The ally series
These interviews originally took place for the June 2019 issue of W42ST magazine.
“The question has been asked: How do we become better humans? Originally, it seemed like a small answer would do: recycle, compost, stop using plastic straws, be kinder. But as most of our simple questions these days go, it took further probing. I once read a quote that said, and I'm paraphrasing: ‘We are all innately human, but it's how we operate that makes us people.’ So, to think about becoming a better person, I thought about what makes a person.
“For me, a person is built up of many tiny moral codes: thou shall not steal, always hear out your parents, look before crossing the road, cover your mouth when you sneeze, etc. But a person must also know that it’s impolite to sit while a pregnant woman stands on the subway, at least not without offering.
“So if you’re succeeding with all those things, you are successfully being a person and can move on to trying to being a better person. That can be as easy as composting or growing your own vegetables and sharing your extras. But it’s also bigger than the individual things: it’s noticing the community, the other people around you and thinking about how they’re feeling, what they’re going through. It’s being gentle with angry people when you can see that they’re just hurting, but also holding true to your own emotional health and place in the world. It’s laughing through the frustration and holding yourself accountable; bettering ourselves as individuals while realizing we must also better our community, our people.
“To be better humans is to be a better person, and to be a better person we must first see the knowledge in exploring the world through all perspectives.”
Janelle Lawrence (they, them, she, her) is a writer, composer, and lyricist behind the musicals Subliminal, 'Tis The Season, Mixing Marx With Madness, and Group Therapy. She’s the artistic director of Broad Views on Broadway, a non-profit theatre company dedicated to providing equal opportunity and representation of new theatre works, and is the co-moderator of Musical Theatre Factory’s Women/Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Roundtable (janellelawrence.com).
“I’m thinking a lot lately about how to be more in touch with my childlike self. We build incredible walls around our most vulnerable, delicious parts – whether because of trauma or heartbreak or fear – and I’m figuring out how to tear down those walls without worrying what other people might think.
“I try to build my performances around some aspect of myself I would rather keep hidden. If I’m frightened by a creative impulse, I know I’m moving in the right direction. What I understand now is that, the more I share my vulnerable, flawed spirit with the world around me, and the more I connect with who I was as a child – bursting with shameless wonder, enthusiasm, and queer joy – the more I make space for others to do the same thing.
“What did you want, more than anything else, when you were a little kid? In your heart of hearts, I bet it hasn’t really changed all that much.”
Johnny Drago (he/they) is a queer writer and performer who loves to laugh and get laughed at (johnnydrago.com).
“When I was married (to a woman), I was often asked: ‘What does your husband do?’
“Another common question: ‘When did you decide to be gay?’
“Common offensive statements range from. ‘You don’t look gay’ to, ‘You’ve never been with me, I bet I could change you back to the other side.’
“Not everyone is straight and not everyone is gay, but EVERYONE deserves respect for who they are. so leave the assumptions at the door and the ignorant comments right behind them.”
Brianne Demmler lives in Hell's Kitchen with her partner and dog Toby.
“I came out as non-binary to my family about a year ago, and when I did, I was met with only love, inclusion, and acceptance. Though it took them a bit to get used to using they/them as a singular pronoun, no one misses a beat anymore. That includes my two little brothers who are four years old. It took a bit of explaining, and lots of correcting on our part, but my FOUR-YEAR-OLD BROTHERS can call me by the correct pronouns.
“I very recently (April 4, 2019) spent a week in Florida getting gender-affirming top surgery and my family went with me. There was a teacher at my brother Jude's school that was asking him about his trip to Florida and he was explaining me and my identity to his teacher. She would keep saying ‘she’ and ‘her’ and Jude would not end the conversation until the teacher understood that I was not a girl, and I wasn't becoming a boy.
“Over Passover/Easter weekend, we were all sat down for dinner and I was talking to my friend about my recovery and jokingly said, ‘I'm a tender boy,’ and Izzy, my other brother, said, ‘Hey! You're not a boy! Or a girl!’
“I am just a person. They both correct their friends when they are around to play. They explained it to their cousin who came to visit. They also both correct our parents. They both still mess up sometimes because, you know, they are four, but, gosh, if they don't try their absolute hardest. It's gotten to a point where they are some of the biggest, and most unashamed, advocates for me.
“I think it's been my biggest lesson on supporting myself, and supporting other LGBTQ+ folks in my life. My four-year-old brothers have normalized the concept of someone not being a boy or a girl (they often wonder aloud about their toys and other animals’ genders). The normalcy they create makes it so much easier to exist.
“Normalize non-binaryness. Normalize ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. If four-year-olds can respect other people's pronouns, anyone can.”
Bowie Dunwoody (they/them) is a New York City-based actor, artist, and LGBTQ+ activist. They are always learning to expand their knowledge in the hopes of creating a more inclusive industry.
“Education and information are powerful tools for any ally. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, or in fact any community around the world, are more often than not just seeking to be understood, as most have been denied that at some stage in their journey. The more you learn about each other, the greater scope there is for empathy and understanding. A powerful ally is a knowledgeable one.”
Ainsley Melham (he/him/his) played the lead in Aladdin, in his Broadway debut. He appeared on seasons 1-3 of Hi-5 House as a member of the musical group Hi-5. Follow him on Instagram at @ainsleymelham.
BETHANY LAUREN JAMES
"In my opinion, there’s a secret to being an ally – whether it’s being an ally to yourself or to others. Keyword: boundaries. Yep. There is nothing more respectful (and sometimes hard to do) than to seek out a friend’s boundaries and learn to uphold them.
“Sometimes they let you know overtly, through a story of something that happened to them. Clock it and put it in the memory bank. Sometimes it doesn’t come up until it’s happened directly with YOU, which can feel uncomfortable or awkward. And that’s OK. We’re all different people, so occasionally we cross each other’s boundaries. But being an ally means that, once you’ve been told a boundary, you look out for it.
"The world is full of people, so it’s full of opportunities for boundaries to be crossed. Be an ally. Embrace the chance to understand your friends and respect them.
“And the same works for you (though it’s perhaps even harder). When you start to get that nagging feeling that your boundaries are being crossed, write it down when you can. Look at that paragraph and understand exactly what it is that makes you feel that way. That’s the language you need to tell your friend, co-worker, or loved one. You deserve people who don’t cross your boundaries too, and that starts when you can be clear about your feelings, and find a way to speak them out loud.
“Establishing boundaries can be hard, but it’s a surefire way to be a great ally to yourself."
Bethany Lauren James is an actress based in New York. Her TV credits include The Deuce and A Crime to Remember and, Off-Broadway, Daisy in Disguise (bethanylaurenjames.com).
“In my stand-up I talk a lot about my identity, and one time the comic who went up after me harassed me during his set. We got into a yelling match, and while I wish someone else had spoken up, a woman did come up and put her hand on my shoulder, which made me feel OK enough to stay there.
“And the story has a good ending because, about a year later, I turned the guy into a punchline. Audiences now give applause breaks over how stupid he is.
“If you're cis and straight, but want to partake in or learn more about queer culture, go experience queer art. It's a supportive and respectful way to visit a queer space.”
Kate Sisk is a comedian and writer whose work tackles sexuality, gender identity, and, among other things, the woes of a retired athlete. Kate performed at the HBO Women In Comedy Festival, and has toured college campuses with LOLGBT Comedy Tours, of which Kate is a cofounding member (katesisk.com).
This piece originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of W42ST magazine. Read more in the Ally Series here. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you receive our daily newsletter. Join the conversation at w42st.com.