True Colors Meet Our Community Partner: True Colors By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate “James Lecesne is a superstar to us!” Hartford Stage is delighted to partner with True Colors, a non-profit organization in Hartford that works to ensure that the needs of sexual and general minority youth are recognized and served. True Colors organizes the largest LGBTQ youth conference in the country and manages Connecticut’s only LGBTQ mentoring program. Kamora Herrington, Mentoring Program Coordinator for True Colors, speaks with Hartford Stage about the work they do on behalf of our state’s LGBTQ youth, our community partnership, and the importance of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Tell us about the mission of True Colors and the work that you do on behalf of LGBTQ youth in our state. L-R: Back row: Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin,Mark Ojakian, President, Connecticut State Universities and Colleges, Kevin Lembo, Connecticut State Comptroller, Kim Westheimer, GenderSpectrum.org, Royce Mann, Elsie Gonzales, Acting Rainbow Center Director. Front row: Ace Ricker, James Lecesne, Robin McHaelen, True Colors Executive Director Joelle Murchison, Associate Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, UCONN True Colors works toward creating a world where youth, adults, and families of all sexual orientations and gender identities are valued and affirmed. We challenge all forms of oppression through education, training, advocacy, youth leadership development, mentoring and direct services to youth and those responsible for their well-being. All of our work is based on research and best practices; therefore, we hold weekly activities for queer youth to socialize with each other in a healthy and supportive environment. We also host intergenerational community conversations, specifically for members of the Queer community, but all community members are invited. The conversations give us a chance to convey stories, thoughts, ideas and realities to our elders and our youth. As a minority group whose parents often don’t share this aspect of our identity, these conversations are invaluable. Outside of direct service, we host the nation’s largest and longest running LGBTQ youth conference and are proud to have served and supported thousands of LGBTQ youth, adults and the adults who work with them. Along with the conference, we offer trainings and workshops at all levels and pride ourselves on being able to meet agencies, their clients and their professional staff where they are and work to create the best solutions for that group. “Unfortunately, due to many societal influences, a good portion of our youngest LGBTQ citizens are not currently feeling that celebration and optimism.” We depend on other agencies and community groups for collaborations that will allow us to best serve the needs of our community; and, this year, we have partnered with the Gay Spirit Radio Show (www.gayspiritradio.net) and the Hartford Youth Service Corps to create a workforce development program where queer youth from the Hartford community digitize over 30 years of Gay Spirit Radio shows! This is teaching them job skills that are currently in demand as well as introducing them to Queer history in as authentic a manner as possible. In 2016 we trained over 6,500 professionals who work either directly or indirectly with queer youth! How do the themes of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey directly connect with the work you are doing at True Colors? When I was approached about collaborating on this show, I briefly read up on it and thought that it lined up with our current work; themes of isolation, loss, bullying, etc. Once I read the story, I started seeing SO many of the young people in our programs, not just in Leonard, but in the other characters as well. While thinking about what a community conversation loosely based on The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey would look like, we realized that Leonard was Leonard, no matter what; that even though he was bullied, by much of the community, he HAD to be his authentic self. Was it because he had lost those most important to him and therefore had nothing to lose? Was it because his absolute brightness was SO bright there was no way he could hide it? We realized that in this day and age, many of our queer youth have been raised to believe that their special brand of uniqueness is important and valuable and is necessary and should be celebrated. Unfortunately, due to many societal influences, a good portion of our youngest LGBTQ citizens are not currently feeling that celebration and optimism. Along with protecting our youth through legislation, this year we’ve been looking for ways to arm them with the inner resources that they will need to navigate a world that doesn’t feel as accepting and welcoming as it may have a year ago. This show/story gives us a beautiful starting place to begin discussing what the consequences of living your authentic truth are versus attempting to conform. Leonard is a character who can be timeless, our elders and youth can identify with him. Our hope is that after the show, we ALL start thinking about how we create space for differing identities as well as what the consequences can be when we don’t. True Colors has encouraged people to read the book, “Absolute Brightness,” which the play is based on. How do you think youth will relate to the character of Leonard Pelkey? So far I’ve only heard back from one student who started the book on Monday and finished it on Wednesday. She’s not a typical reader, and I wasn’t sure that she would open the book, much less finish it. She’s genderqueer and lives in a girls’ group home that doesn’t always support her and where she’s made daily attempts at living her authentic truth, regardless of acceptance. She ran away a few weeks ago and while she won’t contact us to tell us where she is, she happily messaged me on Facebook to thank me for the book and tell me that I made the right choice because she is JUST like Leonard; I expect to hear the same type of endorsement from other True Colors youth as they read the book. Leonard is US, and we are Leonard! Are True Colors youth excited about coming to see the play at Hartford Stage? As an organization that works with queer youth, many of whom have been classified as ‘at-risk,’ James Lecesne is a superstar to us. He has been able to convey the truth of queer youth in such an authentic way that both Trevor and Leonard can appear to be timeless. Having an opportunity to interact with an adult gay man, who was able to use his true and authentic story to create first Trevor and now The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, is an opportunity that doesn’t come often; and we are looking forward to fully taking advantage of the play and talkback session! Where can people learn more about True Colors? How can people become involved? Our website is always a good starting point: www.ourtruecolors.org. We are also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We have numerous ways for folks to become involved in our work. From being a one-on-one mentor, to donating money, goods or time, to attending our community events, to facilitating social activities and even distributing our literature and fliers throughout the state; there are a plethora of ways to engage with us! I like suggesting the 5th Friday Intergenerational Community Conversations as a way to step into our world, where we celebrate all queer youth through respect, inclusion, safety and empowerment.