Celebrating 40: Authentic You

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When I think about how I have gotten to where I am I think about hard work, perseverance, tenacity, and a lot of luck, but I have never thought about safety.  Today at work was a morning professional development presentation on LGBTQ students and what we can do to make them feel safe. A news report from a doctor who studies transgender issues was shown and it was said, “with safety comes confidence.” Tears filled my eyes today as I experienced something I once never thought would happen. Public schools are talking about gay students, lesbian students, transgender students and how to best support them. Wow, we have come a long way.

Every person who is part of the LGBTQ community has a journey, a process, a story to tell about coming out. Some people have long, quiet, and painful journeys while others come shooting out of the womb in a cloud of glitter holding a rainbow flag. I think most people fall somewhere in between. My journey was quite long in today’s standards, but not all that painful, luckily. As I have reflected over the years and again today, the word safety makes so much sense. Growing up in a town of less than 50,000 people, we didn’t have much exposure to gay people. My parents did have a family friend, my “Uncle” Ed who we were close with over the years. I definitely felt like my parents would support me with coming out, but I still hesitated for years. Ultimately what pushed me over the edge, at age 26, was two close college friends also coming out at the same time. Safety in numbers, right?

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I was briefly dating a girl up until weeks before I came out. Once I knew I had support of two friends, that was all I needed.  I had to know that I wasn’t in it alone, that I would have people to go out to the gay bars with and who understood what I was going through. When I finally came out it was still quite a process.  I told a few close friends and my immediate family. It would be a long time before I told anyone connected with work. I played a game of smoke and mirrors. On Monday mornings, “What did you do this weekend?” a colleague would innocently ask.  “Oh nothing, low key.”  Um no, I was dancing in boystown until 5 a.m. Saturday night. Or, I was on a date…with a boy. I just did not feel safe at work talking about it. I was a teacher. I worked with kids. What would people think of me if they knew I was gay? The night I came out to my parents, one of the first things my mother said to me was, “You can’t tell work. They could fire you.” That stuck with me for years and years. It was no fault of my mothers. She was working with the information she had in the society that we lived in at the time. In 2002 when I came out, it still could have been a reality that I could get fired. Actually in some states it STILL is possible to get fired. It wasn’t until 2012, ten years later, that I finally felt that I could be myself at work. I finally felt safe.

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In 2008 I was hired by a suburban district as a counselor. There were so many changes coming that I just couldn’t see. Although I was much more comfortable and confident in myself, I still kept a pretty low profile with regards to my personal life. A few people knew I was gay, but not many. I still carried with me, “You know they can fire you”, always, everyday. Even though there were other gay employees, I still did not feel safe. Have you ever felt unsafe talking about your weekend, going to a movie with your boyfriend or wife, at work? Probably not for most of you, but for gay people, for me, it was a reality of my smoke and mirrors life. After three years my boss left the district. Shortly after that we became Facebook friends. She wasn’t my boss anymore so I didn’t think anything of it. A year later she hired me at my current job. That is when things changed for me and work, finally.

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It was 2012, I was in a relationship, it was just before Winter Break and at our Holiday Party my boss said to me, “So what are you and *EX* up to for break? Are you going anywhere?” Whoa! Wait a second! Did I just hear THAT? Did she just ask me about my boyfriend? Holy shit! Calmly, “Yes, we’re going to Cancun.” Oh my god, my boss just nonchalantly asked me about my boyfriend, BY NAME, and I answered her. I have actually never shared this story but her simple inquiry into my life, changed my life, forever. We had never spoken about my personal life really, she saw most of it on Facebook. I didn’t really talk about my personal life at work. It was so ingrained in me to keep it on the down low. Honestly though, just that simple taking interest in a matter of fact way made me FINALLY say to myself, “I’m ok. I can be who I am at work. I can do this. I am safe.” Then in May of 2013 my heart was broken by that guy and the day after the break up I was at work. My boss noticed that I was not right. She came over, asked what was wrong and listened to me while I sobbed. What she did for me, again, just proved that she cared. “Do you have anymore meetings today that I need to cover for you? You don’t need to be here. Go home, go for a run and take care of yourself.” It didn’t matter if I was gay, straight or otherwise, she just cared. Ever since all of that, I have just been myself at work. “What did you do this weekend?” Now I say, “[My boyfriend] and I went to a movie.” People know and it is just simple, normal. I don’t have to tell my journey or explain that I’m gay or worry that they care. When I went through the break up colleagues would commiserate with me because most people have gone through that and it didn’t matter if I was gay or straight, break ups just suck. Period. So now unlike anywhere I have ever worked, it is just known and I feel safe with people knowing because of my boss. She truly is the most amazing boss, person, and friend who broke down a very high wall of mine with one, simple, affirming question. If you know her, next time you cross paths please say, “Thank you for caring.”

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So what is this all about? It’s about safety. It’s about making sure we all feel confident, safe, and like we belong. It’s about saying thank you to those who have helped along the way. It’s about society and how far we have come in such a short time. In 2002 when I came out I knew we’d get here, but I thought it would be much longer. I thought I would be in my 70s when gay marriage would be legal, not 38. When I came out at 26, that was pretty normal for my generation. Now I have boys coming out in high school in much higher numbers. It is a testament to my school district and the support they give. So this is also about the amazing place I get to work at each day. We want all of our kids to feel safe. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Today my principal stood before our entire staff and said that we are going to continue meeting and learning about LGBTQ issues because it is important that ALL of our students and STAFF feel safe.

When GLEE premiered in 2009 it was the absolute right time for our society. That show struck a chord with so many people and reached so many young boys and girls who could finally say, “There is someone like me.” While watching the first couple of seasons I would often end up in tears and think, “Man I wish I could have come out sooner.” Then I think, “Oh man, if I had come out in college, I would have been one distracted boy.” Everything happens when it is supposed to and right now is the time that we need to embrace our young LGBTQ community and let them know that they are safe. On GLEE all of the students knew they were safe in Mr. Schuester class. For me, on my journey, I have needed to feel safe too. I needed to feel safe coming out to people who understood. At work, finally, I felt safe and was able to start being my authentic self. For that, I’m grateful!

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