Many of my family members and I have talked about some of the changes that have taken place in our social/political environment recently, including the impact that these changes have had on people of minority status, LGBTQ people included. We've discussed the ways in which some of these people have been mistreated. Some are people we know personally. These conversations have brought to us an increased awareness that while the national environment for LGBT individuals has slowly improved, it is still far from perfect, the progress seeming to wax and wane.
After trying to console her of her immediate fears, I decided to take advantage of an important teaching opportunity. "Katie, even if I knew that people didn't like to see what is written on my tank top, I would wear it anyway. It's so important that I keep expressing myself, even when it's scary and unpopular. Maybe especially when it's scary and unpopular."
She nodded and understood what I meant. I later thought that while I tried to show Kate that I'm confident about my position and decisions regarding this subject, there have recently been moments in which I've asked myself exactly what Kate asked me. Should I adjust my expression of self in response to increased hate speech, bigotry, and violence as a way of protecting myself? Should I remove the rainbow pin from my backpack, or refrain from holding my date's hand in public to avoid making others uncomfortable during this time of heightened social and political unrest?
I am fortunate enough that I don't feel that I am in obvious physical danger by being open about my LGBT experience, but I know many who are. These are hard questions for all of us to answer, and I know there are times when such adjustments are wise and necessary for the sake of both physical and emotional/psychological safety. I want it to be clear that I am not advocating for individuals to put themselves in harm's way. However, as I questioned making adjustments to my behavior, simply to make others more comfortable, I realized that such a responses act as reinforcement to the very behaviors that create fear in the first place. I realized that it is during such times of fear that acts of courage are most important.
I live in a very politically and socially conservative location and to be honest, I have found myself modifying my behavior in order to keep others comfortable. Such modifications uphold the current environment, and so often come at the expense of my authenticity and sense of self. So, I am frequently faced with the choice to either "fit in", or act in courage to live authentically and allow myself to be seen and heard as I am. After many years of soul searching and experience, I have found that, for me personally, vulnerable and courageous living is nearly always worth its cost. Even when that cost is high. Not only do I feel a deep sense of inner consistency and peace, I also contribute to a more inclusive world.
Any social change that has ever occurred has required courage by those who are willing to wade into unpopular opinion. At one point that looked like women who were fighting for the right to vote, at another time it looked African Americans and allies who were fighting for the abolishment of slavery. Regardless of the situation, tremendous courage was required to lean into the discomfort of being different or unacceptable to some degree. For some, such acts of courage did ultimately cost them their lives.
After my conversation with Kate, I realized that even though the GAYNZ tank top fits me the best and is the most comfortable, I wear it the least because I don't want to draw attention or make others uncomfortable (the gym I frequent is on the local Air Force Base where, until 2011, the LGBT "don't ask, don't tell" policy was in place). I have shirts that say "Utah Flute Association" or "Team USA" or "Defy the Odds". Each of these expresses a part of myself, so wearing something that expresses my LGBT experience feels neither pushy nor political in nature.
I know there will be times in the future when a variation of Kate's question will enter my mind. "Carson, aren't you afraid to say that? Write that? Do that? Believe that? Be that?" To that fearful question I hope to respond, "Yes, I am. But my integrity is worth being uncomfortable." It is authenticity that I believe opens he door to greater understanding, love and progression. After living in the proverbial closet for most of my life, there is little I prize more deeply or guard more fiercely than my authenticity. It is the key to my happiness, my wholeness, and my ability to contribute uniquely to the world around me. It is my goal to practice courage and act consistently with my values and morals, even when it is unpopular... perhaps especially when it is unpopular.