Community theater gives voice to LGBT youth

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.

The full story appeared in the Wausau Daily Herald on Aug. 22, 2016.