Your Community Theater:
All are WELCOME
As we gear up to celebrate Pride Month here in Polk County, I can’t help but think about how lucky I am to have spent a good portion of my life volunteering and working in a theater.
I am the Producing Director at Theatre Winter Haven, but the first play I ever did was a production of THE KING AND I at age 5. Most of my life has been informed by the values I learned in a dark theater. Because I was a theater kid, I have been blessed to know and love members of the LBGTQ community long before I knew how to shave.
One of the lessons I learned is that a theater is a safe place for those who society hasn’t always embraced. I learned that people I loved and admired inside the theater could be victimized outside of it, just for being who they are.
I wish the whole world could be more like a community theater. Because theater, especially community theater, is the one place in the world where being different, being weird, being strange is considered an asset instead of a reason to be bullied or ridiculed.
The people I work with are wonderfully odd, magically bizarre, and absolutely march to the beat of their own drummer… (but we ALWAYS clap on the 2 and 4… we are weirdos, not barbarians). In Community Theater, we don’t care about race, sexual orientation or identification, if someone is on the spectrum, or even your age. ART transcends all that other stuff.
HECK, we don’t even care if you can act, sing, or dance – because there are a hundred other ways to be part of our community. Sets need to be built, costumes need to be made, tickets need to be sold, and patrons need to be seated. There is something for everyone. Community Theater is a safe place, especially for those who don’t fit in easily.
We are a band of misfits. All are WELCOME.
In fact, theater has ALWAYS been the home of the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the marginalized. Theater has ALWAYS been an island of acceptance in a frequently cruel world.
And the world has often been disproportionately cruel to members of the LBGTQ community.
The first Community Theaters were in ancient Greece. And, like the community theaters of today, they attracted the quirky, the different, and those who lived outside the mainstream. The comedies of ancient Greece championed the underserved… the butt of the jokes were always the rich and famous and powerful. At the same time, they celebrated those who were, well, fabulous.
Long before there was a RuPaul’s Drag Race, Greek comedies were exploring nuances of gender roles and homosexuality. Then, like now, the theater welcomed and embraced the gay community. I think it takes a similar type of courage to be openly gay or transexual as it does to be successful in theater. There is a fearlessness to embracing one’s true self and being comfortable with that. I contend it is that same brand of fearlessness that makes one shine on stage.
The charge of a Community Theater is more than just putting together pieces of entertainment. Our higher purpose is to make our communities better places to live, to work, and to play by making our citizens – especially our underserved citizens – the focus of everything we do.
We are black, we are white, we are gay, we are straight, we are Christian and not; we are young and old we are liberal and conservative and we couldn’t be more eclectic or different. But we are a family. We genuinely care and love one another.
THE TRADITION CONTINUES AT THEATRE WINTER HAVEN.
The world is a different (and better) place than it was when I was a kid, but we still have a lot of work to do.
I am proud that we continue to be a safe place for members of the LBGTQ community. Especially for young gay people throughout Polk County. It warms my heart to see the unlikely friendships that are built on our stage and know that these kids are learning the same lessons that I learned as a kid in a theater. I am equally proud that we have role models for these kids who have unimpeachable character, warm and kind hearts, and would walk through fire to protect them. Many of these role models happen to be gay.
For those times one needs an escape from the harsh realities of the world, theater offers an opportunity to pretend to be someone else and somewhere else every single day. We get to create worlds that are free from prejudice and full of grand adventure. Within our walls and on our stage we get to drop our labels and be whoever the script dictates we be. For a few hours each day, we get to leave the outside world behind.
The fact is, Community Theater is a place where people who are not yet comfortable in their skin can find a home as easily as those who have already learned to celebrate what makes them different.
In theater, we love people to be unique. No one ever got a starring role by being just like everyone else at an audition. Part of the job description for an artist – especially an actor – is standing out, and that doesn’t happen by fitting in. We admire the differences in each other and, in time, those who struggle with who they are realize that’s what makes them unique also makes them great – both as actors and as humans.
The best part about community theater is that, not only are we welcoming and accepting, we are an antidote to loneliness. There are some problems in our world that are too big and too complex to comprehend. But if isolation and loneliness are part of those problems – then more people need to find a community theater and play with us. I promise there is a friend somewhere in the wings of a theater – and that friend won’t care if you are gay or not. I invite all members of the LBGTQ community to come and work with us. I am sure you will find a welcoming home.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
June is LGBT Pride Month – a time to celebrate and support our fellow humans for who they are and whom they love. Not just in June, but every day let us celebrate love in every form for all that it brings to the world. Love is support, love is recognition, love is pride in yourself and others, love is a kind word, love is acceptance, love is community, love is affirmation, and to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.”
Polk Pride will hold its Pride festivities June 8 through 15 to celebrate the LGBTQ community. Polk Pride alongside LYA and PFLAG of Polk County have made it their mission to be a resource for local LGBTQ individuals, a community with open arms, and to provide them a “safe and supportive environment.”
We spoke with members from the Polk Pride Board to discuss their initiatives, goals, and community impact.
Why Polk Needs Pride
The positive impact Polk Pride, PFLAG of Polk County, and LYA have on LGBTQ youth and underserved members within Polk County truly reaches somewhere over the rainbow and contributes to an overall more successful community.
“As I reflect in the past years of our events, the sole thing that I think moves and motivates all of us, especially in an area like central Florida is to see the safe space that gets created for the youth,” said Dustin Shay. “They sometimes don’t have an outlet for who they are as an individual, for who they want to love, sometimes those things feel a little sheltered for all kids, but even more so for LGBTQ kids.”
He encourages LGBTQ youth and allies to get involved. “For them to be involved is drastically important, not just for them but for the future of our group because they are going to be our future leaders, coworkers, business owners, and to instill something like that in them at this age within this critical time is great, and that’s why we do it.”
To support any of these three organizations, you can become a sponsor, volunteer, donate, join their initiatives or simply like and share their social media. “More importantly than that,” said Shay, “we need the development of the idea. We need people to be participating, we need people to come out, we need people to show support. It’s the message really that we’re trying to flourish through the community.”
Prior to the inception of Polk Pride, LYA (Lakeland Youth Alliance) and PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) of Polk County were strong resources for LGBTQ individuals and their families. An executive board member of Polk Pride, Dustin Shay explained that Kristine Lally, now president of LYA, and Scott Guira, founder of Polk Pride, both previously sat on the LYA board.
From their perspective working with youth, they had a vision of something that kept young people from having to travel to Tampa or Orlando for LGBTQ activities.
With this vision in mind, Guira launched Polk Pride in 2014, with their inaugural event the following year. “He came to a few close people that he thought would be proactive, smart, hardworking, beneficial, already involved in the community and kind of pieced together a little team – and we were all on board,” said Shay.
Polk Pride is now made up of six Executive Board Members: Scott Guira, Kerri McCoy, Kristine Lally, Patrick Patterson, Dustin Shay, and Nick Sotolongo.
Polk Pride, LYA, and PFLAG of Polk County aren’t formally affiliated, but do share resources and work together to put on Pride. “It’s easier for us to pool resources whether it’s events, communications, marketing, social media. We kind of share across these different platforms so we have maximum reach with the same message,” said Shay.
This year, the multi-day Pride festival will include the Pride Launch Party on June 8, Pride for Youth on June 12, Pride in Faith on June 13, Pride Kickoff Cocktail Party on June 14, and Pride in the Park on June 15. Up to 5000 people and around 100 vendors attend their free, family-friendly anchor event, Pride in the Park.
“This isn’t a festival just for LGBTQ. We have businesses, allies, family, friends. It is a Pride, but it’s so much more than that,” said Shay. “It’s really about celebration.”
The concerted efforts and reach of the three organizations span beyond Pride week. “We found that having PFLAG, LYA and Pride served an area of our community that had not yet been served through other resources – essentially, that’s why it’s here. That’s why it’s valuable,” said Shay.
An ultimate goal of Polk Pride, according to Shay, is to have something larger than a festival format. “In a perfect vision, we’d love to have a Lakeland Pride parade or even a larger venue than what we have now at Munn Park,” he said.
Pride events are seasonal, happening only in June, but Polk Pride has monthly board meetings and hosts networking and social events throughout the year. In the 2019-2020 year, the group also plans to open some of their meetings in what Shay described as a “town hall format.”
In these meetings, Dustin said, “We’re going to invite community individuals to come to some of our board meetings which will offer some delegation of volunteer opportunities.”
He added, “While the executive board will still maintain the direction and the vision of the process, we’re going to start involving a little bit more in hopes that we will eventually develop future board members.”
A chapter of the Orlando Youth Alliance, LYA started in 2008. Current LYA president, Kristine Lally discussed what drew her to the organization as an ally of the LGBTQ community. “I grew up in this county and saw many friends kicked out of their homes and treated horribly by their families, I wanted to do all I could to support the LGBT youth in Polk County,” said Lally.
Lally went on to voice their mission which is shared with their parent organization OYA, “To provide a non-exploitative, safe, drug and alcohol-free, social outlet for youth ages 13 to 20 who are grappling with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning issues. / To be proudly diverse by opening membership to youth without regard to sexual orientation, gender, religion, race or background. / To serve as an educational and referral service for LGBTQ youth of Central Florida. / To educate parents, academia, health care workers and other human service professionals about the development and diversity of sexuality and sensitize them to the reality and needs of the LGBTQ community. / To facilitate in the development of the LGBTQ youth and to empower them to become leaders in the community.”
Along with monthly support meetings and special activities, LYA holds an annual Prom event and are included in the Polk Pride events in June.
Lally shared LYA’s vision for the future, saying, “Our long term vision is to continue our growth as a resource and advocate to LGBTQ and ally youth within the local school systems. We have a goal to be a single source advocacy group for the community of students and educators within Polk County.”
A step towards this goal, the Polk County School Board has approved their Pride week proclamation for the past two years, with 2019 being the third.
Any LGBTQ youth or ally that would like to get involved with LYA can go through their social media or website listed below. Help spread the word! Lally concluded, “We want to be a common thought for those who need the support we offer.”
For 25 years, the Polk County chapter of the national group, PFLAG has been a support group for anyone in the community with an LGBTQ family member or friend. The group is there to help answer questions, show support, and offer resources to these families.
Shay remarked, “Sometimes the process for the youth or the individual coming out is their own struggle but it’s also a completely different struggle for the parent or the friend or family member – so we provide a lot of materials for that.”
PFLAG of Polk County president, Kerri McCoy found out about the group through her aunt who is a lesbian. When McCoy’s son came out in high school, her aunt suggested she get involved with the group.
McCoy had no qualms about her son being gay, she fully supported him. “I don’t understand, I don’t need support,” she told her aunt. Her aunt replied, “No, so you can help others.”
After three years of working with the group, McCoy became its president.
“When people come to us and they do need help, we can provide them with websites to go to, we have a list of counselors that are LGBTQ-friendly that can help them, if it’s a religious issue, we have several pastors and churches that we can point them to, doctors for anybody who may be transgender,” McCoy explained.
The group has monthly support meetings and are also a part of Pride week. To find out more about PFLAG, information about attending a meeting, or to get involved, check out their website and social media listed below.
See their website for a full list of dates and times of Polk Pride 2019 events.
PFLAG of Polk County