The Nexus Lounge, located on the 12th floor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building, is intimate in size but offers breathtaking views of downtown Toronto. The room is encircled by large glass windows, which allow the sun to linger over the stage set in the middle of the space. In this setting, the stage itself feels closed off from the outside world, yet simultaneously above it.
At the Lounge, I recently viewed U of T Professor Tara Goldstein’s latest “performed ethnography,” titled Out at School and put on as part of Toronto Pride celebrations. According to promotional materials, Out at School is “a verbatim theatre piece based on interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) families about their experiences in Ontario elementary and secondary schools.”
The play took place on a hot Saturday evening in June, in the middle of Pride Month, and highlighted the narratives of 37 families interviewed by Goldstein’s team. This research project took the experiences of these families and wove them together into dramatized production, resulting in a story of hope.
When I first entered, the room was humming with the noise of multiple conversations amongst the various families, friends, and peers who had just finished watching the afternoon performance of the show. I was immediately struck by a feeling of familiarity and welcomeness — it felt as though I had stepped into a family gathering. Professor Goldstein and her partner tended to a table of refreshments and chatted with attendees, and I was immediately greeted with hugs and multiple offers to grab a snack.
Following the show, I inevitably realized that this was exactly how Out at School is supposed to make you feel: as though you belong. And although I did not know many of the people in the room, I noticed that the audience was largely composed of large groups of families and friends of the performers, which made the show all the more intimate.
Goldstein and her team successfully built a safe and positive space for all, regardless of background, and invited the audience to simply listen to what her research had to say. What really fascinated me was how this play was a product of the intersection between scholarship and creativity: a product of Goldstein’s own academic pursuits but expressed in a way that is easily digestible by anybody. As simply put in the program for the play, this was “where theatre meets research.”
This was an intentional and tactful choice. As Goldstein told me, the play “is what we call a verbatim play because we only use the words [from] the interviews [with LGBTQ+ families].” They, of course, edit and thematize the interviews in the process of adding music and images. Nevertheless, she explained that “Every single one of those words [was] spoken by one of our families.”
In highlighting the voices of real Ontario students and families, this play offered a refreshing addition to Toronto Pride — one made all the more political in light of Doug Ford’s cutbacks to the Ontario education budget and changes to the sex education curriculum.
When they introduced the play, the directors explained that it was a “relaxed performance.” This was an apt description. It felt like listening to a friend talk rather than a staged event: there were no microphones, and the stage was empty, save for chairs arranged in a semicircle and a slide show behind the cast that displayed original artwork for each scene. This also made each scene feel like a support group.
I was fond of this idea because it reflected how personal the stories in the play really were, and emphasized that verbatim accounts were being used. Furthermore, the use of direct quotes from the interviews conducted in Goldstein’s research project powerfully conveyed the honesty and personality in the stories shared onstage.
Out at School highlights the shortcomings of the Ontario education system in supporting LGBTQ+ students and families in a meaningful way. In an interview after the show, Goldstein explained how her research particularly reflects this. “We heard a lot of parents talk about making strategic decisions of when to come out or not,” she told me. “To be out means you can talk very directly with the school system about how to support your family. On the other hand, if you think you’re going to be rejected you may choose not to come out.”
This means that the choice to come or not depends heavily on the school culture, which in turn is fostered by the educators and the curriculum they teach. For example, Goldstein explained, “We’ve had some students talk about how during elementary school everybody knew they came from a family with two mums, but when they changed to high school they would wait and see if there was a social cue that made it safe for them to talk about their family.”
The stories I had the opportunity to hear were not just about hardship and pain, but resilience and advocacy. Although this kind of advocacy might work in small ways, the minute changes made can come together to make a real difference in the lives of many in the community. This is the message that Goldstein not only tries to convey in her writing, but also incorporates in her own way of teaching here at U of T.
As she told me, “When you’re working with teachers, if you do this work with one teacher, you could have an impact, if they’re in elementary school, on 30 [students] and families, and if they are a secondary school teacher you could have an impact on 150 to 200 students and family lives.” She explained that although schools constitute the locus of her activism, she also wants “the issues to be talked about outside of schools and [her] own classroom.”
After all, she told me, that desire to reach a wider community informed their decision to stage the research project as a play, and is why they are considering putting the play on in Ontario schools.
This demonstrates how the changes Goldstein and other LGBTQ+ advocates hope to see must begin with smaller, localized communities. Furthermore, safe spaces need to be a reflection of the population around us. From there, larger-scale reforms can be staged to make schools more comfortable places for everyone.
This is the kind of change Goldstein witnessed while teaching at U of T. When asked about the connections between the play and the university, she recalled the multiple progressive changes that have taken place at U of T in recent years. “I have watched the growth of the sexual diversity program at the U of T from the very beginning,” she told me.
“As the program grew and students started to join [it], they were the ones who advocated for more resources.” She smiled. “A number of people here today are looking out the windows of OISE, and noticed the Pride flag and the trans flag flying at Varsity Stadium; that meant a lot to people because they hadn’t realized U of T would celebrate Pride in that way — big and proud.”
“Big and proud” is the message of hope echoed at the very end of the play. Movingly, each member of the production stood up and said what they hope to see change in the future. A desire for change has been expressed in many different ways during the past few months, given the actions of the Ford government. With budget cuts that threaten the current education system, Goldstein highlighted the 2012 Accepting Schools Act as something more hopeful.
As she explained, “Despite Doug Ford’s ideas about curriculum, we still have the 2012 [Accepting] Schools Act, which requires all schools and all teachers to keep all kids safe.” Goldstein paused, then continued. “If that’s going to happen, we have to talk about LGBTQ+ lives.”
Disclosure: Hemrajani is a St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).
Editor’s Note (July 30, 1:00 pm): This article has been updated to disclose the author’s affiliation with the UTSU.