I am a gay man.
It took 19 years for me to say those words to another person, and I had spent most of those vehemently denying it was true. I look back on the moment I finally spoke my truth and know now that it came not from a moment of spectacular courage, but rather some combination of fatigue from pretense and a strangely unfamiliar feeling of safety. For the first time, I had found a group of people who didn’t want the answer so they could beat me up; they wanted to know me – the real me.
I grew up in a religiously conservative family in an especially conservative part of the South, so my predilection for denying such a big part of my identity emerged early on as a basic survival skill. But I was never good at hiding it – I was a theatrical kid and unabashed yearbook nerd who would Vogue the house down at any and every given opportunity (I still do). Yet it wasn’t until college that I found myself surrounded by friends who wanted to celebrate my individuality. I definitely had allies throughout my childhood – a few insightful teachers, a couple of kindhearted relatives, one incredibly awesome high school BFF.
Though we never spoke openly, these people helped me survive, encouraged me, strengthened my resilience. In college, I was fortunate to be part of a community of people who did this for one another while also celebrating both our uniqueness and our commonality.
Entering the professional arena, I immediately took a step back to a more guarded approach to new situations and people. Privacy is my comfort zone; those were 19 exceptionally formative years after all. Although there is a certain open mindedness inherent in the world of higher education, not all of the many constituencies we serve are committed to celebrating diversity. And while I readily acknowledge my white male privilege in this world, being openly gay meant I often had to apply twice the effort in the workplace to be taken as seriously as my heterosexual counterparts.
Like nearly everyone else in the fundraising industry, it wasn’t my first career, and I moved into it with even greater trepidation about bringing my authentic self to the workplace. I had chosen the events profession because I could create a fabulous experience for a room full of people while remaining behind the scenes – I didn’t need to be emotionally connected or vulnerable.
Ah, but the epiphany came swiftly … successful fundraising relies on relationships. Relations is literally half the title of our profession. How could I effectively relate to others without showing up as authentically me? How could I accurately portray the power of our donors’ involvement with our organization without being emotionally connected and vulnerable?
Enter a new community, stage right. I am grateful for the colleagues and leaders in our organization who supported and encouraged me to bring my whole, true self to my work. To my teammates and students who needed me to do so. And to our donors – dear, wonderful donors who I initially approached with apprehension, and with whom I have since built meaningful, cherished relationships that embrace and celebrate our differences and our sameness. This is the community that helped me realize withholding my true self from my work was holding me back. And it’s the community that became our personal support network when my husband and I expanded our family through adoption four years ago.
June is Pride month, a time in which we recognize the importance of visibility and acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community and celebrate our history, culture and many contributions to the world. For me, it’s also the perfect time to share gratitude for the individuals who have supported, encouraged, and celebrated me and my truth along the way. Their courage helped me to discover my own. They taught me the meaning of community. They became my family.
In her must-read guide to writing powerful thank you notes, With Gratitude, my good friend Jennifer Richwine advises that it’s never too late to express appreciation. I’ll be spending this month extending a long overdue thank you to the members of my community who have helped me – at times unknowingly – become, accept, and celebrate the person I am today simply by showing up as their authentic selves and allowing me to do the same. Whether it was 30 years ago or just yesterday, every act of love deserves recognition.
I invite you to join me in commemorating Pride. Take a moment to show gratitude for someone in your community who has helped you along your own journey. Regardless of how we identify, we all have others to thank for encouraging, accepting and celebrating our uniqueness.
Equally as important to saying thank you is how we pay it forward – in what ways can we encourage others to embrace their authentic selves, and how can we create a safe space for them to do so? One powerful method is by showing up every day as you. Authentically you. Doing so means much more to others than you may ever know.
Happy Pride, y’all! Everybody Say LOVE!
DRG Group member Matthew Helmer serves as Executive Director of CSU Events & Community Engagement at Colorado State University. He attributes his long tenure to the amazing community of leaders, colleagues, students and donors at CSU, a truly special place to work, live and learn. Follow him on Twitter @ExperienceGuru or LinkedIn for more musings.