When I was young, I prided myself as a nonconformist in the conservative U.S. state I live in, Kansas. I didn't follow along with the crowd. I wasn't afraid to try weird clothing trends or hairstyles. I was outspoken and extremely social. Even these pictures and postcards of my London semester abroad 16 years ago show that I obviously didn't care if I was perceived as weird or different. (Laughter)
But that same year I was in London, 16 years ago, I realized something about myself that actually was somewhat unique, and that changed everything. I became the opposite of who I thought I once was. I stayed in my room instead of socializing. I stopped engaging in clubs and leadership activities. I didn't want to stand out in the crowd anymore. I told myself it was because I was growing up and maturing, not that I was suddenly looking for acceptance. I had always assumed I was immune to needing acceptance. After all, I was a bit unconventional. But I realize now that the moment I realized something was different about me was the exact same moment that I began conforming and hiding.
Hiding is a progressive habit, and once you start hiding, it becomes harder and harder to step forward and speak out. In fact, even now, when I was talking to people about what this talk was about, I made up a cover story and I even hid the truth about my TED Talk. So it is fitting and scary that I have returned to this city 16 years later and I have chosen this stage to finally stop hiding. What have I been hiding for 16 years? I am a lesbian.
I've struggled to say those words, because I didn't want to be defined by them. Every time I would think about coming out in the past, I would think to myself, but I just want to be known as Morgana, uniquely Morgana, but not "my lesbian friend Morgana," or "my gay coworker Morgana." Just Morgana.
For those of you from large metropolitan areas, this may not seem like a big deal to you. It may seem strange that I have suppressed the truth and hidden this for so long. But I was paralyzed by my fear of not being accepted. And I'm not alone, of course. A 2013 Deloitte study found that a surprisingly large number of people hide aspects of their identity. Of all the employees they surveyed, 61 percent reported changing an aspect of their behavior or their appearance in order to fit in at work. Of all the gay, lesbian and bisexual employees, 83 percent admitted to changing some aspects of themselves so they would not appear at work "too gay." The study found that even in companies with diversity policies and inclusion programs, employees struggle to be themselves at work because they believe conformity is critical to their long-term career advancement. And while I was surprised that so many people just like me waste so much energy trying to hide themselves, I was scared when I discovered that my silence has life-or-death consequences and long-term social repercussions.
Twelve years: the length by which life expectancy is shortened for gay, lesbian and bisexual people in highly anti-gay communities compared to accepting communities. Twelve years reduced life expectancy. When I read that in The Advocate magazine this year, I realized I could no longer afford to keep silent. The effects of personal stress and social stigmas are a deadly combination. The study found that gays in anti-gay communities had higher rates of heart disease, violence and suicide. What I once thought was simply a personal matter I realized had a ripple effect that went into the workplace and out into the community for every story just like mine. My choice to hide and not share who I really am may have inadvertently contributed to this exact same environment and atmosphere of discrimination.
I'd always told myself there's no reason to share that I was gay, but the idea that my silence has social consequences was really driven home this year when I missed an opportunity to change the atmosphere of discrimination in my own home state of Kansas.
In February, the Kansas House of Representatives brought up a bill for vote that would have essentially allowed businesses to use religious freedom as a reason to deny gays services. A former coworker and friend of mine has a father who serves in the Kansas House of Representatives. He voted in favor of the bill, in favor of a law that would allow businesses to not serve me.
How does my friend feel about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people? How does her father feel? I don't know, because I was never honest with them about who I am. And that shakes me to the core. What if I had told her my story years ago? Could she have told her father my experience? Could I have ultimately helped change his vote? I will never know, and that made me realize I had done nothing to try to make a difference.
How ironic that I work in human resources, a profession that works to welcome, connect and encourage the development of employees, a profession that advocates that the diversity of society should be reflected in the workplace, and yet I have done nothing to advocate for diversity. When I came to this company one year ago, I thought to myself, this company has anti-discrimination policies that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Their commitment to diversity is evident through their global inclusion programs. When I walk through the doors of this company, I will finally come out. But I didn't. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, I did nothing.
When I was looking through my London journal and scrapbook from my London semester abroad 16 years ago, I came across this modified quote from Toni Morrison's book, "Paradise." "There are more scary things inside than outside." And then I wrote a note to myself at the bottom: "Remember this." I'm sure I was trying to encourage myself to get out and explore London, but the message I missed was the need to start exploring and embracing myself. What I didn't realize until all these years later is that the biggest obstacles I will ever have to overcome are my own fears and insecurities. I believe that by facing my fears inside, I will be able to change reality outside. I made a choice today to reveal a part of myself that I have hidden for too long. I hope that this means I will never hide again, and I hope that by coming out today, I can do something to change the data and also to help others who feel different be more themselves and more fulfilled in both their professional and personal lives. Thank you. (Applause)