‘FML’ takes stance against homophobia

By Trevor Ballanger

by Trevor Ballanger

Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

For years, schools have produced literature and exercises to better prepare adolescents for the dangers of underage drinking. Schools are less adept at dealing with the growing issue of gay bashing, which many summarize with one popular phrase: “F–k my life.”

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., is taking the topic of gay hate crimes head-on in the new play “FML: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life” by Sarah Gubbins, which premiered March 4. The story is about a girl in a Catholic high school coming to terms with her homosexuality while dealing with gay bashing and family issues. It is one of two full-scale plays this season by Steppenwolf for Young Adults, an educational program set up by the theater company as an outreach for local students interested in the arts.

“My hope for the play is that the events that are rendered are honest and they resemble real life,” Gubbins said. “I hope that students who come and see the play are moved to plant some sort of solidarity in seeing their own experiences on stage.”

Hallie Gordon, artistic and educational director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, said she had been interested in doing a play about gay issues for the past two years but never had the right material to work with. But then Gubbins approached her eight months ago about doing a play addressing the subject of bullying.

The book, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” by Carson McCullers, became an instrument of the heroine’s strength against homophobia. Gubbins said she used the story’s message about loneliness as inspiration for the quality of her theatrical characters.

When Gubbins began writing the play and the company started workshopping it, Gordon said it was apparent in the news that gay bullying of teens and young adults had become more prevalent.

“Steppenwolf for Young Adults has never actually [dealt] with gender identity,” Gordon said. “Being able to present that on our stage is really important to me.”

The play went through many stages during its production, including a public reading for teachers, administrators and Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, to determine its appropriateness for students.

Gubbins said she cut profanity from the play, a change she permitted because it wasn’t essential to the story.

“The message of the play isn’t, ‘Bullying is wrong,’” Gubbins said. “We all know that bullying is wrong. The message of the play is, ‘Why does it happen, what does it look like and how are we all responsible?’”

Gordon said censoring the play, however, is more for the comfort of conservative parents than their children. After several schools in the area threatened to not allow their students to see Steppenwolf’s production of “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, the company worked closely with the public school program to determine what could and couldn’t be depicted in “FML,” to allow public schools to gain their trust.

Only two out of 12 Catholic schools have committed to attend the play. Bill Savage, senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University, said the other schools’ absence is an act of “cowardice.” Savage’s brother and creator of the “It Gets Better Project,” Dan Savage, spoke at a discussion after a performance of “FML” at Steppenwolf’s request. Bill Savage said the “It Gets Better Project,” a site dedicated to enhancing the lives of the young LGBT community, reiterates the same cultural issues as the play.

A person at the discussion claimed that all religious groups aren’t as disapproving of gays as depicted in the play. Savage said his brother’s response was, “Don’t tell me that [they’re] not all like that. Tell Pat Robertson. Tell the people at the National Organization for Marriage. Because until Christians stand up and refuse to be associated with hate, they will be associated with hate.”

Steppenwolf chose to focus on the good that “FML” is doing for Chicago’s youth. Gordon said it’s important for kids to be able to see themselves represented in the show, and having two teenagers in the lead roles makes the topic relatable and a stepping stone for positivity.

“I think arts like this need to be supported,” Savage said.“The more people who stand up for tolerance and acceptance, the more bigots will be sidelined where they should be.”