Program at Ridgewater discusses racism, sexism, LGBT issues
WILLMAR — A college student tells his roommate he's transgender, and his roommate freaks out, thinking about how the news will affect him.
A young man meets a young woman, shakes her hand and raises it to make her do a pirouette. She's offended, but she puts up with it.
Two young men who worked together in high school meet on a college campus, where the white one is surprised the black one is a student there, too.
The black student is offended, but a few minutes later, they are laughing and making suggestive comments about a girl with whom they worked.
None of those situations were real when students at Ridgewater College witnessed them during a recent interactive program. Actors performed them, then stayed in character to discuss the situations with their audience.
Led by moderator Ben McGinley, the group entered into lively conversations with the actors and with each other.
The program — called "You. Me. We." — addressed racism, sexism and LGBT issues. It was presented by GTC Dramatic Dialogues of St. Cloud.
McGinley and actors Sulia Altenberg, Tyus Beeson and Marc Gill responded to questions and challenged some of the assumptions of students in the audience.
Audience members challenged each other's ideas, too.
The actors presented a number of issues through two skits — one about three students meeting on campus and one about the roommates.
Someone suggested that the white guy shouldn't "talk black" when greeting the black student, but comments on race soon gave way to a discussion of sexism.
Things became a little heated when several men suggested that women would get more respect if they "respect themselves."
When a young man said, "If you dress like you're a slut, that's how I interpret it," a collective groan rose from women in the room.
Some men said women in revealing clothing should not be surprised to be stared at. "You can control yourself," came the retort from the other side of the room.
A young Muslim woman said that dress doesn't seem to matter as much as the discussion implied. People stare at her and comment about her modest clothing and head scarf, she said.
The sides weren't always clear cut. One man said, "You wear whatever you want to wear; not all men are dogs." Several people pointed out that women are often very critical of other women's looks.
The roommate scene began with the transgender student confiding in a female friend about a party he went to where he felt free and in touch with his true self. When his roommate came in and asks why there are photos of him in a dress on social media, the young man was horrified. "This can't be out there."
The young man revealed to his roommate, "I think I'm transgender." But he hadn't been ready to share it yet, because he was still learning about himself. It was easier to confide in a lesbian friend than in his roommate.
The roommate didn't take the news very well. This complicates my life, he said.
McGinley pointed out that coming out is particularly dangerous for people of color who are more likely to be victims of violence and to be killed.
Audience members criticized the roommate for his reaction. The actor tried to defend his character, saying it was partly from shock.
The discussion about the LGBT issues had less dissension than did the one about sexism. Several people shared personal stories of being accepted by family for being gay or of accepting a transgender friend.
McGinley closed the gathering by talking about trying to be respectful of the different experiences everyone has.
"Are we all going to say the right things," he asked. "Absolutely not," but being respectful can help a person deal with difficult situations.