Ash Beckham: I'm going to talk to you tonight about coming out of the closet. And not in the traditional sense, not just the gay closet. I think we all have closets. Your closet maybe telling someone you love her for the first time or telling someone that you're pregnant or telling someone that you have cancer or any of the other hard conversations that we have throughout our lives. All a closet is, is a hard conversation. And although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary and we hate it and it needs to be done. Several years ago I was working at the South Side Walnut Cafe, a local diner in town and during my time there I would go through phases of militant lesbian intensity. Not shaving my armpits, quoting Ani DiFranco lyrics as gospel, and depending of the bagginess of my cargo shorts and how recently I'd shave my head, the question would often be sprung on me, usually by a little kid, "Um are you a boy or are you a girl?" And there would be an awkward silence at the table, I clenched my jaw a little tighter, hold my coffee pot with a little more vengeance, the dad would awkwardly shuffle his paper and the mum would shoot a chilling stare at her kid. But I would say nothing and I would seethe inside. It got to the point where every time I walked up to a table that had a kid, anywhere between three and ten years old, I was ready to fight. And that is a terrible feeling. So I promised myself the next time that I would say something, I would have that hard conversation.
So within a matter of weeks, it happens again, "Are you a boy or are you a girl?" Familiar silence, but this time I'm ready and I'm about to go all women's studies 101 on this table. I've got my Betty Freidan quotes, I've got my Gloria Steinem quotes, I even got this little bit from Vagina Monologues I'm gonna do. So I take a deep breath and I look down and staring back at me, is a four year old little girl in a pink dress. Not a challenge to feminist duel, just a kid with a question. "Are you a boy or are you a girl?" So I take another deep breath, squat down next to her and say, "Hey I know its kind of confusing, my hair is short like a boys and I wear boys clothes but I'm a girl and you know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress, and sometimes you like to wear your comfy jammies. Well I'm more of a comfy jammies, kind of girl." And this kid looks me dead in the eye, without missing a beat and says, "My favourite pajamas are purple with fish, can I get pancake please?" And that was it, just OK, you're a girl. How about that pancake?
It was the easiest hard conversation that I have ever had. And why? Because pancake girl and I we were both real with each other. So like many of us I've lived in a few closets in my life and yeah most often, my walls happens to be rainbow. But inside, in the dark you can't tell what color the walls are, you just know what it feels like to live in a closet. So really, my closet is no different than yours or yours or yours. Sure, I give you a hundred reasons why 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 that you just cheated on them. Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five 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.
At some point in our lives, we all live in closets and they make us feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.
So why is coming out of any closet, why is having that conversation, why is it so hard? Because they're stressful, we're so concerned about the reaction of the other person and understandably. Will they be angry? Sad? Disappointed? Will we lose a friend? A parent? A lover? These kinds of conversations cause stress, so lets geek[SP] out on stress for a minute. Stress is a natural reaction in your body, when you encounter a perceived threat. Keyword, perceive. Your hypothalamus sounds the alarm and adrenalin and cortisol start coursing through your veins. This is known as Fight or Flight. Sometimes you rumble, sometimes you run. And this is a totally normal reaction. And comes from a time when that threat was being chased by a woolly mammoth. The problem is your hypothalamus has no idea whether you're being chased by a woolly mammoth or if your computer just crashed or if your in-laws just showed up on your doorstep or if you're about to jump out of a place or you need to tell someone you love that you have a brain tumor. The difference is the woolly mammoth chases you for what, maybe ten minutes? Not having those hard conversations that can go on for years and your body just can't handle that. Chronic exposure to adrenaline and cortisol, disrupt almost every system in your body. And can lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, just to name a few.
When you do not have hard conversations, when you keep the truth about yourself a secret, you're essentially holding a grenade. So imagine yourself, twenty years ago. Me, I had a ponytail, a strapless dress and high heeled shoes. I was not the militant lesbian ready to fight any four year old that walked into the cafe. I was frozen by fear, curled up in the corner of my pitch-black closet, clutching my gay grenade. And moving one muscle is the scariest thing I have ever done. My family, my friends, complete strangers, I had spent my entire life trying not to disappoint these people. And now, I was turning the world upside down, on purpose. I was burning the pages of the script we had all followed for so long but if you do not throw that grenade, it will kill you. One of my most memorable grenade tosses was at my sister's wedding. it was the first time many in attendance, knew I was gay. So in doing my maid of honor duties, in my black dress and heels, I walked around the tables and finally landed on a table of my parent's friends. Folks who had known me for years and after a little small talk, one of the women shouted out, "I love Nathan Lane!" And the battle of gay reliability had begun. "Actual have you ever been to the Castro?" Well yeah, actually we have friends in San Francisco. "Well we've never been there, but we've heard, its Fabulous!, do you know my hairdresser Antonio? He's really good and he's never talked about a girlfriend. Ash, what's your favorite tv show? Our favorite TV show, favorite, Will and Grace. And you know who we love? Jack, Jack is our favorite." And then one women stomped for wanting so desperately to show her support, to let me know she was on my side, she finally blurted out, "Well some times my husband wears pink shirts!"
And I had a choice in that moment, as all grenade throwers do. I could go back to my girlfriend and my gay loving table and mock their responses. Chastise their unworldliness and their inability to jump through the politically correct gay hoops that I had brought with me or I could empathize with them and realize that was maybe one of the hardest thing they had ever done. But starting and having that conversation was them coming out of their closets. Sure, it would of been easy to point out where they fell short, its a lot harder to meet them where they are and acknowledge the fact that they were trying. What else can you ask someone to do but try? If you're going to be real with someone, you got to be ready to be real in return. So hard conversations are still not my strong suit, ask anybody I have ever dated. But I'm getting better and I follow, what I like to call, the three pancake girl principles. Now please, view this through gay colored lenses, but know what it takes to get out of any closet, is essentially the same. Number one, be authentic. Take the armor off, be yourself, that kid in the cafe had no armor but I was ready for battle. Stupid hypothalamus.
If you want someone to be real with you, they need to know that you bleed too. Number two, be direct, just say it, rip the Band-aid off. If you know that you are gay, just say it. If you tell your parents, you might be gay, they will hold out hope that this will change, do not give them that sense of false hope. And number three, and most important, be unapologetic. You're speaking your truth, never apologize for that. And some folks may of gotten hurt along the way, so sure apologize for what you've done. But never apologize for who you are. And yeah some folks maybe disappointed but that is on them. Not on you. Those are their expectations of who you are, not yours. That is their story, not yours. The only story that matters is the one that you want to write, so the next time that you find yourself in a pitch black closet, clutching your grenade, know we have all been there before. And you may feel so very alone but you are not. We know its hard but we need you out here, no matter what you're walls are made of. Because I guarantee you, that there are others peering through the keyhole of their closet, 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.
Thank you Boulder. Enjoy your night.There may be small errors in this transcript.