High school is a minefield for anyone who deviates, as any LGBT student will tell you. A 2009 survey conducted by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network) showed that 61 percent of 7,000 self-identified gay and straight students between the ages of 13-21 felt unsafe at school because of their perceived sexuality.
Despite the surge in anti-bullying workshops, a distressingly high number of incidents target LGBT youth in school and online, with equally distressing results: drug and alcohol abuse, school drop outs and suicide.
Susan Haugh was one of a handful of early responders. In 2003, she founded Dreams of Hope, “A Creative and Performing Arts Group For Queer Youth and Allies.” Haugh’s commitment is grounded in her experience as a music and dance teacher in Pittsburgh’s public schools. Haugh has been out lesbian since her teens.
“I grew up in New York and when I came out in the late ’70s, I had the support of my friends and family,” Haugh says. “It was nothing like what these kids are going through now. I wanted GLBT kids to have great art experiences because there is such a huge need in that community. I wanted there to be a sanctuary for these kids who are facing horrible issues in their homes, their schools, their churches, somewhere for them to use the arts to create beautiful things.”
Haugh and eight members of DOH will be featured this Saturday at MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir’s spring concert, performing segments from their current production, Bully Me. They will also lead workshops with local chapters of GLSEN at UC and Miami University. Now in its eighth year, Dreams of Hope offers intensive arts experiences for GLBT youth ages 13-21 and now offers online opportunities through its Web Poets project.
A DOH show is created entirely by the students, who work with professional dancers, musicians, poets, actors and designers (CCM alum Vanessa German directs DOH’s Web Poet project).
“They have to do everything,” says Haugh, from writing to staging to performance.
The group offers a haven for GLBT students, recruited by schools, counseling centers or word of mouth.
Haugh notes that “nine out of 10 come to us depressed and isolated. They’ve dropped out or had to change schools because of bullying. But after the first sessions, they’re laughing. They’re participating.”
When Shaina Sloan came out in her junior year, “it was challenging. My mother doesn’t want to accept it at all, although my father is more respectful.” She credits DOH with helping her find a supportive community that encourages her writing and education goals. Sloan is a first-year member of DOH and a freshman at Point Park University.
“I hope I can continue for more seasons,” she says. “It’s made me a better person.”
At first, DOH performed three shows a year, but Haugh quickly realized that the audience was limited. In the second year, DOH concentrated on outreach and cut back to one performance in the fall. Six years later, DOH gives close to a dozen performances for churches, schools and professional associations. And members come prepared for the Q&A sessions that follow.
“We arm them with information about GLBT issues, feminism and poverty,” Haugh says.
“It’s being able to speak for those who have no voice,” says Devlin Kimball, 18 and in his third year with DOH. “One of the most common questions teachers ask is how to let someone who’s GLBT know that it’s safe to talk to them.”
The word “safe” punctuates Kimball’s and Sloan’s comments.
“It’s really a safe place for everyone,” Kimball affirms. “Everyone is part of the group. We don’t discriminate against each other.”
In addition to creating DOH, in 1995, Susan Haugh founded the Renaissance City Women’s Choir, a feminist, activist ensemble that’s “the equivalent of MUSE,” she says. A composer and conductor by training, Haugh hopes that the Cincinnati experience is inspirational.
“It will be great for our kids to hear MUSE and see MUSE’s activism,” she says. “It’s also important for them know that there are LGBT people and their allies changing the world — which is what these kids are doing.”
DREAMS OF HOPE performs with MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at downtown’s School for Creative and Performing Arts. Find more info at www.musechoir.org and www.dreamsofhope.org.