Dec 29, 2011
I came out to my parents during the summer of 1989, shortly after turning 23. I took a week off work in New York City to travel to my family’s summer house in Pennsylvania to deliver this news, with full intentions of telling them within 24 hours of my arrival.
Instead, I waited until the very last night of my very last day to drop the bomb, catching them as they returned home from a dinner party. They took it in stride. My mother cried and said she’d always known. My father feigned surprise (God bless him) and remarked that he, perhaps, should’ve played more sports with me as a kid. But in the end, no one died, and we got through it as a family, bound closer together with the threads of a story now fully told.
One request my parents made was to not tell my grandmothers (both my grandfathers were deceased by then). I agreed and said that telling their extended families would be up to them, if and when they wanted to do so. And so, life went on, and as it did, my parents became more and more accepting and comfortable with having a gay son.
Then, in April 1993, friends and I traveled to Washington D.C. to take part in a march for gay rights. We also went to see the last public display of the AIDS Quilt in its entirety, reverently unfolded and lovingly patched together, cascading down from the Washington Monument in a tributary of colour, sewn stories, and lost lives.
After that march in D.C., there was lots of debate in the news about how many people had taken part and whether or not it had been one of the largest, if not the largest, mass protests in U.S. history. Amidst this debate, one of my favourite columnists, Anna Quindlen, weighed in with an editorial titled “The Power of One.” In it she claimed that the exact size of the crowd in D.C. that weekend didn’t matter because, when it comes to creating awareness of and support for the LGBTQ community, it’s not about crowds of one million people or one hundred.
Rather, it’s about one person telling their whole story of who they are to someone else and, in doing so, changing that person’s attitudes, perceptions and behaviours because now they have a familiar face or cherished human being attached to a concept that may have, up until then, been abstract. As Anna wrote, “No one’s head is truly turned around by a faceless sea of folks seen from a distance marching on the Capitol. It’s the power of one person sharing their story that really brings about change.”
Two weeks after that march, I found myself once again in a car heading south, this time with my parents driving to my grandmother’s 90th birthday party in Baltimore. Sitting in the back seat, I read Anna Quindlen’s editorial out loud to them. We talked a bit about the march and what it had meant to me. And then, breaking a quiet moment of reflection, I asked my parents, “So, why haven’t you told your mothers that I’m gay?”
They both responded that they worried their mothers wouldn’t take the news well and/or had unfavourable impressions of gay people. I responded by saying that if they knew I — their grandson, someone they loved — was one of them, maybe that fact would open or even change their minds. Moreover, I suggested that if my parents openly shared their own stories with their mothers — stories of their journeys as parents of a gay son — they might generate even more connection and compassion.
My parents thought about it quietly for a moment and, to their credit, both agreed that I made a good point and promised to tell their mothers. And in the hours that followed, as we hurdled down I-95, my parents and I talked about my childhood, their childhoods, our families, society, shifting norms, how we navigate through them and, maybe, lead others along the way. It was one of the best and most memorable conversations I ever had with them, and I will cherish it forever.
And in the week that followed, they both “came out” to their mothers, opening the door for me to call my grandmothers and share more of my story with them. They were both as gracious and generous as they always were. They asked lots of questions and said they worried about AIDS, but they were also happy to hear that I was in a committed relationship. Most importantly, they both said that they loved me and always would.
And I know, after that moment, both of my grandmothers’ thoughts and opinions of gay people changed, because now they knew a gay person, had heard my story and could no longer hide behind a curtain of ignorance or anonymity. Going further, they both became more open, transparent, dare I say, even proud grandmothers of a gay man, not only talking about me and my life, but also taking on anyone who said anything ignorant or belittling about it.
My parents did the same, speaking up in defence if the situation called for it, but more often in support, compassion, and understanding. My late father was an Episcopal minister, and in the latter years of his life, he rallied hard for gay marriage among the church’s leadership. He would share his story of officiating at the weddings of my siblings and would confess to his colleagues how much it would mean to him to be able to, one day, do the same for me with the church’s blessings.
And my mother readily offered an ear and her empathy to parents whose children had just come out, sharing her own story with them and, in doing so, helping those somewhat unsettled, uncertain moms and dads trust that things would be ok. She would do the same whenever she met gay adults who were afraid to come out to their families, using the story of her own journey of acceptance to encourage them to share their stories with their loved ones.
My siblings also picked up the flag, confronting friends or colleagues who might disparage gays, but also using their stories of being a brother or sister of a gay man to cultivate understanding. Even my nieces and nephews joined the crusade, proudly and quickly referencing their gay uncle when circumstances called for it. I remember hearing about my nephew Richard refusing, in the middle of third grade, to sit with his regular group of friends at lunch until they stopped using gay slurs: his own boyishly mature display of protest and defiance.
The fact is, we all have a story to tell — whether it’s coming out as LGBTQ; experiencing sexism, sexual assault or abuse; recovering from addiction; surviving cancer or other disease; raising a child with special needs; battling mental illness; being unemployed; living through racism; losing someone to suicide or gun violence; being bullied; going through a divorce; etc. I have seen time and again how one person sharing their story, sharing their truth, can enrich, expand and evolve the mind of another and, in doing so, encourage that person to do the same for someone else — one story acting like a pebble in the pond, making the kind of ripples that can turn into big waves of change.
This sharing of our stories, this vulnerability, this openness is a difficult thing for many of us to do at any time, but it is particularly difficult to do in the increasingly vitriolic era we are living in right now, where strangers will attack and malign others who don’t share their views or whose beliefs in some way seem to threaten their own. It takes courage to share one’s story. One need only look to parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victims to see living, inspiring examples of bravery, using their own stories to motivate change, as well as take on trolls and conspiracy theorists trying to take those stories away from them.
Yes, it takes courage to share one’s story, but it also takes faith: confidence and belief that those receiving your story will do so with grace, gratitude and understanding. Looking back on my period of coming out in my 20’s, I realize how much I continuously underestimated people and their levels of compassion, generosity, and acceptance.
As we head into another new year, I encourage you to be bold and be brave in sharing your story with others. Know that in doing so, in sharing your story, in sharing your more vulnerable self, you can light the way for others, but you can also lighten the burden upon yourself. As the great poet Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
In your sharing your story, you lift the weight of it off your psyche, place it squarely at your feet, and stand taller upon it. And from that height you will be a beacon for countless others, but you will also be warmed by the glow of your story reflecting in their eyes back at you.
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 13 years, BB&Co has been providing Effective Presentation Skills and Leadership Through Storytelling training to organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Dell, Prudential, and others. BB&Co’s training helps managers, salespeople, finance directors, engineers, scientists and others understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and presentations and, with that, their ability to persuade, engage and inspire others.