The 14th Street Y will be closing on Monday, September 26, and Tuesday, September 27 for Rosh Hashanah. Programming will resume as usual on Wednesday, September 28. L’Shana Tova!

Coming Out From New York to Belgrade, Our Stories Must Be Told

|

When I think of Pride, I generally think of celebration. My recent experiences in New York are much more joyful than the fear and shame I had before coming out. The Pride parades I have marched in here in New York have been triumphant expressions of how far we have come with acceptance and equality. The streets are filled of course with myriad floats and participants, the sidewalks overflow with supporters and balconies and rooftops wave flags and throw confetti to the crowds below. When I moved to New York over fifteen years ago, I did not have the right to get married and equality was not something I was sure I would have in my lifetime. Now I am married and celebrate what we have achieved with our art, while still acknowledging that this country has a divide that must be addressed if we are to even keep what we have gained.

We were invited to be the closing performance of the first ever Belgrade Pride Theater Festival before joining them the following evening in their Pride parade. Belgrade Pride has only been non-violent since 2014. I personally noticed a major shift in culture immediately after getting off the plane. Straight couples were approaching passport control together and processed. But when I approached with my husband, I was waived back to the line. It was not malicious—he just didn’t even suspect that we might be a couple as well. Our crew first noted other stark differences when entering the city. “Where are the flags?” asked one crew member as our van took us through the city center to our hotel. We expected to encounter a city overflowing with rainbows in honor of Pride. Indeed, New York has almost become “pink washed” for the month of June where every corporation, bank, and commercial building boasts rainbow colors (although many of my friends are skeptical of the true motivations). Then we also had to acknowledge the city of Belgrade itself, still bearing the scars of the 1999 NATO bombing in the core of its commercial downtown. New buildings sparkled next to bombed out relics, seemingly disregarded for twenty years. We were warmly greeted at our hotel by the amazing foundation members who brought us over and we were encouraged to walk to the Pride Center after settling in.

The Pride Center was a storefront downtown where we finally saw a few rainbows! We also saw many young people hard at work. They were on the street passing out flyers, they were waiving, smiling, asking for support, selling T-shirts, stickers, and keychains. My husband Antonio (who did double duty by both directing the play and performing as my fictional husband) bought us each a T-shirt and I got a keychain. Many people walked past the flyers and flags without a second glance. A few would take a brochure politely. And then there were clear non-supporters. “Pride in what?” asked one woman who ushered her daughter away as if the spot were contaminated. The young volunteer continued smiling and powered on.

I suddenly had flashes of my youth in Texas; long dismissed or shelved remembrances of the multitude of micro-aggressions I experienced during my closeted years. Certainly there are many cities in the U.S. today where this exact same reaction would occur. But we live in a New York bubble. And I suddenly felt a rush of pride for performing my play in a country with such young people fighting for their own equality. In fact our play had unexpected relevance with this community. The Baby Monitor centers around a gay couple who used a surrogate to have a child. Days before we performed in their National Theater, Serbia banned IVF to anyone who has a history of “homosexual relations during the last five years.” The sad irony is that the right wing conservative government who imposed this rule is led by an out lesbian PM, Ana Bnarbic. Bnarbic has a child… The weight of our play and the depth of what it meant to represent a gay family in a place where families are being challenged loomed before us and made the week suddenly sacred. We were asked to speak on a panel to discuss political theater and the LGBTIQ+ movement as well as participate in a video interview. The electrical charges continued to grow as we realized how significant this was for their community. This wasn’t a week of celebration–this was a fight–one done with dignity and courage. I found that they were competing with 5 other major cities (including Dublin) for Euro Pride 2022 and the decision would be made in the next few days.  The amazing progress carved in such a short time—from violence to finally peaceful protest and political theater—awed me. I hoped they would win this honor.

We performed the play in English and Spanish as originally staged. We had Serbian supertitle projections for the audience as well. I had no idea what to expect when it came to audience reception. Our play is political as it addresses the deep resentment and hidden biases loved ones may still harbor towards their gay relatives. The piece proposes that the current landscape has made it possible for those voices to be aired again and for latent prejudices to surface. The gay men in the piece are accused of the unthinkable by a family member they deem as an ally. And for a brief time, their child is taken from them. The Serbian audience was with us every step of the way. They got all of our jokes from the top of the play (even those mired in American sports and politics). The audience also gasped and cried with us through the end. We bowed once and exited the stage to polite applause that grew once we were backstage. What felt like a full minute seemed to pass and they were still clapping. So we shyly walked back onstage and continued to bow for this wonderful crowd. After the play, our fantastic hosts invited us for drinks with members from the Dutch Embassy. We had a wonderful night filled with charged discussions.
One Serbian woman said,

“We don’t have political theater in our National Theater. It’s not done. This was the first for me.”  

The next day, our cast and crew met about a block away from our hotel. And finally, we found our streets lined with rainbows. A couple of thousand people met on a city block and pulled out banners, flags and signs. I saw allies bring their children, dressed as unicorns and mermaids (sometimes simultaneously so).  Security was tight. Armed guards held off protestors who bore signs depicting flames among other sad misguided images of hate. The rainbows soon blocked them out. A woman joined the crowd, surrounded by an armed guard and press, clicking their cameras quickly. I turned to a new Serbian friend and asked, “Who is that?” She replied, “No one special.” It was Ana Bnarbic, their PM. Aside from the press, the rest of the crowd seemed to ignore her and she was not invited to speak. A single float of Drag Queens made some opening speeches I didn’t understand…although an occasional “Yaaaaas!” seemed to transcend all language barriers.  And then we marched, to fantastic music. The street was full for a few blocks. The sidewalks were empty. We only saw two windows on the entire route that waived support. We walked past bombed buildings, new cafes, and finally the stunning parliament building itself. We passed a statue of a political leader whose head was covered in a hood.  The Serbian man next to me said, “It’s one of our founders from the past. The statue is hooded so that it does not see our parade.”

I lost count of the number of strangers who came up to hug us, recognizing us from the performance the night before. “The stories of gay families aren’t told,” one older woman said sadly. They thanked us, they made us feel welcomed and this trip will forever be imprinted on my soul as to why I am an artist/activist. A few days later, Belgrade won the honor of hosting Euro Pride 2022. My husband and I are already trying to plan for another visit. I am grateful to work in the community of the 14th Street Y. Presenting The Baby Monitor in a city that embraces the stories of LGBTIQ+ families and having a welcome home to develop the piece was priceless. Sharing what we created with the world has been a blessing beyond words.

Queer people know that the first time you come out is never the last. You have to come out every day after that, in every new situation and with each new introduction. I hope that through a global campaign of empathy, of sharing our voices through the arts we will one day not have to say, “No, this is my husband” at any passport control. But that day is far off. Just earlier this week the rights of queer people were debated before the Supreme Court and we will soon hear from them if we can be fired for simply existing as an LGBTIQ+ human.

Luckily, we do have safe spaces like the 14Y and this community where we are always welcome. I hope to see you at our Community Breakfast next Wednesday, October 16 from 8:30 AM to 10:30 AM, where I can hear your stories over a cup of hot coffee and a bagel.

 


 

14Y Community Appreciation Breakfast

Wednesday, October 16 | 8:30 – 10:30 AM
14th Street Y Lobby

Join your downtown community in the 14Y Lobby for a tasty breakfast and great conversation!!

We’ll have coffee, baked goods, and other delicious treats for all to enjoy.

This event is free and all are welcome, so swing by anytime between 8:30 and 10:30 am.

Hope to see you there. This event is free and open to all!

More Info
, , ,