I RECLAIM MY VOICE
I stopped by the Reclaim booth at PRIDE in the Twin Cities on Sunday. This organization provides mental health services and support to at-risk queer and transgender youth and their families. They asked me to write on a white board what I want to "reclaim" and take a pic for social. I had no idea what to write. I thought for about 30 seconds and a voice inside my head said, "You are reclaiming your voice." BOOM. I've always been loud - but I wasn't always speaking up or using my voice. As a kid I was bullied for being gay. I never spoke up, fought back or told anyone. It was my dirty little secret because if I told people I was being made fun of for being gay, I was outing myself and I if I said I was made fun of for "seeming gay", it sounded like I was uncool and no one liked me. I stuffed it down and ignored it for years. I dressed up my outsides, always laughed and joked and smiled while deep down inside I felt shame for who I was and angry for not always being accepted.
I came out in college during my freshman and sophomore years, not all at once. It was a tiered approach - telling people first that I knew will be cool with it. They were. I came out to my dad but I somehow couldn't come out to my mom yet. I was so afraid of hurting her, so I waited.
In college I was generally accepted - maybe even popular, but there was also a fair share of gay slurs or aggressive stares at college parties from straight dudes who were uncomfortable with me being there. I always had to be hyper-aware of my surroundings. Like an animal susceptible to prey, I had to fend for myself. Since I never talked about being bullied, no one knew I was always on alert. It’s fair to say I never felt 100% safe for many years while growing up. While that sounds dramatic, I can’t remember a week in my life during high school or college where there wasn’t some negative repercussion for being gay. You get used to it, but it’s always there.
In September of my junior year, I was beaten up outside of a party for being gay. I was inside at a party and this group of guys were staring at me and talking about me. The tension was so palpable so I was like I have to get out of here. I left and they followed calling out slurs. I didn’t think anything would really happen, until one of them caught up with me and said, “FAGGOT” as he punched me in the face. My glasses fell off and I was hunched over. I’d been drinking but this sobered me up. He hit me again. I've never felt so awful or traumatized in my life. Why would anyone hit me repeatedly in the face for being gay? I didn't want anyone to know. The only people I told were my roommate who saw it happen from a distance and a handful of close friends. My roommate tried to help me home but I ran away before I started to cry, went home, locked myself in the bathroom sobbing. I didn’t want ANYONE to see me that upset, as if it was my fault. I never wanted to dampen the mood or put people out, so I never told people how much I was hurting. I wanted to hide. I went to Boston College, a notoriously Catholic school that to this day doesn't give school funding to the LGBT group, so I never reported to campus police.
I suffered in silence but there was a turning point a year later. I had been going on spiritual retreats and I started opening up; I found God and started talking about my emotional wounds. I was guided to forgiving people who bullied me in middle school and high school and I forgave the guy who attacked me outside of the party. There was some relief. Senior year I felt called to write my college thesis on hate crimes and used my encounter to shape my argument and make it personal. Through writing, I gave voice to the issue. I was also drawing attention to things I felt so much shame about. I felt called to get my story out, but the repercussions brought up more shame because I could tell people felt sorry for me. I had to present to the class and I got a lot of support and people were in awe of my “bravery”, but I also got their pity. There’s nothing worse than people taking pity on your sob story. Or that’s how I interpreted it. People looked into my eyes deeply and were like, “I’m so sorry, I can’t believe that happened to you.” It made me feel so uncomfortable. People would cry and I felt like a wounded charity case. Telling my truth opened me up to a whole other issue, being uncomfortable with people caring about me. I couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t used to conversations like this or support and it wasn’t easy. When things like that came up, I brushed them off quickly and changed the subject.
A couple of years after college I was struggling to come out to my mom. I couldn't find the words or a way to tell her. In a random twist of events, she found my college thesis when my parents were moving and read it and that's how she found out I was gay. She called me so upset not only because I never told her I was gay, but because I never told her I was beat up. She felt like I didn’t give her the opportunity to show up for me. It actually harmed our relationship for many years. It’s like she didn’t think I thought she was important enough to know and to be honest I think she was pissed for all my years of sneaking around and lying. But she never approached me to talk about it. I didn't get to use my voice to tell my mom I’m gay in my own way. An essay I wrote as a byproduct of being a hate crime victim is how she found out. Very ironic.
By 2003, a lifetime of shame, secrets and self-censoring my truth added up to hitting bottom with substance abuse. From high school to college and beyond I had been self-medicating with alcohol and eventually drugs to not feel my feelings and no one knew how dark I felt on the inside. I didn’t really know I was self-medicating - my reaction to being bullied was to try to overcompensate and be friends with everyone, super social, always up for a good time. Being the happiest guy at happy hour and leading a double life in drug den caused me to crash and burn in 2003. I was living for the outsides while the insides were slowly dying. There were days I went to bed at 5am strung out and I would say, “God, let me die in my sleep.” It never happened and one day I woke up and God nudged me to really live. I got sober. I made radical changes -- I went to therapy and recovery programs and over a series of years I worked through my shame and trauma and years of not speaking up when people treated me like shit or hiding a lifestyle run by self-sabotage. It was a process, it wasn’t always easy, I wasn’t always willing but little by little it’s given me a freedom to become me.
For years I hid from myself, but through therapy and other self-help, I got to know myself and was like, “Oh wait, I’m a really lovely human being. All that shit that happened are just circumstances, they are not who I am.” I’m not my trauma, I’m not my addiction, I’m not my fear. Those don’t define me. Somewhere in the last 15 years I've healed a lot and gotten deeper into knowing myself. And loving myself—when I worked through all the bullshit, I came to have a deep love and appreciation for who I am. I value all my struggles as things that have shaped me and I honor all the behaviors and coping mechanisms I grabbed onto for many years to survive.
When I accepted my past, situations and people in it and didn’t feel burdened by it, I found my purpose. 5 years ago a voice in my head said, "It’s time to USE YOUR VOICE to give others a voice". I started writing and speaking openly about being bullied, self-hatred, substance abuse and not respecting myself or my body and how I've overcome some of that. I gave my first motivational speech (video below) and shared some of the deepest parts of my life. Someone came up afterward and was like, “How are you not up there crying when you speak about it.” I was like, “Because I’ve healed it and I don’t find it sad anymore. It’s just a story. My mess was a building block for change and it’s given me my message.” When I owned it, that’s when people wanted to hear what I had to say.
It took me years to find the voice that I now use freely and openly in an attempt to help others. I am unapologetic about telling stories of who I used to be to show that it's possible for people to change. I focus on the solution and how I’ve changed and what I do to maintain that. When I speak up about things people would never know by looking at me, they start opening up. They identify and feel less alone or like an outlier. In reclaiming my voice, I give other people permission to speak up so they can find their voice. I'm a work-in-progress at any moment, but I am committed to speaking up, stepping up and lighting up this world. When we all begin speaking up, we move forward and life shines brighter. So, thank you for allowing me the space to RECLAIM MY VOICE.