Stories of inspiration and triumph coat the testimonial pages of Proud Theater’s website, but that should come as no surprise. For the last 16 years, the nonprofit community theater has served hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth across the state. For the city of Wausau, it has become one of the few spaces that teens questioning their sexual orientation and gender identity can turn to.
“Proud Theater has (given) me more than just a voice,” one youth participant writes. “It has given me a sense of my own character, shaped my beliefs or strengthened them.”
“It’s cathartic for my child to be able to process feelings and experiences through this group,” a parent writes. “I can’t even explain how empowering it has been.”
But within the thicket of praise and appreciation lies another, more troubling thread.
“At Proud Theater I got a sense of community and safety that I never got anywhere else,” one teen wrote. “When I came in I was homeless… I’ve been through a lot and I didn’t belong anywhere but I did here.”
For the many involved, including those in Wausau, Proud Theater functions as a safe space — an environment that offers physical and emotional supports for young adults who are gay, questioning or don’t conform to traditional gender identities. As a result, the community theater is filling a necessary care gap for one of the nation’s most vulnerable communities.
“It’s a really interesting group of people,” said Alexandria Peterson, a 19-year-old student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Proud Theater Wausau alum. “It helped me be able to branch out and meet people beyond my friend group and really experience people who are different than me. They (are) really accepting of everyone and I felt welcome right away.”
Unlike other cities in Wisconsin, Wausau has no community-based organizations — LGBT centers, specialized health providers, advocacy groups, or otherwise — designed to provide social support and resources for the LGBTQ community. In 2013, a local organizer launched the Event for Equality, an annual festival and march typically held downtown during the summer that works to end gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination. This year the advocacy event was canceled so organizers could work on acquiring nonprofit status, but plans are for it to return in 2017. The Heart of Wisconsin Pride also hosts an annual picnic for residents in the local gay community, followed by a drag show at Wausau’s only gay club, Oz.
Local teens, however, have almost nothing — and nowhere — else.
A community with no community
Proud Theater is the brainchild of three Madison residents, two of whom would cross paths years before the theater opened. Co-founders Callen Harty and a then 10-year-old Sol Kelley-Jones both traveled to Wausau during the winter of 1996 to speak at a state anti-marriage bill hearing. Despite being in such close proximity, neither actually spoke to one another. That initial conversation would happen in 1999 when a 13-year-old Kelley-Jones saw Harty’s face on the cover of a Madison magazine. With the help of one of her mothers, the young teen reached out to Harty, an actor and LGBT activist, to pitch her idea.
Harty admits his experience working with kids was limited, nevertheless, he was “immediately excited about the idea.” After getting his partner Brian Wild on board, the project produced its first skit in the summer of 2000. By 2011, Wild was ready to set up shop outside of Madison and looked to his hometown of Wausau as the first stop.
Wild serves as Proud Theater’s co-artistic director in Madison, but grew up and even attended college in the central Wisconsin city. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender at any age in Wausau, Wild said, can sometimes feel like being a “member of a community with no community.” It’s part of why Wild, along with Harty and their artistic collaborate Sol Kelley-Jones started the youth organization.
“I always knew in my heart that I wanted to go back to Wausau because there really is nothing for young members of the community to kind of explore themselves and talk to other people,” Wild said.
“It’s not always easy to grow up gay in this town,” said Larry Kirchgaessner, artistic director for Proud Theater Wausau. “Here you can feel kind of invisible, there’s not very much to do as a young gay person and there’s very little ways to meet people.”
The local program, according to Kirchgaessner, asks participants to meet after school for around three hours on Wednesdays to brainstorm, write, design, rehearse and eventually perform plays and skits that explore prominent LGBTQ issues, including sexual harassment, bullying, transphobia and racism. It’s something creative and fun to do, among a small group of people who will always welcome seeing an authentic you.
According to Kirchgaessner, there would be many meetings where the entire three hours were spent talking about the teens and what had happened during the week.
“When we’d meet there were issues of going through the process of people who were questioning their sexual orientation,” said Peterson of her three years with the group, roughly between 2012 and 2015. “There’s a lot of struggles with that. That was one of the hardest things for me to learn about. How unaccepting a lot of families can be of their children just because of the way that they identify. There were a lot of tears some nights. We’d have concerns about other people because we didn’t know if they were OK.”
“In general, kids experience a lot of social and peer pressures,” said Todd Savage, an associate professor for the University of Wisconsin-River Falls School Psychology Program. “Kids are also under stress due to the demands of their school schedules. Our present culture of fear — the things parents bring up and talk about at home — can also put teens on edge.”
The full article first appeared at the Wausau Daily Herald on August 22, 2016.