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Performances illuminate LGBTQ life in R.I.

Before coming to the University of Rhode Island, Portia Burnette was accustomed to two reactions to homosexuality: aversion or disdain. Members of the URI and greater Rhode Island community combated these attitudes in a presentation at URI Tuesday.

One woman said she found out she was a lesbian after her mother pointed it out to her. One man first came out as gay to his sister by writing her a long letter and leaving it in her purse. Another woman's friends told her ex-husband not to let her keep their children because she was gay.

Many URI students, staff and faculty offered unique stories like these on the experience of coming out in Rhode Island. Their stories were presented in video form on Tuesday at the Paff Auditorium at the URI Feinstein Providence Campus, a presentation that brought together two artistic displays of what it means to be LGBTQ in Rhode Island - at any age. The video followed the format of the "It Gets Better" online video series.

Another presentation, a play called "The Journey Out," written and directed by Cranston resident Frank Toti Jr., translated oral histories of elderly LGBTQ people into a theatrical performance.

A unique journey

"The Journey Out" was presented first. The show debuted in October 2010 as part of an art exhibit dedicated to the process of "coming out" as an LGTBQ individual.

The show is divided into five parts and addresses how the characters cope with their LGBTQ identities, said Steven Pennell, the Urban Arts and Culture Program coordinator at URI Feinstein Providence campus and the show's producer.

In addition to producing and acting in the play, Pennell also spearheaded the collection of the oral histories that the script is based on. He and his partner, Toti, also recruited other researchers to collect oral histories from LGBTQ people around the state.

Initially, Pennell placed advertisements in the Providence Journal and Options Magazine, a monthly R.I. LGBTQ publication, for people interested in sharing their stories. But those did not attract enough respondents, Pennell said. Instead, referrals proved the most useful in putting Pennell and others in touch with the state's LGBTQ citizens, he said.

So far, they have collected about 75 stories, Pennell said. They also have collected items from the people they interviewed, such as photographs and news clippings - intensely personal items, "not your grandma's china," he clarified.

Pennell's current task is to archive all of the collected material at URI's main library, where it will be housed in electronic format. But the play is still on tour. In addition to presentations at venues like the Provincetown Theatre in Provincetown, Mass., the play has been performed at local high schools,including a March 24 visit to Classical High School in Providence as part of a conference for LGBTQ youth.

Cultivating positive attitudes

The URI video project, "It Gets Better at URI: Coming Out for Change," has younger origins. In April 2011, a student approached the URI LGTBQ Women's Group - a group that serves as a "safe space" for discussions about gender and sexuality - with the idea of making a video for the "It Gets Better" project, said Holly Nichols, a URI clinical counselor, who also co-advises the group as a staff mentor. The "It Gets Better" project is a series of online videos that reassures LGBTQ teenagers who are bullied due to their sexuality that life becomes better after adolescence.

At the time, URI had received "bad press" indicating that the community was not safe for LGBTQ people, said Burnette, a URI undergraduate and a group member who helped produce the final video. The Princeton Review ranked URI 14th on a list of LGBT-unfriendly colleges in 2011. The sign for the university's GLBT Center was also vandalized in 2007, Nichols said.

Members of the Women's Group agreed that homophobia was not uncommon at URI, Nichols said. Jen Kaye, a URI graduate student and a member of the group, said members wanted to cultivate a more positive image of the campus and to show that LGBTQ students had support from both the straight and LGBTQ communities.

Over the last two weeks of the spring 2011 semester, the Women's Group filmed the personal testimonies of 85 URI students, faculty, staff and administrators, including current URI President David Dooley. LGBTQ interviewees shared their experiences growing up and attending URI, while straight subjects offered support and resources.

When the video premiered last October, over 900 people crowded the Edwards Auditorium at URI's main campus, Nichols said. The group has also presented the video at other places around the state, including a conference at Rhode Island College, she said.

But they want to take the project further, Nichols said. Tuesday night's screening showed only three-quarters of the final version, and the video in its entirety will play on Rhode Island's PBS channel April 14, she said.

The video has received overwhelmingly positive feedback because it is a powerful and raw presentation of people's lives, Nichols said.

"It doesn't tell anybody what you have to do or have to think," Nichols said. "It's simply sharing experiences."

A 'mecca' for LGBTQ

The national attention given to the struggles of LGBTQ youth, such as the September 2010 suicide of Rutgers University undergraduate Tyler Clementi,  "created a vehicle" for sharing stories and spreading the message of hope to URI's students, Nichols said.

But Rhode Island also has a unique LGBTQ culture of its own. It is "a mecca of gay activity," Pennell said.

"Rhode Island is kind of like a big small town" where everyone knows everyone, he added.

Because it is a small state, LGBTQ people have long been able to connect "easier, quicker and sooner." This made it easier to establish a community base for LGBTQ life, he said.

Pennell and Nichols were separately trying to schedule their own projects for performances at the URI Providence campus when Pennell contacted Nichols about combining them for a single show, Nichols said.

Pennell is not dismissive of LGBTQ youth, he said. But 30 years ago, two men were not allowed to dance together. Since then, societal attitudes and even legislation have changed to support the LGBTQ community. Older LGBTQ people have a different history than today's LGBTQ youth will have, and, for the most part, it has gotten better.

"We aren't where we should be," Pennell said, "but we're further than we were."


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