As my career morphs into professional speaking/training on diversity and inclusion, I’m meeting more and more people, sometimes several hundred in a week. Some of those folks have reminded me about how living authentically is core to the human condition.
One such reminder came following a recent training I gave in a Midwestern state, where I talked to the employees of various government entities. (In an effort to preserve someone’s anonymity, I won’t be more specific.)
During a self-labeling exercise with a group of 130 people ranging in age from late 20s to early 50s, I observed how no one in the room had identified as GLBT, which of course was absolutely fine. However, because my role is to prompt greater thinking about inclusivity, I offhandedly remarked, “It’s just me saying, but statistically between 10 and 15 of you are somewhere on the GLBT spectrum.”
Later, at the end of the training, I noticed a younger woman, maybe 30 years old, hanging back as I finished up with others who wanted to comment on the training. When it was finally just her and me, she approached with tears in her eyes.
“You know, I wanted to do that [self-identify as lesbian] so much,” she said. “But I live and work in a small town and I’m so afraid of what would happen if people knew.”
She then related that she struggled with living authentically even through college. “I really thought about killing myself and taking my secret to the grave,” she shared.
Those words, which pierced my heart, made my eyes wet, too.
“Somehow, I got through it,” she said. “Now I live with my partner and I’m very happy.”
Wow. Her story took me back to a dark time in my life when the idea of being me, a woman named Ellie who can show up and just be, seemed so impossible.
Another reminder about authenticity came last month in Phoenix, as I sat in the front passenger seat of a Honda being driven by Nick, a twentysomething second-year law student. As he drove me to meet with some GLBT students from Arizona State University Law School, I asked what it was like to be “out” while trying to land a summer legal job in the red state of Arizona.
Nick related that a young lawyer at a large Phoenix law firm, whom he respected very much, advised that he hide his gayness. As Nick put it, “She said that there aren’t many ‘out’ lawyers and my chances would be way better if a law firm interviewer thought I was straight.” He added, “And yeah, so I took her advice and removed any reference to my OUTLaw [law school GLBT affinity group] leadership role and anything else that would let the interviewer know that I’m gay. I also ‘butched-up’ for my interviews.”
Four initial interviews later (with no call-backs) Nick concluded that his lack of authenticity showed through during the interviews. To his credit, he subsequently went back to listing gay-indicator information on his resume. “I figured that I wouldn’t want to work at a place where I had to hide anyway,” he said.
Good instincts, I thought.
It’s also not uncommon for me to hear from a parent of someone GLBT, who’ll talk about how they are accepting of their “out” child only to have other family members who are not. In one instance, the mother of a gay teenager broke down as she shared about how everyone on her side of the family had rejected her son.
All I could do was to offer a hug and remind that often, people come around. “Give them time,” I said.
It’s almost 2017 and nearly 50 years after the Stonewall riots, so why does it remain difficult for so many people to live without closets or compartments or the fear of disappointing a loved one? Even worse, why do we continue to lose people to depression, suicide, and addictions when they can’t be their true selves sexually or gender-wise?
Despite all of the progress on GLBT rights, society continues to operate with the view that there’s only one “normal,” that of two birth gender-consistent heterosexuals marrying and producing genetic offspring. This idea of “normal” is reinforced through religion, xenophobia, and a host of other societal rules. Even more, it’s often those in power (either by way of controlling money or organizations) who get to call the shots about what’s “normal” and what isn’t.
However, time will take care of everything. Younger folks are more accepting of diverse humans and less stringent about “normal.” The judgers (older persons less willing to adapt to the reality that one’s sexuality and gender can’t be “chosen”) will die off.
Eventually, there won’t be a “normal.” Instead, there will just be “humans.” Beautiful.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change (2013). She frequently speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.humaninspirationworks.com where you can sign up for her newsletter. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.