By Dorothee Birker/Contributor
“Ever since middle school I have been labeled. I don’t want to talk about it – let’s just say it wouldn’t be a big deal if I was – but I am not. It’s not true.”
— Shelly in R-E-S-P-E-C-T, a play written by Bonnie Gratz
Shelly, Armand and Adam are characters in a powerful play written by Bonnie Gratz, but their stories are real, based on the actors’ own experiences at a local school and they reflect the negative impacts of labeling.
Gratz was commissioned to write the play to present to middle school students as part of the Respect Network’s Respect Lives Here campaign.
The Respect Network, funded by Embrace BC, is hosting a series of events in the Thompson Okanagan to uncover issues of racism and hate, and to offer options and resources for people impacted by these situations.
Meeting the play’s actors at a rehearsal, I was able to ask them about their stories.
Bailey Strand, 18, plays Shelly and her storyline is all too real. “In middle school I was a quiet kid. Mid Grade 7, I heard these rumors that I was a lesbian. I don’t know why, but it may have been my defense of the LGBT community — I have family that are gay,” she said.
“It didn’t offend me – it frustrated me. The rumors were just not true and it stayed with me until Grade 12.”
Today, Bailey is very clear in her message that making assumptions and labeling people, leads to isolation. No one asked her about the rumors and she felt very alone and marginalized. “If someone had asked me I would have told them. I felt that I was put on the defensive. Now, I have learned to stand up for myself.”
Fellow actor Roberto Molano, 19, came to Bailey’s school as an international student from Mexico. He portrays Armand in the play and he feels the character also reflects his story very well.
Roberto had to fight assumptions students made about him when he first came. Other kids assumed his family was rich and that his school year was easy, with fun field trips and very little academic learning.
He felt frustrated, isolated and belittled. “It’s very difficult to come to a new country and take classes when English isn’t your first language. I did okay because I studied hard. It wasn’t easy.”
The play reflects the tension international students can face from other students but this wasn’t Roberto’s only challenge. Roberto is a proud gay man now but coming out for him in this new country was difficult and judging when and how to do so was a struggle. “It took me a while to come out of the closet,” he said.
“But when I did, it was actually very good. People were very accepting.”
For Adam Weaver, who plays Alex, it was his friend coming out to him that made him aware of prejudices around him. “I was a bit unaware of how hard it can be. When my friend told me he was gay, at first I was shocked and confused, and then I realized that it didn’t change him and that I needed to just accept it because he was my friend.”
While Adam plays a bully in the play, everyone is quick to point out that his play persona is very different from the real Adam. “I think I was just a kid who hadn’t really thought about it much and when my friend came out, it made me deal with reality. I was very shocked though that when we moved out together after high school that everyone assumed I was gay as well. Again, it’s people making assumptions and judging you on what isn’t even true.”
With the goal of increasing awareness and understanding, the Respect Lives Here campaign hopes to get people talking and to be able to ask respectfully inorder to build their own understanding, to resolve conflicts and to stop the isolating behavior of making assumptions and labeling people.
Dorothee Birker is the coordinator for The Respect Network funded by EmbraceBC in the Central Okanagan. The Respect Network is a group of community organizations in the Thompson Okanagan region that seek to have all community members welcomed, valued and respected. Moving beyond mere tolerance of differences, respect elevates us from merely co-existing to living harmoniously. Join the movement and take the Respect Challenge at respectnetwork.ca .