Best coming out story: Ash Beckham at TEDxBoulder (video + transcript)
December 19, 2013 /LGBT News/ This is why a closet is no place for a person to truly live in:
I am going to talk to you tonight about coming out of the closet, and not in the traditional sense, not just the "gay" closet.
I think we all have closets, your closet may be telling someone you love her for the first time. Or telling someone you're pregnant. Or telling someone you have cancer. Or any of the other hard conversations we have throughout our lives. All the closet is, is a hard conversation. And although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary, and we hate it, and it needs to be done.
Several years ago, I was working at the Southside Walnut Café, a local diner in town, and during my time there, I would go through phases of militant, lesbian, intensity. Not shaving my armpits, quoting Ani DiFranco lyrics as gospel and depending on the bagginess of my cargo shorts, and how recently i'd shaved my head, the question would often be sprung on me, usually by a little kid: "Mmmm, are you a boy, or are you a girl?" And there would be an awkward silence at the table, I'd clench my jaw a little tighter, hold my coffee pot with a little more vengeance, the Dad would awkwardly shuffle his newspaper, and the Mom would shoot a chilling stare at her kid. But I would say nothing, and I would seethe inside. And it got to the point that everytime I walked up to a table that had a kid anywhere between 3 and 10 years old, I was ready to fight. And that is a terrible feeling. So I promised myself that the next time I would say something. I would have that hard conversation.
So in a matter of weeks, it happens again: "Are you a boy, or are you a girl?" Familiar silence. But this time, I am ready. And I am about to go all Woman Studies 101 on this table. I've got my Betty Friedan quotes, I've got my Gloria Steinem quotes, I even got this little bit from Vagina Monologue I'm gonna do, so I take a deep breath, and i look down, and staring back at me is a 4-year old girl in a pink dress. Not a challenge to a feminist duel, just a kid, with a question: "Are you a boy, or are you a girl?" So I take another deep breath, squat down next to her and say: "Hey, I know it's kind of confusing, my hair is short like a boy's, and I wear boys' clothes, but I'm a girl, and you know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress, and sometimes you like to wear your comfie jammies, well, I'm more of a comfie jammies kind of a girl." And this kid looks me dead in the eye without missing a beat and says: "My favorite pajamas are purple with fish, can I get a pancake please?" And that was it, just: "Oh, OK, you're a girl. How 'bout that pancake?"
It was the easiest hard conversation I have ever had. And why? Because Pancake Girl and I, we were both real with each other. So, like many of us, I've lived in a few closets in my life, and yeah, most often, my walls happen to be rainbow. But inside, in the dark, you can't tell what color the walls are. You just know what it feels like to live in a closet.
So really, my closet is no different than yours, or yours, or yours. Sure, I can give you 100 reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here's the thing, hard is not relative, hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone that you've just declared bankrupcy is harder than telling someone you cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your 5-year old you're getting a divorce? There is no "harder", there is just "hard." We need to stop ranking our "hard" against everybody else's "hard" to make us feel better or worse about our closet and just commiserate on the fact that we all have "hard."
At some point in our lives, we all live in closets, and they may feel safe. Or at least, safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I'm here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live. So why is coming out of any closet, why is having that conversation, why is it so hard? Because they're stressful. We're so concerned about the reaction of the other person, and understandably. Will they be angry? Sad? Disappointed? Will we loose a friend? A parent? A lover? These conversations cause stress. So let's kick out on stress for a minute.
Stress is a natural reaction in your body. When you encounter a perceived threat, your hypothalamus sounds the alarm, and adrenaline and cortisol start coursing through your veins. This is known as Fight or Flight. Sometimes you rumble, sometimes you run. And this is a totally normal reaction. And, comes from a time when that threat was being chased by a wooly mammoth. The problem is your hypothalamus has no idea if you're being chased by a wooly mammoth, or if your computer just crashed, or if your in-laws just showed up on your doorsteps, or if you're about to jump out of a plane, or if you need to tell someone you love that you have a brain tumor. The difference is the wooly mammoth chases you for what, maybe 10 minutes. Not having those hard conversations, that can go on for years, and your body just can't handle that. Chronic exposure to adrenaline and cortisol disrupts almost every system in your body and can lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, just to name a few.
When you do not have hard conversations, when you keep the truth about yourself a secret, you're essentially holding a grenade. So, imagine yourself 20 years ago. Me, I had a pony tail, a strapless dress, and high heel shoes. I was not the militant lesbian ready to fight any 4-year old that walked into the café. I was frozen by fear, curled up in a corner of my pitch-black closet, clutching my gay grenade. And moving one muscle is the scariest thing I have ever done. My family, my friends, complete strangers, I had spent my entire life trying to not disappoint these people. And now, I was turning the world upside down. On purpose. I was burning the pages of the script we had all followed for so long, but if you do not throw that grenade, it will kill you.
One of my most memorable grenade-tosses was at my sister's wedding. It was the 1st time that many on attendance knew that I was gay. So in doing my Maid of Honor duties, in my black dress and heels, I walked around the tables, and finally landed at the table of my parents' friends, folks that had known me for years. And after a little small talk, one of the women shouted out: "I love Nathan Lane!" And the battle of gay relatebility had begun. "Ash, have you ever been to the Castro?" "Well, yeah, actually, we have friends in San Francisco." "We've never been there, but we hear it's 'fa-bu-lous'!!" "Ash, do you know my hairdresser Antonio, he's really good, and he's never talked about a girlfriend." "Ash, what's your favorite TV show? Our favorite TV show: favorite, Will and Grace, you know who we love? Jack. Jack is our favorite." And then one woman, stumped, but wanting so desperately to show her support, to let me know she was on my side, she finally blurted out: "Well, sometimes my husband wears pink shirts."
And I had a choice in that moment, as all grenade-throwers do. I could go back to my girlfriend, and my gay-loving table, and mock their responses. Chastise their unworldliness, and their inability to jump through the politically-correct gay hoops I had brought with me, or I could empatize with them, and realize that that was maybe one of the hardest things that they had ever done. That starting, and having that conversation, was them coming out of their closets. Sure, it would have been easy to point out where they fell short. It's a lot harder to meet them where they are, and acknowledge the fact that they were trying, and what else can you ask someone to do, but try.
If you're going to be real with someone, you've got to be ready for real in return. So, hard conversations are still not my strong suit. Ask anybody I've ever dated. But I'm getting better. And I follow what I like to call 'The Three Pancake Girl Principles." Now, please, view this through gay-colored lenses, but know, what it takes to come out of any closet, is essentially the same.
Be Authentic, take the armor off, be yourself. That kid in the café had no armor, but I was ready for battle. Stupid hypothalamus. If you want someone to be real with you, they need to know that you bleed too.
Be Direct. You say it, rip the bandaid off. If you know you are gay, just say it. If you tell your parents you might be gay, they will hold that hope that this will change. Do not give them that sense of false hope.
And Number Three, and most important:
Be Unapologetic. You are speaking your truth. Never apologize for that. And some folks might have gotten hurt along the way. So sure. Apologize for what you've done. But never apologize for who you are. And yeah, some folks may be disappointed. But that is on them. Not on you. Those are their expectations of who you are, not yours. That is their story. Not yours. The only story that matters is the one that you want to write.
So the next time you find yourself in a pitchblack closet clutching your grenade, know that we've all been there before. And you may feel so very alone, but you are not. And we know it's hard, but we need you out here, no matter what your walls are made of. Because I guarantee you there are others peering through the keyhole of their closet looking for the next brave soul to bust a door open so BE that person, and show the world that we are bigger than our closets, and that a closet is no place for a person to truly live in.
Thank you Boulder, enjoy your night.