Voice behind the cello

Jun 9, 2015 by

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It is a show full of emotions – laughter, joy, pain, remorse, sadness and grace. Ted Swartz, in Listening for Grace, twists goosebumps into tears of sadness, only to transform them into tears of laughter.

Chris Yoder of Harrisonburg, Va., plays the cello on stage with Ted Swartz during a performance of Listening for Grace.

Chris Yoder of Harrisonburg, Va., plays the cello on stage with Ted Swartz during a performance of Listening for Grace. — Ted & Co.

Swartz plays the role of a father rooted in an evangelical upbringing, and he must cope with the news that his son is gay. Throughout the play, he consults with friends and family, confronting the dilemma of choosing between his God and his son.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to travel with Swartz and perform as the son, behind my cello, in a number of plays in different parts of the country.

What intrigues me and surprises me, however, are the responses I receive after each show.

We mingle with the crowd following each play, and without fail, viewers assume my sexual orientation based on the role I play in the show. I have had people ask me to gay bars after shows. I have had people refuse to shake my hand. I have had people express undue sympathy — sympathy I feel that I do not have a right to deserve.

But in hearing these responses, my perception as a straight man is now complemented by a brief experience of living with the label of “gay.” I will tell you, above every other problem that the church currently faces, the labeling of those who identify as LGBTQIA is stifling. It suppresses the individual, and our humanity.

After a particular show in Ohio, two people of very different viewpoints confronted me. One approached me and did nothing but glance vaguely in my direction, refuse the handshake that I offered, softly sneer in disgust, and walk away with a purpose to his step.

While I do not always like to assume the intentions behind a person’s actions, I cannot help but think that the label placed upon me by the show influenced his behavior while in my presence. The label overrode any notion prompting him to treat me as an individual.

Another person, after the same show, confronted me and expressed an unneeded amount of sympathy as to the struggle I was most certainly going through. “It must be hard to deal with the criticism coming from the church,” she told me.

While one of these experiences could perhaps be seen as worse than the other — harsher than the other — I would lean towards grouping them in the same category.

In both of these cases, the “gay” label dictated their relationship with me more so than I did as a person standing in front of them.

And this label, even among people who consider themselves members of the cause to promote universal acceptance in the church, still rests heavy on those who are sexually oriented in a way formerly thought to be sinful. I have now experienced a small measure of that weight, and it is not an easy weight to bear.

I never thought that I, as a straight man, would ever have the opportunity to experience on any level the difficulties present for LGBT individuals in the church.

I have never condoned actions I did not understand — acceptance is something I was taught early on and to which I attempt to adhere. But now, for a short time on stage, I must become a gay man, and deal with the varied, and sometimes hurtful, responses of people afterwards.

And with that, a world formerly unknown to me has opened its curtain. And it’s not an easy world to step into. It is a world full of misled assumptions and steep, rocky, terrain.

Chris Yoder, a recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., is one of two cellists who alternately plays “the son” in Listening for Grace. This is a version of an editorial he wrote for EMU’s student newspaper, The Weather Vane, that also ran on Ted & Co.’s blog.

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