Members of a Boston-based youth LGBTQ theater were honored Tuesday at the White House with the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, making history as the first LGBTQ organization to receive that honor.
First lady Michelle Obama presented the award to True Colors: Out Youth Theater, the country’s largest and longest-running LGBTQ youth theater program.
“These amazing programs prove how effective creative youth development can be in changing lives and communities,” Megan Beyer, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said in a news release. “They’re improving academic achievement and contributing to high school graduation rates, and they’re providing the opportunity for young people to build the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in school and in life.”
True Colors is a program under the Boston-based company The Theater Offensive. Evelyn Francis of The Theater Offensive, called the award ceremony a “monumental moment” for the organization.
“This has been a hard fought moment in our history,” Francis said. “We’ve had a long and difficult struggle for recognition in our field for creative youth development.”
Massachusetts has shown itself as a progressive state in terms of social issues and Boston has a strong history of high quality youth programs, Francis said. However, there are still risk factors for LGBTQ youth here, she said.
A survey of the Commonwealth’s lesbian, gay and bisexual youth (no trans youth are surveyed) showed that young people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are seven times more likely to attempt suicide, experience higher heroin use and are four times more likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant, she said.
“While Massachusetts is thought of as a bastion of hope in a dreary future, we really have to keep our eye on the ball here. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” Francis said. “Young people and their stories and their work are central to the movement.”
At True Colors, LGBTQ youth and allies ages 14 to 22 share their stories through original performance-art pieces. The pieces do focus on sexuality and gender—80 percent of the youth involved identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer and 41 percent identify as trans—but intersectionality is also a vital part of True Colors. A majority of the participants are youth of color from Boston and 21 percent are first generation American or part of immigrant families.
“We do talk a lot about other cultural aspects of our life than LGBTQ, but how they intersect is so important,” Francis said. “For example, Muslim rights, women’s health, Black Lives Matter, as it all intersects with the LGBTQ movement.”
That focus has helped better inform the conversations of those involved with True Colors, and that in turn affects these kids’ lives in powerful ways, Francis said. One hundred percent of the young people involved say when they leave the program that True Colors helped build their confidence and 93 percent report that they are better listeners because of it.
“In this time when collaboration and empathy are going to be critical, being a good listener is important,” Francis said.
This is the third time True Colors had been named a finalist for this award, and the fact that its first win comes during such a contentious political climate was not lost on Francis. But at the White House, she and others felt “such great joy,” she said, and she knows True Colors, which served 150 young people directly last year, will continue to grow from here on.
“It’s such a supportive and creative environment and I feel like it’s at the center of the LGBTQ movement,” she said. “Our stories are what is going to change people’s hearts and minds in order to make a better future.”