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 may be telling someone you love her for the first time, or telling someone that you're pregnant, or telling someone you have cancer, or any of the other hard conversations 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 on the bagginess of my cargo shorts and how recently I had shaved 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'd clench my jaw a little tighter, hold my coffee pot with a little more vengeance. The dad would awkwardly shuffle his newspaper and the mom would shoot a chilling stare at her kid. But I would say nothing, and I would seethe inside. And it got to the point where every time I walked up to a table that had a kid anywhere between three and 10 years old, I was ready to fight. (Laughter) And that is a terrible feeling. So I promised myself, the next time, 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 am about to go all Women's Studies 101 on this table. (Laughter) I've got my Betty Friedan quotes. I've got my Gloria Steinem quotes. I've even got this little bit from "Vagina Monologues" I'm going to do. So I take a deep breath and I look down and staring back at me is a four-year-old girl in a pink dress, not a challenge to a 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 to next to her, and say, "Hey, I know it's kind of confusing. My hair is short like a boy's, and I wear boy's 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 favorite pajamas are purple with fish. Can I get a pancake, please?" (Laughter) And that was it. Just, "Oh, okay. You're a girl. How about that pancake?"
It was the easiest hard conversation 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 happened 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'll give you 100 reasons why coming out of 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 you've just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five-year-old 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 may 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 imagine yourself 20 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 to not 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. (Laughter) It was the first time that many in attendance knew I was gay, so in doing my maid of honor duties, in my black dress and heels, I walked around to tables and finally landed on a table of my parents' friends, folks that 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 relatability had begun.
"Ash, 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 it's fabulous."
"Ash, do you know my hairdresser Antonio? He's really good and he has never talked about a girlfriend."
"Ash, what's your favorite TV show? Our favorite TV show? Favorite: Will & Grace. And you know who we love? Jack. Jack is our favorite."
And then one woman, stumped but wanting so desperately to show her support, to let me know she was on my side, she finally blurted out, "Well, sometimes my husband wears pink shirts." (Laughter)
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 I had brought with me, or I could empathize with them and realize that that was maybe one of the hardest things they had ever done, that starting and having that conversation was them coming out of their closets. Sure, it would have been easy to point out where they felt short. It's a lot harder to meet them where they are and acknowledge the fact that they were trying. And what else can you ask someone to do but try? If you're going to be real with someone, you gotta be ready for 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 come 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. 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 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. (Laughter)
And number three, and most important — (Laughter) Be unapologetic. You are speaking your truth. Never apologize for that. And some folks may have gotten hurt along the way, so sure, apologize for what you've done, but never apologize for who you are. And yeah, some folks may be 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 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. And we know it's hard but we need you out here, no matter what your walls are made of, because I guarantee you there are others peering through the keyholes of their closets 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. (Applause)
In this touching talk, Ash Beckham offers a fresh approach to empathy and openness. It starts with understanding that everyone, at some point in their life, has experienced hardship. The only way out, says Beckham, is to open the door and step out of your closet.
Ash Beckham approaches hard conversations from a place of compassion and empathy.
Ash Beckham approaches hard conversations from a place of compassion and empathy.