If you are not familiar with BJ Cleveland, then you have been missing out on someone truly special in this world. He is the definition of charisma and pleasantness. When I first sat down and started putting the idea of this project together his was at the top of my list of people I would be reaching out to. I was thrilled when he said yes!
I have known BJ for several years and he is a staple of the Dallas theatre scene. Most prominently known by many for his contributions at Uptown Players as both an actor and a director. I was able to secure a bit of his busy time to come together and find out what Pride Month means to him.
Hi, my name is BJ Cleveland. I'm an actor, director, choreographer. I've been in the theater community for about 45 years, former host of The Disney Afternoon. And current director of Theater For You at The Casa Manana.
TMP: What does Pride Month mean to you?
Pride month for me is a very interesting concept of recent years, because I never participated in pride month. I thought it was great and the parades looked fun, but I never attended until just recently and I'm 112 years old. So it's taken a long time for me to come to the party. But there is a lyric in the Broadway musical, musical theater queen, Broadway musical Hello, Dolly, where she says, "Before the parade passes by, I'm going to get some life back in my life." And I think now that society is really opening up to celebrating our community, the LGBT community, and beyond that and making it a part of the daily life it's a chance for me to jump in and go, "Yes, I am proud of who I am and I'm proud of our community." And having just attended the first parade, I thought, "I can't believe I've been missing this all of these years." There's so many celebrations for every month throughout the calendar year and why not celebrate us for a month? Well, all year long we should be celebrating. But to get to celebrate us and shine a spotlight on our community. To say, "Hey, we're here and we are part of the world and let's have fun."
TMP: For those that feel they are alone and unable to come out, what message do you have for them?
I think everybody struggles to come out in their own way and it certainly was a long process for me. I'm very fortunate because I grew up in the theater and the theater community is very accepting to everybody. But, on a personal level, it was very different. And I think it took a long time for me to be comfortable with really being who I am because I was in the public eye and I felt like I had to be careful. My advice to somebody who's really thinking about coming out is you need to be who you are and proud of who you are, because being you can change the world. Not change the planet, but change your world. With you being comfortable and you being out and you being who you are and proud of that other people will be comfortable around you and you will see many doors opening for you. You'll see many people admiring you, wanting to be close to you because they are happy that you are happy. So be happy. It's very easy to be angry at society and angry at the world. But take a deep breath, come through that door. You got a lot of people ready to support you.
TMP: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self to help you with your coming out experience?
Ah, what would I say to my younger self? First of all, be true to who you are. Being outgoing and all of those things that you love to do. Love the theater, but let that also be an extension. Learn from your elders, especially your gay elders that are in the theater community and the community. And just know that it's okay. And when you come home from that date and your mother is sitting there waiting for you to come home and she has that look in her eye, she knows. Go ahead and sit down and talk to her. You don't have to keep anything a secret. She really wants you to talk to her. Don't be afraid to do that. So many people are, and we put that wall up for ourselves. They're ready to help take that wall down. So take the wall down. Talk to your mom. Love yourself and be proud of who you are.
TMP: For those that are not part of the community, but want to be allies, what would you impart on them so as to be most helpful?
I think, for the straight community who are allies to our community, first of all thank you. We couldn't be who we were if we didn't have the love and support from all of you. But if I were talking to somebody that maybe said, "I think I have a gay child." Or, "I have a child or somebody in my life that is not talking to me about that." I think it is a chance for you to talk about something that you can share in common. Whether it's a Will & Grace rerun. Whether it's, "Hey, there's a guy at my work that has a boyfriend and they've been coming to a lot of events." Help open that door. Just know that sometimes we need that little nudge. And we need to know that it's okay to talk about some things and it's okay to bring our boyfriend to a family reunion or a work event if the situation fits. But we need to know that it's okay. And sometimes by you fishing us out from behind that door, we feel freer to be who we are.
For people that are watching, first of all, thank you. And thank you for caring enough to watch. But my own personal story that being out in doing theater, maybe with a very specific group, was easy. But being out in public and with family, I put those pressures on myself. And just recently have I had relatives say, "Hey, where's Tommy? Where's your boyfriend?" And letting me know that all along they wanted me to be who I was. And I just didn't do it because I was afraid of course of what people would think. I proudly have the rainbow flag. I remember putting a sticker on my car for the very first time and thinking, "Oh, people are gonna know. People are gonna see." And you do it with pride, but it also feels a little secretive. But it's baby steps in that process.
TMP: What is something that you would like to say to those viewing this, that we have not specifically covered?
I just say wave the flag. We all need to be part of that parade. We need to be a part of this pride and to be proud of our community and who we are in it. And you are a big part of that. Help change the world. Help change the vision so that it's really not a big deal. You saw just the other day on Press Your Luck on television there's two guys, a gay couple, that are trying to raise money because they have a new baby coming. And everybody was celebrating that fact and wanting them to win. And it shouldn't be a big deal that we have a gay couple on television playing a game show. And so, hopefully, pride month is just another month and not a big deal. But let's make it a big deal so we won't be such a big deal in the future.
Thank you so much to BJ for giving of your time to come in for this project. Bringing education and awareness for why Pride Month is a thing and why it is important that we make sure that we continue to be seen and push for being treated properly is such an important message.
A big thank you to Bobby Jo Valentine for supplying me with all the backing music for these interviews as well. Go check him out if you are not familiar with his work as a singer songwriter. www.BobbyJoValentine.com