way I wear my hair,/

"I am not this skin, so let me come in/And let me be me."

This weekend, the Dreams of Hope troupe will perform a piece it created and has toured with this season called "Department of Hope," in which young people are secret agents of hope and change, "who look like your peers, only they pull the curtains open on issues from their everyday world," says Susan Haugh, a conductor and composer who founded the organization in 2003.

It's a world that is all-too familiar to cast members such as Shanai Sloan, 20, whose family can't accept she's gay. There's also Emeline Maslow, 15, who has struggled with her sexual identity since the fourth grade. And Anita Achatz, 19, whose mother took her to Dreams of Hope's open mic evening two years ago, where she learned to express her feelings before a sympathetic audience.

Others have joined the troupe for different reasons, but all of those experiences have been poured into the "Department of Hope" show.

"These 'agents' may have been bullied or rejected by their families, or are suffering the effects of homophobia, or mocked for being transgender," Ms. Haugh said. "And yet, as agents, they empower audiences to take action, to become agents of change and to recruit new agents of change."

"This has to be Pittsburgh's most courageous performing arts group," added Ms. Haugh, a longtime LGBT activist who founded the Renaissance City Women's Choir in 1995.

It is also one of the only LGBT groups in the country that performs before adults who work with youth, adds Joseph Kennedy, former director of operations for The Fred Rogers Company, who was coaching the members at a recent brainstorming session for next season's show.

Not every occupation requires LGBT-sensitivity training, so Dreams of Hope makes a point of seeking out these adults, as it did last year, when it performed before 80 probation officers and judges in Allegheny County Family Court.

"For some of adults who work with kids, it's not even on their radar screen," Mr. Kennedy said. "If you are not operating on a plane in which the sexuality of a young person is even something to be conscious of, you are not going to be able to address those in need who are bullied by peers, who have difficulties with family, or mental health issues connected with the experience in their everyday lives.

"They deal with that every day," he said. "They are not put off by performing in front of audiences."

Still, it's not easy.

After one performance before a local union, questionnaires were handed out and returned. On one, someone had scrawled, "You're going to hell," Ms. Haugh recalled.

But the Dreams troupe perseveres, tackling all sorts of themes. In 2007, the performers examined their relationships with God and religion. Last year, it was about "Being In and Being Out."

They've also created an educational video whose title reappropriates a disparaging anti-gay remark -- "That's So Gay" -- and uses it as a learning tool for audiences. It's been shown in high school classrooms, libraries and health care centers.

It's all part of a continuing effort to get the word out to other young people struggling with their sexual identities "that we are here for them," she said.

This year there are 13 members of the troupe, ranging in age from 13 to 21. Their coaches -- "artistic mentors" -- include Vanessa German, who will coach the group in spoken word techniques, along with stage director Adil Mansoor, playwright Paul Kruse, choreographer Beth Corning and others. The group has sponsored monthly open mic sessions at the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty -- "SPEAQ" -- and an overnight summer arts camp on Cheat Lake in West Virginia in August.

The arts have always been a haven for LGBT youth, said Mr. Kennedy, who was teaching the troupe on interviewing skills for next year's show. They are preparing to question the first generation of LGBT activists and then construct a story.

On a recent Sunday at the group's Downtown headquarters, seven members sat in a circle on the floor watching Shanai Sloan undergo a practice interview. Don't interrupt the answers, the would-be interviewers were told. Compliment the interviewee when she says something positive. And after something negative, instead of asking, "How did that make you feel?" Mr. Kennedy suggested they ask, "Did you do anything differently afterward to avoid that happening again?"

Ms. Sloan, 20, is a student at Chatham University, and when she was asked to talk about her first date with her partner, she noted that "the food was terrible" at the restaurant, but "our conversations were really good. We just gravitated toward each other."

Have there been any low points in the relationship?

"No," she said, and then paused. "It was more how my parents responded to it. My girlfriend created an issue between us, and it was hard to be around them."

After Ms. Sloan came out at 16, her parents forbade her from joining Dreams of Hope, but as soon as she turned 18, she did. Her mother asked her, "Why are you denying what the Bible said? Not to be a woman of the world, but a woman of God?' "

Then there's Jeremy Moore, 17, a senior at Steel Valley High School in Munhall.

He's been a member of Dreams of Hope since the ninth grade, when he was struggling with his sexual identity and attempted suicide. He was hospitalized for two weeks, and received intensive therapy that gave him the courage to come out to his mother, Laura Bandola.

"When he told me, I said, 'We're going to get through this together.' And then I thought, 'I need to get this kid a community, right away,' " said Ms. Bandola, 49, of Munhall.

After contacting PFLAG -- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- she learned about Dreams of Hope. Her son was nervous about the idea, but when he went to his first rehearsal, "everyone welcomed me with open arms," Jeremy said.

Even as he began to fit in with the troupe, school was proving to be more of a challenge.

"I think I was the first openly gay kid in the school, and I got a lot of flak for it. That first day after I came out, the news went all over the school, and by the end of the day I was crying."

While he found sympathy from some teachers, the school administration didn't intervene when he was bullied. During sophomore year, he exploded.

It was in biology class, where he'd been picked on frequently. "There was this cart with laptops in them, and a list of our names, and someone decided to write 'fag' next to my name."

He started yelling at his classmates how he couldn't take it anymore, how angry he felt -- and got suspended from school for three days.

And then, something changed.

"The students must have thought, maybe he is right, and they just started to be more accepting," he said, noting that this year, he was chosen to be the lead in the school musical -- the "Beast" in "Beauty and the Beast" -- and was elected Homecoming King. He will attend Clarion University in the fall.

"Dreams of Hope saved my son's life," said Ms. Bandola. "For the past five years, he has learned to express himself and get in touch with his feelings, through performing on a stage. It's made him whole again."

"I'm more outspoken now," Jeremy said. "When someone starts saying something discriminatory ... I stop them. But Dreams of Hope has also made me come to accept other people's insecurities, and why they do what they do. I pick my battles, because I'm a bigger person now."

To learn more about Dreams of Hope, go to www.dreamsofhope.org.

For tickets to Absolute Swing, which will be held 8 to 11 p.m. at Rodef Shalom, 4905 Fifth Ave., go to www.dreamsofhope.org/swing. Prices are $50, $150 and $1,000 (for tables).

There will be a free performance by the troupe at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty at 7 p.m. June 13, followed immediately by SPEAQ readings and a reception.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949; on Twitter @MackenziePG. First Published March 31, 2013 4:00 AM


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