Today is Saturday, December 7, 2013.
The other day I viewed a video of a TEDx talk given by professional speaker and LGBT activist Ash Beckham. The video has gone viral recently, but that’s not surprising, given what she had to say. A lot of my Facebook friends were impressed by the video, and I was, too, when I watched. Here’s why.
In her TEDx Boulder talk, Beckham said that the experience of being “in the closet” is universal, as is the experience of “coming out of the closet.” Whenever we shy away from having a “hard conversation,” we are in the closet. In order to come out of our closet, we have to take a deep breath and tell the truth, no matter how hard it may be. It doesn’t matter whether you are telling a loved one that you are gay, admitting that you have just declared bankruptcy, or telling your child that you and mommy are getting a divorce. It doesn’t matter if you are telling someone that you have cancer or that you have left the church. It doesn’t matter whether you are telling your boyfriend that you’re pregnant or telling your wife that you have cheated on her.
We all have our closets, and no particular closet is harder to come out of than any other. Beckham says that coming out as gay was the scariest thing that she’s ever done, but she knows that coming out of our closet is scary for all of us.
“Sure, I’ll give you a hundred 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 just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your 5-year-old that you’re getting a divorce? There is no harder. There is just hard.
“We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard.”
Beckham explained that she used to go through “phases of militant lesbian intensity” while working as a waitress in a local restaurant. She said she was particularly bothered by children who would ask her, point-blank, “Are you a girl or a boy?” She never answered the question, but inside she was seething. Finally, she promised herself that she would have that “hard conversation.” The next kid who asked her that question would get an earful. She began to plan her response.
At last, a little four-year-old girl in a pink dress asked her “the question,” and Beckham was all ready to blast the child with her prepared response, but suddenly, something held her back. After all, this was a little kid who honestly wanted to know. Beckham crouched down to child height and told the little girl that she knew it was confusing, because she was wearing short hair and a boy’s clothes, but that she was a girl. She said, “You know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress and sometimes you like to wear comfy pajamas? I’m a comfy pajamas kind of girl.”
The child’s response was, “My favorite pajamas are purple with fish. Can I get a pancake, please?”
Beckham told the laughing crowd that this turned out to be the easiest “hard conversation” she ever had, and that it was because both she and the little girl had been “real” with one another. She encouraged her audience to think about what closet they might be in right now, and to consider coming out. She said that when we are “in the closet,” we are “essentially holding a grenade,” because holding in a secret adds stress to our lives.
She reminded the audience that the body’s natural fight-or-flight response is only meant to be useful in the short-term, and that the hormones that are secreted in the body can do damage when the body is under constant, chronic stress.
According to the Mayo Clinic web site, “The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with the stressors in your life.”
And that’s why Beckham encourages each and every one of us to come out of our closet. She stresses that we should be “authentic, direct and unapologetic” about who we are. Sure, you can apologize for some action of yours, but never apologize for being who you are. She says that it’s important to meet people where they are, and to empathize with other people. If you have a hard thing to say to someone, you can be sure that it’s also hard for them to hear what you are telling them. Be loving: acknowledge that the situation is confusing and difficult, and don’t forget to tell them that you love and appreciate them. But be direct and real: don’t hold out hope that things may change.
“You may feel so very alone, but you are not,” Beckham said. “I guarantee you there are others peering through the keyhole of their closets, 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.” 🙂