A passionate union of music and activism
Volume 116, No. 6June, 2016
My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I…became a lesbian cartoonist.” So says the character of Alison Bechdel in “Fun Home,” the Tony-winning Broadway musical (based on the graphic novel of the same name) where I currently play reeds. Among many things, “Fun Home” explores the sameness and difference between Alison and her father – their mutual hometown, their homosexuality and their drastically different paths in life which were greatly shaped by the times of their generation.
Today, there is so much cause for celebration, especially the fact that there is less systemic discrimination against the LGBTQ community in the United States. But such progress does not mitigate the intensely palpable and sometimes tragic experiences that LGBTQ individuals experience still to this day.
Although I was born in Wichita, Kansas, I grew up in Grapevine, Texas, a suburb of Dallas/Ft. Worth. Grapevine is the self-proclaimed “Christmas Capital of Texas” with its web site touting “more than 1,400 Christmas events in 40-plus days.” Quaint, I know.
Considering my origins, perhaps it’s easy for one to imagine where my passion for activism might have begun. After some reflection, I found that each new musical chapter in my life happened to coincide with an event that would kindle – make that inflame – my passion for social change. For example, in the fall of 2005, during my first semester at the University of North Texas (where I began my studies in jazz and woodwind performance), Texans were asked to vote on Proposition 2, an amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. While it was painful to see 253 of 254 counties support the amendment, I was shocked to learn that my home county had not only followed suit but that 77 percent of its voters supported the ban.
Because of my loving and supportive network of close friends and family, perhaps I’d been blinded by naïveté. Naturally I felt betrayed by the very community in which I was raised. Thus an activist was born.
I buried myself in the history of the gay rights movement, including Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, the 1993 March on Washington and the 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision that sparked a wave of federal and state actions to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples all across the country. I started attending meetings of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Denton, Texas.
But alas, my woodwinds weren’t going to practice themselves, so my fiery passion for activism was put on the back burner.
In the fall of 2010, during my first semester of the graduate jazz composition program at the Manhattan School of Music, the nation was mortified by a slew of LGBTQ youth suicides. Exactly one week before my birthday, I was shaken to learn than Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers and an accomplished violinist, had responded to his roommate’s cyber-bullying by jumping to his death off the George Washington Bridge, just three miles from my school.
If that wasn’t enough, four other gay teenagers took their own lives within the same month, prompting Dan Savage to found his project called It Gets Better.
“He was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I …”
My passion for social change became inflamed again. I attended a rally in Washington Square Park. There, I was given a laminated photo of Tyler Clementi with the caption “I remember Tyler.” It was placed around my neck and hung from a string. The tender gift was light, but the weight was heavy.
After hanging the photo on my wall as an ominous reminder of the strife my fellow LGBTQ youth faced, I became interested in the Trevor Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to end LGBTQ youth suicide. I began researching how to become a trained, volunteer counselor for the Trevor Lifeline, a 24/7 confidential hotline to help those in crisis.
But alas, my composition assignments weren’t going to write themselves, so my fiery passion for activism was put on the back burner, yet again.
In 2014, I played some summer stock theater in Whitefish, Montana (population 6,649). Beyond the stunningly breathtaking landscapes, I met some of the most wonderful people, including a gay 18-year-old named Jake (that’s not his real name). Disowned and kicked out of his house before finishing high school, Jake found his family to be, in my words, “not so wonderful,” or at least not the supportive family that I was lucky enough to have when I was his age one decade earlier.
It was unfathomably heartbreaking to read the e-mails he shared with me from his parents in which they explained their inability to love him unless he renounced his homosexuality. He began a new life a few months later by moving to China to become a teacher. What could have been a beautiful family lesson in learning to love unconditionally had instead opened a chasm of pain that might never be healed. It would be mildly reassuring to know that this was just one isolated case, but this was 2014 – not some distant age ago – and such stories are unfortunately all too frequent to this day.
It is no wonder that the following statistics are painfully true:
- Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24, and LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers.
- LGBTQ youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as those with lower levels of family rejection.
- Nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.
What is an artist to do with such depressing realities?
(Enter “Fun Home.”)
In 2013, I was asked to play reeds in a small, no-name, Off Broadway musical called “Fun Home.” Despite never having heard of it before, I was thoroughly thrilled to have my first Off Broadway gig! Add to it that the show was written by the tremendous talents of composer Jeanine Tesori and bookwriter/lyricist Lisa Kron, I might as well have won the lottery. Then considering how it won eight Drama Desk Awards among others, transferred to Broadway, and won five Tony Awards, I might as well have won the Powerball.
On a surface level, “Fun Home” tells the coming-of-age and coming-out story of a young woman whose closeted father commits suicide. The show masterfully tackles the particular idiosyncrasies of Alison’s unusual family while simultaneously portraying universal family dynamics.
If you’ve experienced the revelation of seeing your parents through adult eyes, or transcended the pain of losing a loved one, or been through an assortment of other life lessons, “Fun Home” is bound to make you feel all those feelings again.
But beyond entertaining the masses, “Fun Home” has become an activist production. In March, the show hosted a significant post-performance Q&A session with U.N. ambassadors from 17 nations. There, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told us, “At a time when being gay is still a crime in more than 75 countries, we are always looking for ways to encourage greater support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights at the United Nations and around the world. And by humanizing its subjects in a way that made them thoroughly accessible to the other ambassadors, ‘Fun Home’ did this brilliantly.”
In a discussion with the cast and producers afterwards, the ambassador from El Salvador said, “I wondered why I could be nearly two hours so involved, suffering with you, laughing with you, when nothing really special happens onstage. What is the message? To me it is very clear. You were telling us, ‘Look, you are me. We are together and we are the same.’”
“Fun Home” then established a year-long partnership with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the nation’s largest organization of families, friends and allies to the LGBTQ community. The partnership was officially launched with a performance by cast member Lauren Patten at the PFLAG gala in April. The partnership will also include an inspirational installation in the “Fun Home” lobby, Pride Week post-performance talkbacks, a march with PFLAG in the NYC Pride March and discounted “Fun Home” tickets to PFLAG chapter members in NYC and across the country.
In April, the couples who paved the way for marriage equality in California’s historic Proposition 8 case attended “Fun Home,” with plaintiff Paul Katami saying, “Tt’s theater, but it’s also a message, and it has so much power to educate, but also entertain at the same time.”
This fall, the “Fun Home” tour will take its powerful message across the country, including stops in Kansas City and Houston, which are not too far from my own origins.
The show is important. But what is an activist artist to do when outside the Broadway pit?
(Enter “Question 1,” a union of my passions for music and activism.)
“Question 1” is a satirical musical dramedy I wrote about a closeted politician caught in the middle of Maine’s 2009 same-sex marriage debate. Inspired by true events, the show explores how the choices we make determine whether we contribute strife or kindness to humanity. Moved by the tragic story of Jake from Montana, I completed the script’s first draft and conducted a table read-through there in Whitefish. Since then, “Question 1” has continued its development through private table work, a public presentation and a workshop planned in Texas this fall.
In terms of its activist stance, “Question 1” explores a cruel cycle that recurs all too often in today’s politics. By unconventionally presenting the closeted politician as a sympathetic protagonist (instead of a side character or “bad guy”), the audience sees how the antihero’s childhood – dominated by loving but narrow-minded parents – is the foundation from which this self-loathing, two-faced politician is born. Of course, the vitriol he contributes to the political rhetoric as an adult ironically encourages the same kind of prejudice that shaped the narrow-mindedness of his parents.
In other activist terms, “Question 1” tells the dramatic true story of Maine’s same-sex marriage roller coaster. In 2009, Maine Governor John Baldacci became the first governor in the country to sign a same-sex marriage law that had been passed by a legislature. However, a voter referendum called “Question 1” repealed the law before it could go into effect. Three years later, a second voter referendum legalized same-sex marriage within the state. In my show, these remarkable historical events are humanized by the resultant personal struggles of the show’s fictitious characters.
There is value in being grateful for what we’ve won. President Obama has led the most proactive administration in history in the struggle for LGBTQ rights. Governor Cuomo announced regulations to hinder the use of “gay conversion” therapy on young, gay New Yorkers. Major businesses across the country are outspoken in support of the LGBTQ community.
We also have to remember what work still needs to be done. Some struggles are in the legislative arena. The recent “bathroom bills” that try to dictate which people can use which bathroom is one example. Other discriminatory laws get passed under the guise of “religious freedom.” We still have to pass a federal Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, credit, education, federal funding and access to public places. The high rate of LGBTQ youth suicide remains a tragedy. Prejudice against LGBTQ people is worldwide: gay activists were recently hacked to death in Bangladesh. There is much more work to be done beyond the right to get married. Equality and freedom for all is a long journey. Let’s get on board.
There are numerous organizations you can help. Some that I support include:
- The Trevor Project and its fundraising arm Trevor NextGen.
- The Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces and faith communities.
- The Hetrick Martin Institute, which provides social support and programming for at-risk LGBTQ youth, including outreach homeless services, and the Harvey Milk High School, which offers a safe educational environment.
“He was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I … became an activist Broadway musician.”
Chris Reza has been a member of Local 802 since 2011.