Before many children know what gay means, they often use it as an insult. A play, starring one of the country’s top drag queens, is hoping to curb that, writes Caomhan Keane
THE domestic life of drag queens is being explored in a new show for children aged 7-13 that hopes to celebrate difference and promote tolerance in pre-teens before the rot of homophobic and transphobic ideas take root.
“People might say that children are too young to be exposed to this kind of talk,” says writer Sian Ní Mhuirí, “but the truth is that they are taught gender roles since before primary school – through the media, ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys, and through Panto Dames, who we are told are figures of fun, something to laugh at. They don’t know about sexuality, but they do already know about gay and it being a bad word.
“Homophobic bullying starts young. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) characters are nearly completely absent from children’s media, so depicting the home life and experiences of families with LGBT members is a rare and valuable thing. How can we expect our children to grow up without discomfort towards them when we hide their stories from view?”
Starring one of the original troika of drag queens who changed Irish society in the early ’90s, Veda Beaux Reeves, Aunty Ben is a sweet traditional play about over coming adversity, where a young girl, Tracy, brings her school friends home to meet her “Aunty Ben”, not realising that having an uncle who wears dresses and imitates celebrities for a living is not what Irish society would consider the norm.
“It’s not just about trying to dissuade kids from being homophobic, it’s about celebrating change,” says Sian. “And there is some beautiful parallels with a child’s own life. Their job is about play and dress up. They’re comedians, they’re artists and they are extremely creative, even if not everybody likes it. Their very being is strength. They’ve been through adversity but are still positive characters.”
“I was horrifically bullied when I was a child,” says Veda, who is so committed to the project she is returning home from her honeymoon in Rio early to star in it. “So when Sian contacted me I knew I would do anything I could to help her. I can see the benefit of addressing these things with children, in a non-confrontational way that has nothing to do with sex or sexuality.”
Exposing kids to drag is nothing new. “It’s a very common working man’s club art form. A lot of that was aimed at families and children and spread out to places like Blackpool or Butlins. And thousands of kids have gay relatives, if not gay parents. This show is a great way to start a conversation with kids about that.”
While Aunty Ben is heading off on a national and international tour next month, the company have also been bringing it into schools across the country, to facilitate workshops to help young people see and understand how systems of oppression operate by exposing what norms are, how they work, and why they are unstable.
“We ask, ‘if people are being mean to Aunty Ben, do you think that’s alright? How does his life relate to their families and friends? If you have something individual about yourself, how do you deal with that?’ These are the questions that the whole show revolves around but there’s nothing confrontational in it. It does not promote any particular belief and lifestyle choice other than acceptance, tolerance and empathy for those that are different than us. This spirit of empathy is not contrary to any religious doctrine – it is intrinsic to all of them.”
The show has already had runs at theatre festivals in Dublin and Brighton. One mother I spoke to took her son, Lewis, who Sian describes as a beautiful, feminine little boy, who likes to play with Barbies and creates killer designs for them with his granny on her sewing machine.
“I was incredibly moved by it as it made me feel how isolated my son must feel, being bullied at school for being different. It gave me hope that as a mum of a non-gender specific child, he will not be alone in this world.
“Schools can and should do more, but they are still brushing social issues under the carpet. They forget that once children grow up and leave school we all live together in society.”
Another mother took her son to see the show so he could be exposed to more messages of diversity and tolerance and has already seen the positive effect. “I found him in gentle defence of Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst around that time when his little friend was saying that she was gross/weird, where maybe before he would have let that slide, which I thought was nice.”
“We train our kids to be homophobic if we don’t talk about it,” says Sian. “Approaching LGBT issues earlier brings the conversation back into the control of the parents and the teacher, who don’t have to give out to kids for being homophobic because they have developed anxieties about an issue they are aware of but don’t understand. Aunty Ben is a way for framing the conversation about gender and identity early.”
Nov 16, Belfast Outburst Arts Festival Nov 23, London 2, Chelsea Theatre Nov 8, Dublin, Smock Alley Theatre
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved