Cyndi Lauper is undoubtedly a modern American pop icon, but she is also a renowned champion of LGBT rights. Lauper has devoted a great deal of time, creative energy, and money to the development of active and dedicated straight allies and to tackling the problem of LGBT youth homelessness. Given her social commitments, it is hard to imagine an artist better suited to writing the music and lyrics that bring Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation of Kinky Boots to musical life, even though she’d never even seen the movie when Fierstein proposed the project to her.

“Harvey Fierstein called me one day and told me that he was writing the book for the Broadway adaptation of UK indie film Kinky Boots,” Lauper said. “I had never seen it. He asked if I want to write the music for it. I had always wanted to work with Harvey, and to be able to write songs for a Broadway musical was just a dream come true. So, right away I found the film through Netflix or one of those kind of services and watched it. It spoke to me on so many levels. The heart, the soul, and the shoes!”

Its simple message—in Lauper’s words, “Accept others for who they are!”—also spoke to her energetic inner ally and pro-LGBT activist. “The great thing about the show,” she added, “is that it speaks to everyone. To see such diverse crowds seeing the show and by the end of the night they are all on their feet dancing and singing along to the closing scene is very powerful.” Indeed, part of power of the musical lies exactly in it “having catchy songs, so that when people leave the theater, the songs resonate outside of the theater walls, you can spread the story that way too.” From this perspective, Kinky Boots fits perfectly into Lauper’s career.

Lauper has long been committed to LGBT issues. Her sister, Ellen, is a lesbian, and Lauper’s circle of friends includes many LGBT people. When I asked about the origins of her commitment to LGBT causes, Lauper responded emphatically, “Listen, I am friend and family, and, where I come from, you stand up for the people you love and care about in your life. You do not turn your back on them.”

Her commitment is grounded in a deep personal conviction that LGBT rights are rooted in the core values we share as Americans. “Equality and freedom,” Lauper said, “are what this country was built on and why I am proud to be an American, but, unfortunately, we have a long way to go before those ideals are really true.” Lauper has devoted herself to being part of the solution, utilizing her fame to raise the profile of the LGBT rights movement, from participating in Gay Games VII at Wrigley Field to appearing as herself at a fictional Pride event on As the World Turns!

As an activist, she’s had significant impact in LGBT rights issues in recent years, primarily through her True Colors Fund. It is entirely unsurprising that her foundation would be named after a song that held so much meaning for a generation of LGBT youth. But, ironically, Lauper wasn’t truly and fully aware of the positive impact “True Colors” (1986) was having on her young LGBT fans until much later.

Indeed, that was only brought home to her a decade later! “I first became aware that ‘True Colors’ had had such an important impact on the lives of my gay fans when I was home pregnant with my son and I had a real chance to read a lot my fan mail. Every other letter or email was about how ‘True Colors’ had saved this person’s life, how it helped them come to terms with being gay, and how it helped them overcome the hate and discrimination they were facing.”

This realization, Lauper explained, deeply impacted her developing social consciousness and gave shape to her LGBT activism: “That was a turning point for me in understanding the role this song had played in so many people’s lives and reminded me of my responsibility to do all that I can to continue to help.” If her song was about social acceptance and creating space to be one’s true self without fear, this would also be the goal of her work.

The True Color Fund now declares two main mission goals, one to “raise awareness about and bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth homelessness, and the other to inspire everyone, especially straight people, to become active participants in the advancement of equality for all.” The fund currently has two major projects to fulfill this mission: the “Give a Damn Campaign” and the “Forty to None Project.”

Broadly speaking, the Give a Damn Campaign seeks to increase education about and involvement in LGBT issues among all those interested in LGBT rights. However, its website declares, “it’s especially for all you straight people out there!” From active and first time supporters to those who “hadn’t given equality a lot of thought before and now want to learn more,” the campaign wants to “help you get informed about the issues and get involved, at a pace that works for you.”

Most LGBT rights organizations focus on harnessing the energies of our community on behalf of its own interests. National organizations, such as HRC, have also attracted significant ally support. For an organization to focus directly and explicitly on the development of allies is fairly unique, and it was shaped by Lauper’s own experience and worldview.

“I grew up in the era of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements,” Lauper explained. “I saw the power of White people marching with African American people, and of men marching with women. When the majority steps up and sides with the minority, great change can happen. So, as a straight person, with great pride, I take my responsibility seriously to stand arm-in-arm with my [LGBT] family, friends, and fans, and the community as a whole.”

Even if bonds of family and friendship don’t motivate potential allies, Lauper firmly believes that everyone has good reason to take up this cause as their own. “Listen, selfishly, what people need to understand is that equality for one group of people is not just about that group, it is about you as well. When one group of people is singled out and treated different for who they are, who is to say that the group you belong to won’t be next in line? History is a testament to that fact as well. If one of us not equal, none of us is equal.” The goal of the Give a Damn Campaign is to give people the tools to fight most efficiently and effectively for our shared rights.

The Forty to None Project takes its name from a startling statistic: nearly forty percent of all homeless youth are LGBT. Given that a significantly smaller percent of youth nationwide identify as LGBT, the disproportion is evident. The project’s goal is to “raise awareness about and bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth experiencing homelessness.”

For Lauper, the idea that youth are abandoned because they show their true colors hits home on multiple levels. As a sister, a friend, and an ally, she’s devoted herself to acceptance. But even more personally, she explained, “As a mom, I cannot imagine throwing my kid out for any reason, let alone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We all have a responsibility to step up and help these kids. That is why we started the True Colors Fund, to bring an end to this epidemic.”

The problem of LGBT youth homelessness, Lauper said, remains acute because so many kids are still “being kicked or forced out of their homes for being gay or transgender.” However, their situation is desperate because there have been protections provided for youth put in this situations. “These are incredible young people who we have let down by not providing them the support and help they need,” Lauper explained.

To address the conditions that lead to homelessness, the Forty to None Project seeks to reach families before their children come out, promoting acceptance and educating them about the “negative outcomes associated with identity-based rejection and homelessness.” For those who are struggling with their children’s sexual identity, or who may have already rejected a child, the project provides family assessments to support families to allow young people to stay in or return home. When that’s not possible, it seeks to “support relationship building within the family, family networks, and community.” And, for youth already homeless, the project helps ensure that those youth have access to “ongoing safe and affirming services” to assist them in the transition to independence.

The work of the True Colors Fund is having real impact on the ground nationwide. Lauper was keen to make our community aware that “The True Colors Fund is actually on the ground in Nashville working with the community and the Oasis Center to address the problem [of LGBT youth homelessness] locally.” The fund has been supporting the effort in Nashville to remedy the gap created by the closing of OASIS’s LGBT youth shelter program. “One thing people can do [locally],” Lauper insisted, “is support Oasis so that they can help more youth. I would encourage any young person who needs support to find a trusted adult in their life and get their help, if you do not have someone, reach out to Oasis. They can help you.”

According to Daniela Medina of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC), a fitting collaboration in Nashville will bring many of Lauper’s worlds together. “On Thursday, February 5th, we have a group from the Oasis Center taking a backstage tour of TPAC, listening to some of TPAC employees detailing job opportunities in theatre, watching [Kinky Boots], and getting a private Q&A with cast afterwards.”




 

For more information about Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, visit www.truecolorsfund.org, and for more information on TPAC’s showing of Kinky Boots, visit www.tpac.org.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

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Photo courtesy of Rumble Boxing Gulch Nashville

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