It took hanging upside-down with their left foot pointed to the ceiling for Abby Hylton to come to terms with their identity. Three years later, they are giving that same gift to queer and transgender people across the Triangle.
Hylton started the Queer Youth Circus in August 2015. The aerial arts program is designed to promote social justice and help young queer people feel comfortable in their bodies. Today the program operates out of Triangle Circus Arts in Durham.
“When I started (in circus arts) I was not connected to my body and how it moves, works and feels,” Hylton said in an email. “With circus arts though, someone might tell you while you're upside down to move your left foot up to the ceiling. Where's the ceiling? Where's my foot? Where is left, up?”
The program is volunteer-based, and eventually the counselors would like to try to get more funding to devote more time to the project.
Hylton was conditioned to become comfortable with the way their body moved and felt — a direct translation to their gender and sexual identities. Because they were already teaching aerial arts to children, starting the first Queer Youth Circus camp was a natural connection.
The program includes a week-long summer camp in August that introduces queer and transgender youths to aerial and other circus arts. If participants wish to continue, Hylton and assistant teacher Babette Cromartie offer two semester-long programs each fall and spring. At the end of each semester, campers put on a show celebrating their acrobatic talents.
The Queer Youth Circus summer camp is pay-what-you-can, while the semester programs are free.
The program recently started offering a new aerial arts class for adults only. Hylton hopes the program will expand and offer other circus arts like contortion, juggling, partner acrobatics, stilt walking and unicycling.
Many participants in the program grew up with negative body image and were able to confront them by learning circus arts. Yen Nguyen, a former participant and counselor, cited the Queer Youth Circus as key to their identity development.
“Doing circus arts helped me come to terms with my body and what I could do,” Nguyen said. “It made me more comfortable with gender identity, built up my confidence around other queer people and I learned to exercise in a fun way without being judged.”
A unique aspect of the Queer Youth Circus is the social justice workshops included in every class. Hylton, Cromartie or an experienced counselor lead discussions about topics like gender identity and sex, cultural appropriation, intersectionality and political activism.
“The program offers youth the chance to get creative, develop their political lenses, advocate for themselves and build self esteem,” Hylton said.
"I think that circus arts provide queer and trangender youth an open space to explore and express their gender identity, sexuality, and bodies without fear of judgement or harassment associated with gyms, or exercise classes or activities, that do not cater to queer and trans youth," Hylton said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.