As we sit in the midst of Pride month, an acquaintance asked me why I was such a passionate advocate for our LGBTQ+communities. I had to reflect for a sec and then shared this story. –
I grew up in a suburb of Houston, in a conservative Christian household, where I was steeped in the belief that folks who were not heterosexual “were just not right”. In the culture in which I was raised, fear of the Other was real and pervasive. It was the water in which I swam though, I didn’t really know any different, I didn’t really question.
I also grew up suffering from anorexia through most of high school. As I went to college, I was forced to confront my eating disorder; I knew I wasn’t healthy – I hadn’t had a period in years. As happens when someone who hasn’t eaten more than 800 calories a day for 5 years, begins to eat – I started gaining a ton of weight. For a young woman in Texas, where beauty has an extra special level of import and very narrow definition, gaining material weight was devastating. Just as I pointed myself in the right direction regarding healthier behaviors, I also felt like I was destroying a material part of my self worth.
I ended up seeking support from a personal trainer, David, at a local athletic club that specialized in creating for a safe and welcoming environment for differently sized people. I developed a deep relationship with David and the club. I fell in love with water aerobics, got certified as an aerobics instructor and developed a community with the other trainers and instructors. I stabilized my weight and felt good.
While playing into stereotypes, it turns out that many of the instructors were gay; a career path of dancing in spandex. Go figure 😊. I fell in love with these men before learning about their sexuality. I had to face the dissonance between the amazing, loving, generous people I knew and the beliefs I was taught. Months passed, and while I continued to grapple with who I was and what I believed, my new friends started to disappear. It was the early 90’s and the AIDs epidemic was coming into full force. While David was thankfully healthy, one of my other friends, Luke, was HIV+ and was no longer able to come to work. As was all too tragically normative in this period, Luke could not find, nor afford the medical care required. Luke’s family ostracized him. It was that community of trainers at the club who sat with him and nursed him until his death.
During Luke’s decline, the rest of the folks at the club kept me at arm’s length. I was still a 19 yr old kiddo from religiously conservative family. I didn’t know what to do. My little naive self, bopping around in my privileged life as a freshman at the University of Texas – my challenges seemed so minor in comparison. So, I promised myself that I would sit down every Sunday afternoon and write him a letter. Yes, a real, physical letter – I’m that old.
I didn’t know what to tell a dying, gay man in my letters. What could I possibly offer? I had no idea, but I didn’t want him to feel alone, so I wrote. I wrote about my studies, the boys I went out with, my own personal drama, my questions of self, of worth… I just wrote. Every week. Put a letter in the mail.
I never got a response.
But I kept writing. Every week. A letter. Some short. Some long. Every week. A letter.
Eventually Luke died. I was not invited to the memorial. The club was never the same. But sometime later, one of the instructors, who I didn’t even know very well, stopped me in the hallway on the way to the changing rooms and said – “Did anyone ever talk to you about your letters to Luke?” I said, “What?! You know about the letters? No. No one, ever talked to me. I never heard anything.” “Oh honey.”, he said, like only a Texas queen can say, “We all know about your letters. We’ve all read them.”
“WHAT!?!?!?!”, I said. He became very still.
“Your letters meant everything to Luke. As we were rotating through this home, caring for him, your letters usually arrived on Wednesday. He marked his week by their arrival. On Wednesdays, he’d insist someone go get the mail and together – whoever was there – we would read the letter to him. He kept the stack. He would have us reread them to him.”
Me – always super articulate – again, I was like, “WHAT?!?!?”
“Baby-girl. Baby-girl. Don’t you know what you did?”
“You provided Luke a view, an intimate view into what it would have been like for him to have been born the girl-child he always felt he was.”
“You were authentic, kind, questioning, feminine, seeking. He saw himself in you. He felt like if only time and fates were different – his life might have looked a bit more like yours. You gave him hope.”
I still cry when I think about that moment. In the end, acts of loving acceptance saved us both. And I don’t share this to self congratulate or aggrandize. I had NO idea what I was doing. THAT is the point.
What I learned was that when you act in love, the rest will take care of itself – and sometimes in ways you could have NEVER imagined. And that was the moment; why PRIDE month has meaning to me; why I strive to be an ally. Ever since, when I encounter folks who feel like they can’t bring their full selves to work, to life, I aim to fix it, address it with whatever power is within my disposal.
So, this PRIDE month, are you able to bring your full selves to work? If so, you have a responsibility – find someone who does NOT feel that way, seek to understand why, talk to them about what you might be able to do to help. If you would like ideas on how to be an ally, I think the Human Rights Campaigns’ resources are pretty solid.
If you do NOT feel safe, If you do not feel empowered to bring your full self and passion to work, please reach out. There are a lot of kindred folks who are dedicated to helping. We’ll figure this out.
Be strong. Be kind. Work your @$$ off.
*Names have been changed to protect these wonderful people’s identities.