technically it’s not anyone’s business how I identify
but at the same time
I wanted the comfort that
a lot of heterosexual people have
knowing that they can identify how they would like to
no one questions it
or forces another label upon them
I wanted to be myself fully
and not have to hide any of that
—Ryan De La Cruz* in an interview on her decision to come out to her school
If we wish to tell compelling and inclusive narratives about our schools and communities, we must listen to the stories around us. To achieve this, we use How We GLOW, a method of qualitative research called ethnodrama that combines ethnography with theatrical storytelling.
Our experience has shown that such research enables people to deeply understand trends and demographics — and leads to an authentic portrayal of truth. In this blog, we outline our research experiences, our findings around lgbtq+ youth identity, and some ways to apply the findings in schools.
In our view, too much of youth work talks about youth, rather than with youth. We decided to take a different approach. Carrying a curiosity about young people’s experiences and a desire to hear their voices, we created How We GLOW, blending traditional ethnographic interviews with theatrical storytelling tools.
Ethnodrama draws on the anthropological process of describing, interpreting, and constructing cultural behavior. This method lends itself to understand the ways people create their own cultural meaning. Ethnotheater, the performance of ethnodrama, bears witness to stories and moves us toward empathy and reflection.
Researchers Judith Ackroyd and John O'Toole write of ethnodrama in Performing Research: "It's a natural development of the new-found confidence in acknowledging the subjectivity of their [researchers'] human research and of celebrating rather than reducing the richness of rich data."
As co-researchers and collaborators, we’ve found that being part of GLOW (Gay, Lesbian, or Whatever), a gender and sexuality student discussion group, has offered us opportunities to support lgbtq+ youth (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and beyond), explore new labels and terminology, and understand the issues that most affect lgbtq+ students. The question of labels emerged from informal discussion with young people, and we launched our research from several questions that sparked our imaginations.
- Are young people rejecting labels more?
- Are they creating new ones that are more specific to their experiences?
- Depending on the labels chosen or rejected by youth, what are the implications for community building?
- Do they find community in schools? Online?
- How does one build solidarity among the alphabet soup?
To begin, we narrowed our scope to youth between the ages of 14 and 24. We reached out to email listservs of lgbtq+ students in high schools and universities, and connected with educators who put us in touch with interview participants. We asked participants the following questions:
We conducted 21 interviews with participants from a mix of schools in New York. Seven were college students, five attended public school, six attended independent school, and two had dropped out of school. (We interviewed one person twice.) Interviewees had the option to share their name or use a pseudonym. This practice and others were informed and approved by NYU’s University Committee on Activities Involving Human Subjects.
- How would you describe your identity and how did you come to understand it?
- Do you have a coming out story or stories to share with us?
- Do you or have you participated in any identity-based groups in your school or elsewhere?
- What do you think is the biggest issue or issues facing the lgbtq+ community?
- What do you know about the Stonewall Riots/Rebellion?
After completing the interviews, we coded the data for emergent themes, including:
Then, we transcribed the interviews verbatim, including every uh, um, and pause. Our method borrows from the style of MacArthur Genius/researcher/actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith and theatremaker/professor Joe Salvatore, which aims to capture the poetry of human speech verbatim. The richest details, the patterns and pauses of speech, illuminate as much about people as the content of their words. Using a “hard return” to connote a break in the flow of speech really imitates each person as a unique character in this play.
- public or performative coming out experiences,
- generational divide between parents and/or teachers,
- identity exploration, and
- intra-community differences.
We interviewed everyone one-on-one, and discovered that many stories from our conversations aligned or conflicted with one another. Theater allowed us to explore these tensions and divergences. We wove the transcriptions into a script that featured sections from 11 of our 21 interviews. The excerpt below demonstrates our method and the dialogue between interviewees.
I know that a lot of issues
outside of the community itself that are kind of
I think one issue with the lgbt
like community is that everyone that’s not in it kind of thinks
that it’s like this
the way we regard each other
inside the community
is the most like
that we’ve ever faced
and it’s still something that’s a really big problem
like hate in the community itself
where everyone automatically like
love each other and is there for each other
and that’s not always true and I think it’s because
of watching people be like
that’s not a real thing
nobody has it as bad as we have it
or like people
inside of the community looking at other people
in the community thinking
they don’t belong here
By placing Asia and Jenny in conversation, we could illuminate the feelings of both being within and a part of a community.
Then, we worked with actors to devise parts of the performance and presented the show to our community of friends and colleagues through The Tank, an independent arts presenter in New York City that supports emerging artists to show their work at little or no cost. We intentionally cast actors in roles that were incongruous with their racial or gender experiences because we wanted the audience to challenge their assumptions about the stories we ascribe onto certain bodies.
After the first performance in Brooklyn, educators and youth in our audience encouraged us to share the piece with schools, and we have spent the past two years taking the show to assemblies, conferences, and festivals worldwide.
We have performed for students as young as 10, in gymnasiums of large public schools, and in black box theaters of selective independent schools. Some schools organized pre-discussions in advisory groups, and each performance ended with a larger discussion to clarify language, provide space for student reflection and testimonials, and ask about our process.
We’ve found that sharing the piece in schools has allowed for simultaneous exposure to lgbtq+ voices for straight or cisgender students, as well as an affirmation for lgbtq+ students.
The stories of lgbtq+ youth revealed the powerful intersection of identities: age as a social identifier uniquely impacted youth gender and sexual identities, alongside race, class, religion, family structure, and nationality/location. Age was the lens through which each person navigated their experiences.
Additionally, interviewees identified homelessness and intra-group divisions such as racism and the “oppression Olympics,” i.e. the way oppressed people sometimes view one another in competition rather than in solidarity, as significant issues facing their communities both in school in New York and online. (Interestingly, nobody identified marriage as a key issue, even during our interview period of spring 2015.) Lastly, although the ways that youth engaged with labels varied, their decision to claim or reject a label almost always came through resources and dialogue on the internet. Facebook groups brought youth together with other young people outside of their social circles to build virtual support communities and raise consciousness.
Ethnotheater, particularly the verbatim form, is a tool that can be applied to many communities to gather memories and capture a voice of an institution. For example, Anna Deavere Smith created a play by zooming in on a place (Crown Heights, Brooklyn) and excavating the feelings that emerged from that place’s notoriety in “Fires in The Mirror”; Joe Salvatore explored love and relationships in his play “Open Heart.”
In ethnotheater, content is flexible to a community’s needs, as are the steps within the process. For How We GLOW, we conducted the research and brought actors in at the performance stage. At the Chapin School in New York in 2015, student actors were involved in the interviews, transcription, scriptmaking and production of the play “We Were All Young Once” (under the guidance of Joe Salvatore). At NYU School of Law, the communications team interviewed students about their experiences in the classroom, and other students read one another’s stories in an audio project to present to professors.
We hope schools will consider how they might use qualitative research to explore complex issues in their communities. For many, storytelling is a means of survival, of reaching into the past, present, and future of a community or institution. Because school communities observe multiple generations of the same families, ethnodramas can act as historical narratives of the schools themselves. In these cases, students can both be seen in and create these narratives.
We believe educators can employ ethnotheater to conduct school-focused and school-driven research. Admission officers can use it to talk about students’ experiences, faculty can use it to discuss school climate, communications officers can use it in the school’s alumni magazine, and students can use it to share their voices on their own terms. As we have found, the stories that are the most difficult to hear or tell may be the most important to share and help to build safer, stronger school communities.
Download a PDF of the graphic below.