The Importance of Being Visible
As we celebrate Pride 2019 and the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, the importance of being visible advocates and allies for our communities matters now more than ever.
As you can probably imagine, growing up in rural Southeastern Oklahoma in the 1980’s — even with an amazing, loving family — I lacked any strong gay male role models. I vividly remember stories, jokes, asides, and exclamations from my childhood that established a strong sense of other, of difference, of wrong, bad, lesser-than nature that was to be associated with being LGBTQ+. “That’s gay,” childhood friends would say when something made them uncomfortable. “That guy? Oh, he’s queer,” a classmate said with dripping disdain during school lunch hour. “If I had a gay son, I’d take him out back and shoot him.” These were all things I heard from friends, others boys at school, friends of my parents, or others in public — even around church — during those formative years. Years before I ever had an inkling that I might be gay, I understood very well that being gay was seen as abnormal and very wrong in the eyes of most of my little world in Southeastern Oklahoma.
By the time I was a teenager and began to recognize some of those thoughts and feelings during a rush of new hormones, I wasn’t even aware that I was starting my journey at a place of shame and lack of empathy that had already taken root years before. I tried to immediately push those thoughts away — or even worse, internalize them and push them down deep. “I think that might be me. I may like other boys. But that’s gross and terrible and wrong,” were snippets of thoughts plaguing my internal dialog. I had already been conditioned to think a fundamental part of my identity was wrong.
Often, it wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular; it was just steeped in the society I grew up in. “Gay” was a common term that simply meant “stupid,” “backwards,” or “inferior,” a term that was common parlance in my friendship circles throughout high school and most of college. It was a crude joke straight boys made without considering how it might be heard by someone who might be more accurately defined by such a term. And embarrassingly, it was so prolific that I’d even fell into the habit of using too many times. It was a movie that someone would make a comment about — like Brokeback Mountain — or a casual addition to a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon by a revival pastor who needed a straw man to rail against on Sunday evening. Most of the time, I didn’t think it was directed at me individually — yet every time I heard or experienced it, it hurt a little and caused a lot of confusion deep inside.
Those seeds of homophobia and transphobia are planted by society long before they grow into the barbs and bristles of the emotional thicket that prevents LGBTQ+ folks from living their fullest lives in the sunlight. I was mentally biased against myself before I even knew it. I was conditioned, through no fault of my own, to loathe a fundamental aspect of my own identity. Hate and racism aren’t natural — they’re learned.
It’s taken years to overcome that pre-trauma — even though I had it relatively easy. For a decade, I buried my identity, internalizing it and denying my own base nature using work, church, and anything that could keep me busy in order to distract myself from the looming unpleasantness of confronting my own orientation. But finally, at 28, after moving to Washington, DC and seeing firsthand that, indeed, it is okay to be yourself and that plenty of people were living their ordinary lives and being openly gay every day, I was able to start to come out.
And it’s easier today more than ever for me to be honest and straightforward with strangers for the first time. Coming out is not something you just do once, but again and again each time you meet new people or introduce yourself to a new crowd. It takes practice and it takes a comfort in your own identity for it to be authentic.
In 2015, we achieved marriage equality. It was a tectonic shift in the recognition of our community and finally gave us great gains by ensuring that we were perceived and treated as equal under the law in such a fundamental way. That evening, standing on the North Lawn of the White House as it was bathed in a glorious rainbow and live-streamed across the world for all to see, was my best day of the 8 years I served in the Obama administration. But it soon became clear that the work wasn’t over and there was plenty of progress that remained.
One short year later, in June of 2016, a gunman walked into the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and opened fire on our community inside one of our most sacred safe-spaces. He killed 49 beautiful souls who were taking the night to revel and be themselves — to celebrate their identity — during this time of year that we can highlight our struggles, lift each other up, and celebrate one another in Pride. And they died for that night of celebration due to homophobia and evil directed specifically at our community for who we are.
I was scheduled to attend the Pride Festival in DC that next morning, but, after the news broke overnight, my spirit was crushed. Over and over we had to deal with mass shootings during the Obama years, but that one hit too close to home and, as part of an already exhausted administration team, that day I just couldn’t be engaged in the political response to it. A good friend asked if I wanted to go swimming outside of town as an alternative plan, and I jumped at the chance to escape the city and be together with close friends in a quiet spot away from it all. Our community had been attacked; I wasn’t feeling particularly prideful or celebratory in the aftermath.
The next week, the death toll was finalized, the story became clear, and the names of the victims released. President Obama made a statement — as he had so many other times before — that fell on deaf, cowardly ears in Congress, and our Pride month continued, albeit with dulled vibrancy.
But something deep within me and many of my contemporaries had changed that weekend. We were doing damn near everything we could on all fronts to push the ball forward for equality, but it was clear that wasn’t enough.
In my own small way, I decided to make concrete changes. While I had never particularly hidden my orientation at work and as a public official, it was never the focus. I’ve long held that being LGBTQ+ is just another attribute of a person and that they ought to be judged on their character and merit as an individual instead. So I never led with the fact that I’m gay and didn’t particularly emphasize it. But after Pulse, I decided that had to change. While it wouldn’t be the emphasis of my work as a technology professional, I would make sure to include it and highlight it whenever possible. Being visible when and where I could was a good way to combat the hatred that we face every day. It is a small act of defiance against those who would otherwise have us erased or killed.
I was scheduled to speak on a panel at a large gathering of technology professionals in government that same week. The topic was very dry— “Unlocking Collaboration for Your Agency” — but that morning, when I got up and put on my suit to go represent the U.S. Department of State and the Obama Administration, I resolved to do one thing more: to pin a rainbow bar on my lapel and quietly but resolutely also represent my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in that very public venue in a small but visible way.
As expected, nobody really remarked on it or said much more than “I like your pin,” which was a pleasant surprise and show of solidarity of my wearing it. But if they didn’t approve, would any of them have dared say so?
My takeaway from that day was a mental adjustment that projected to the world: We were just attacked and 49 members of my community were killed. Be assured that I’m going to wear this pin in solidarity with them and use whatever voice or platform I have to honor them.
Today, all it takes is a quick search of my name or my work and you’ll discover quickly what team I bat for. But that’s the way it should be. Just as I’m Chickasaw, an Oklahoman, a Democrat, a Christian, a technologist, an organizer, a friend, a colleague, and a loved one, I am also gay. And I — we — owe it to the next generation of LGBTQ+ kids to pay that visibility forward. We must collectively step out into the light, own our identities, and put them on full display for the world to see.
I am under no illusion that this will be a cakewalk. We are confronted every day by fire-breathing evangelicals who somehow prefer to seize on a verse or two from Leviticus instead of honoring Christ’s second greatest commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” or a presidential administration emboldened by those same supporters eroding and attempting to undo any of the regulatory or legal gains we made under 8 years of a progressive leader.
There will be days things are tough. There will be days I’ll get side-eye and hushed comments for holding my boyfriend’s hand in public. There will be days old high school friends stumble across a blog post of me kissing my boyfriend on the White House South Lawn in solidarity with the Pulse victims a few days after the massacre. But these are not reasons to abdicate our responsibility to leave a better world for the next generation.
I await the day when the next young gay man in rural Southeastern Oklahoma can grow up free from the intrinsic societal pressures that could invalidate and shame his identity even before he’s figured it out for himself. I hope I can give him the small mercy of not having to start ten paces behind his cisgender heterosexual friends — that he can be encouraged and embrace himself and his future by seeing role models who wear pins on their lapels, wave rainbow flags at parades, and hold their boyfriend’s hand in public. I want to give him a role model of success and a life well-lived to look up to. But I’ll fail at this goal if I’m not visible and willing to take the risk to be vulnerable and to be seen.
This Pride, I resolve to be more visible, and I encourage the rest of our community and our allies to do the same. Don’t be afraid. Instead, understand that there are so many of us right there beside you who have your back and are cheering for the next generation of LGBTQ+ Americans to grow up in a world more open and accepting of their value and identities than ever before. And if we all live well, we can leave behind a world for them which allows them to thrive.
If you’d like to get engaged more this Pride and support LGBTQ+ folks as either a member of the community or an ally, here are a few great organizations you can support to do that:
The Trevor Project focuses on suicide prevention among the estimated at least 1.2 million LGBTQ youth aged 13–18 in the U.S. seriously consider suicide each year.
I serve on the board of Out in STEM where we focus on the next generation of LGBTQ+ scientists. Donate to us or sponsor our annual conference and support the next generation of brilliant kids who could quite literally save the planet.
The National Center for Transgender Equality is the leading advocacy group for transgender equality.
Out in National Security is a new non-profit we’ve recently founded seeking to elevate and recognize the contributions of LGBTQ+ professionals in the national security space.
And last but certainly not least, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is the O.G. advocacy and support group for LGBT+ folks. They are perfect for supportive parents looking to learn more about the community and find other like-minded folks to grow alongside as their children embark on their own journeys.