Shane Collins is a 20-year-old transgender male. Shane faces cultural stigma, and the growing pains of what he calls his "second puberty." But his simplest problem is perhaps the most irritating.
"The bathroom. Do you go in the boys' bathroom or the girls' bathroom? Like, it really doesn't matter which bathroom you go in. It doesn't matter!" Collins says.
As Collins's dilemma reflects, the assumption that everyone is either male or female can be confusing, limiting and alienating for someone in the gray area.
Confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues -- great and small -- is the mission of Dreams of Hope. Since 2003, this nonprofit advocacy group has provided a performing-arts outlet for youths like Collins.
"The arts are a great way to experience beauty and deal with emotions," says Susan Haugh, the group's founding artistic director. Haugh's résumé includes founding, in 1995, the Renaissance City Women's Choir for local lesbian singers. Similarly, Dreams of Hope helps teens create and perform skits, songs, poems and dances about their experiences.
"We start with big pieces of paper all over the place and start narrowing down," says Haugh. The process begins with written, vocal and movement exercises, and a lesson on LGBT history. The finished products let the 14 members express themselves with humor, personality and poignancy.
"There's such healing in the arts," Haugh says. "They get to a place where they want to teach other people. And that's cool."
Dreams of Hope transformed Collins' outlook. "Last year I wasn't ready to talk about trans issues," says Collins. Now in his second season, Collins uses his platform to inform audiences about transgender people. "I didn't feel like there was enough transgender information -- we try to get it out there."
The group's outreach includes "That's So Gay!", a 17-minute DVD featuring skits and information from Dreams of Hope youths and their advisers. The national Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has adopted the DVD as a training tool for educational administrators. Educators who use it include the University of Pittsburgh, Point Park University and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
"I believe it really helps people get a sense of what it is like to grow up LGBT today, and some of the struggles that are faced by many children, says Lee Marcuzzi, GLSEN's Pittsburgh-area training coordinator.
Audiences for Dreams of Hope's live show include health-care administrators, financial organizations, congregations and the general public. The cast leaves time after each show for questions about everything from how participants joined to how they came out.
"The biggest feedback we get is how courageous the kids are," says Haugh. For her, though, the best feedback comes from the people on stage. In Dreams of Hope, Haugh says, the cast is "happy, they're smiling. They're having fun."
Banding Together for Dreams of Hope fundraiser (with cabaret performances by Daphne Alderson, Lilly Abreu and Jeff Howell). 7 p.m. Sat., March 13. Edgewood Club, One Pennwood Ave., Edgewood. $45. 412-361-2065 or www.dreamsofhope.org.