Coming out IN DANCE: Paths to Understanding

Article excerpt

Sexuality is a complex subject. Besides being associated with deep social and religious taboos, it is still among the great mysteries of human development. Yet we do know more today than we did a generation ago. We're also more willing to examine the issues, in part because of the evolution of the AIDS epidemic, which makes ignorance of sexual matters dangerous for everyone, gay or straight. Recent attention in pop culture has focused on portrayals of gay and lesbian characters in television shows such as "Will and Grace," "Party of Five," "Spin City," "Dawson's Creek," and MTV's "The Real World" and magazine articles in Seventeen and Jane.

We realize some readers may be uncomfortable with the topic of homosexuality. However, we believe that Dance Magazine has a responsibility to provide useful information for those dancers who may be dealing with this issue. Although dance, like other art forms, is often more accepting of different lifestyles than is mainstream society, the process of "coming out" can be difficult for dancers as well as for their families.

HISTORIC PROBLEMS WITH SEXUALITY

Some Americans have historically regarded homosexuality as a sickness, sin, or crime. While the gay and lesbian movement has helped to modify these attitudes, same-sex sexual behavior often continues to elicit hostile and sometimes reflexive contempt in a culture still uncomfortable with sexuality. In fact, 67 percent of adults believe that homosexuality is "always wrong," according to a National Health and Social Life Survey.

Not surprisingly, this deeply rooted homophobia has an insidious effect--even among "liberated" people. For example, when the performer Cher first discovered that her daughter was a lesbian, she came face-to-face with her own unexamined prejudices about homosexuals. Thinking that her daughter's coming out had something to do with her being a "bad" mother, Cher's immediate impulse was to dismiss her child's behavior as a passing phase. More traditional parents may have an even tougher time accepting a child's same-sex preference. Parents may cut off economic support or even become violent or rejecting.

Fortunately, such extreme behavior does not always happen. The most common response is for families to avoid the subject of sexual preference altogether. A fifty-four-year-old female director of a major dance school says that, even to this day, "We've never discussed the fact that I'm gay." Similarly, a nineteen-year-old male dancer from the School of American Ballet, who also asked to remain anonymous, says, "I think my family knows, but no one wants to talk about it. At times, I want to pick up the phone and just go ahead and tell them. But then I think about what could happen." Most of the dancers whom we interviewed feared their families would shun them if their secret were revealed.

Happily, those dancers who finally did come out to their families reported positive experiences, much to their surprise. Ian Betts, a modern dancer from Canada, waited until the age of thirty to tell his parents. "I had a whole scenario about having the car running, out in the driveway, ready to escape. But at that point I had nothing to lose because I was on my own. If they didn't want me in the family, I could just disappear. That added to the safety factor. As it turned out, my parents said, `We love you anyway.'"

Trebien Pollard, a professional dancer who performed with Pilobolus, adds that parents often need help in understanding what it means to be gay. "When I came out to my parents, they were confused. My father was a football player and a military guy, so it was difficult for him. But he took the effort to start seeing me as a person. He started researching things on his own."

Apart from telling your family, another big hurdle for many gay and lesbian dancers is dealing with widespread homophobia in school. Research shows that students who let on that they are gay, or differ from "normal" masculine and feminine behavior, suffer increasing abuse, beginning in about the seventh grade. …