brave

What happens now?

I’ve always had a thing for Jodie Foster. Well, since puberty hit, I guess.

I went through a phase where I watched virtually every movie I could find, one of favorites being the original Freaky Friday. I didn’t know it then, but I was especially captivated by her androgynous teenage character. I almost "knew* she was gay even before she came out decades later. I could totally relate to her, even when she didn’t even know herself, or share herself, in that way yet.

In the movie CONTACT, Ms. Foster’s character, Ellie, travels to outer space and on the edge of a major part of the journey into the Great Unknown, she says breathlessly, “what happens now?!”

Matthew McConaughey’s character says the exact same phrase in INTERSTELLAR, another one of my favorite outer space/sci-fi films. Fun fact! Mr. McConaughey also played a major role opposite Jodie Foster in CONTACT. ;)

I’ve been especially drawn to this phrase “what happens now?!” as I’ve intentionally veered off the straight-and-narrow (pun!) path in every aspect of my life, for most of my life. I just recently put together a presentation about living in 25 different homes in 19 years. And that’s just the past 19! I’ve had more than that in my 40 years on this planet.

As I put together that presentation, I realized the guts and glory it took along the way to pull that shit off. I sat at my computer, watching the pictures scroll by and realized the epic courage it took to do what I’ve done. And the more details you know about my story, the more it may dazzle you.

I don’t come from old or new money. I was raised by a single mother who never attended college. I went to school on full scholarships. I left my career due to homophobia in my early 20s. I’ve weaved in and among many different careers including building my own business as a coach and writer and speaker for the past 10 years. I came out as queer in my early 20s and then again as trans in my mid-30s. I put myself through the grad school at the same time I began my transition. I left the long-term relationship I’d been in when I realized it had served it’s true purpose for me and then moved around to find and figure out what Home meant to me ever since.

And along the way, through all those meanderings, I’ve often asked myself when the going got tough, “what happens now?!”

And the answer I’ve learned to hear and trust is: whatever you want.

What happens in our lives is completely dependent on us and our choices and our decisions from moment to moment. It may be why so many people play it “safe” and stay with what’s familiar. There’s a false sense of security when you live your life like that. But you also stay the same, perhaps to a fault that doesn’t serve you to your highest potential.

“What happens now” feels like it’s out of our control, which it often is, but we do have plenty of agency in what happens next. External factors may influence our means and methods but if we let ourselves fall victim to that, we’re in dire straights. When we empower ourselves to act with whatever we have in the moment, we find our way, sometimes one fingerhold at a time. And if you’ve ever tried to plan something, like a wedding for example, you realize how imperfectly Best Laid Plans may actualize.

I think that’s why I loved the movies I mentioned earlier so much, besides my major crush on Jodie of course, because they show just what happens when we choose our own adventure and let go of what happens next. It’s a dance between choosing to act, choosing to see, choosing to try and releasing our grasp on how it will unfold.

Both characters intentionally choose to go into Deep Space with no idea what will happen to them and no idea who they will become or if they will even continue to exist.

I’ve done that so many times in so many ways, my transition being one of many decisions I’ve made, my moving around the Northeast of America being another, and what I’ve learned from the process is how scary and thrilling and wonderful it is to leave the familiar and learn who you become as a result.

Signing up to be stigmatized: why it's so hard to come out and why we celebrate when someone does

I woke up this morning and heard the news that Ellen Page came out as gay, which was great because it left me wondering, “hmm, not a lesbian? ok. cool” and there was that question in my mind about her choice of label. Maybe it was intentional, maybe not. I also noticed the way her right hand shook and moved about, keeping time and meter with her speech, as if its motion provided her comfort that as long as it moved, she could keep talking. I’ve felt that same feeling, rather like facing a firing squad. It is exhilarating and horrible, in equal amounts.

ellen
ellen

And then all the People of the Land rejoiced that yet another person stood up on a stage and shared something extremely intimate and personal to “help others”. All the People of the Land celebrated another person facing and overcoming the decision to face a lifetime of being stigmatized based on one identity of many that made that person a whole person. And they applauded her courage and bravery and welcomed her into The Club--the association of people who lead the pack of being open, honest and vulnerable while others live their lives off the radar of dissection, opinion and criticism.

Ellen Page came out. Michael Sam came out. We see these headlines and then we see the backlash and the flag-waving supporters and it’s a media frenzy. I sit and wonder why we are still dealing with this issue of stigma. What are we being taught? What have we not yet learned about stigma and difference?

"Overcome the notion that you must be regular. It robs you of the chance to be extraordinary."  

-Uta Hagen

Something that occurred to me while reading the post on Autostraddle about Ellen and the video of her coming out at the HRC event was the bittersweet quality of coming out. It prompted me to write this piece about what it means to sign up for a lifetime of being stigmatized, why it’s hard to take it on and why we celebrate when someone does.

First, I gotta say this. LGBTQ people aren’t the only ones living outside the lines and they aren’t the only ones being brave and outspoken. The big elephant in the room here is that there are no lines. We celebrate people coming out of the closet, specifically about sexual identity, because we think it signifies someone defying norms and not being afraid to be different. It’s a hoax, folks. There actually is no such thing as normal. There is nothing but difference all around us. We fool ourselves into thinking this isn’t the case and the truth is staring us in the face. Coming out moments are mere reminders that we aren’t honoring the reality, the pure, naked, obvious reality that this country (and world) is still a place that sees differences as differences instead of the truth about us humans. Uniqueness is the only true norm we share in common.

Coming out represents what it means to be stigmatized, to be separated from “the pack” based on something that makes you different in some way. It’s hard to do that, to expose this thing (or things) that make you different because often that becomes the only thing that people see. They miss the kaleidoscope of your complex identity because “the thing” blinds them.

It’s also hard when others get to play it safe and not be so brave because their identities make it easier to cheer from the sidelines. People, like Ellen Page who are "lying by omission", get to choose the level to which they open the closet and expose their skeletons, or whatever the heck else is hanging out in there.

It’s hard to come out when you know the things people hide, things that aren’t socially acceptable, and yet everyone does a great job of faking it. They hide it. They play the part so well that everyone else is convinced they are the broken, weird one and then no one feels comfortable to be authentic. And because no one feels comfortable, many people hurt the ones who DO step outside the lines (those lines that aren’t real, remember) to make an example out of those who dare to live out their difference. Sometimes, the brave ones get tired of being brave and take out their pain, called internalized oppression, on each other. The “community” can sometimes become anything but a safe place to be different.

That’s why we celebrate so much when someone does come out--about something, anything that is stigmatized. Divorce, abortion, rape, religion, weight, height, adoption, stay-at-home dads, mompreneurs, learning disabilities, to name just a few. When someone speaks up or comes forward we celebrate, individually and collectively, because it shifts the culture one notch closer to the reality we all seek and crave: a culture that accepts human uniqueness and complexity as a given and the only true norm. It reminds us of something we understand but is deeply nestled in our brains: stigma only exists because we’ve failed to make it obselete.

I look forward to the day that coming out becomes boring and commonplace and people don’t feel like they are facing a firing squad of their peers, who, ironically, would probably be facing a squad of a different sort.

But for now, every time someone comes out, we will celebrate. We will celebrate the surmounting of silence over the persistence of stigma. We will celebrate the liberation of a hidden truth and we will feel inspired to be a bit more authentic, ourselves.

In other news, how did I NOT KNOW about this HRC "Time to Thrive" conference? #signmeupfornextyear

Grace Grows: Interview with author Shelle Sumners

 

I hope you are having a GREAT Summer.

This post is the final installment of the Super Summer Reading series. I've really enjoyed sharing these books with you. The three authors I featured are friends of mine and people whom I find inspiring and whole-hearted--and brave. They also happen to work wonders with words.

In case you missed them, you can catch up with Amy Wright Glenn and Matt Kailey by reading my previous posts about their books here, and here.

 

Today I bring you the third and final featured book. The novel is Grace Grows by Shelle Sumners. Shelle and I worked together in a church years ago and we promised each other we would make our respective dreams come true: hers was to be a published author and mine was to be a speaker and writer. Looks like we kept those promises to each other!

 

Meet Shelle.

 Shelle_Sumners_Hi_Res

Shelle Sumners lives and writes in Bucks County, PA. Her debut novel Grace Grows, published by St. Martin’s Press, is a Random House audio book, a Featured Alternate selection for Doubleday, Literary Guild, and Rhapsody Book Clubs, and is published internationally. It has a companion soundtrack of phenomenal original songs that appear in the story, written and performed by her husband, singer-songwriter and Broadway actor Lee Morgan.

 

 

DD)  Hi Shelle. Thanks for being great and making time for this. Why did you want to write your book?

SS: I had a compelling dream about a woman and a man who were together at a waterfall. It was just a snippet of a moment, but I knew what they were feeling—love, sadness, and hope. I woke up and the arc of their story started flowing through me like rushing water. I sat up in bed and speed-wrote 18 legal-pad pages of notes about Grace Barnum and Tyler Wilkie. I started writing their story that week.

DD)  I know that writing a book is no easy task. What moved you from idea to action?

SS: I had spent a few years teaching myself to write screenplays and knew all along that I was building up to writing a novel. At the time I started writing Grace Grows, I had just completed my first attempt, a rough-draft novelization of one of my screenplays. Grace Grows was my first novel written completely “from scratch.”

DD) what were 3 obstacles you met while writing?

SSChallenge one: Time. Never enough. I was working full time, so I wrote the book at night and on weekends. I did a lot of scene writing in my head while driving to and from work. It took me about 18 months to finish.

Challenge two: I was trying a couple of new things—writing in first person and writing humorously. These were fun challenges to try to meet. I read a lot of David Sedaris and Anne Lamott on the side, for inspiration.

Challenge three: Going the distance. Quitting writing Grace Grows was never a deep possibility, because I was so in love with Grace and Ty. I needed to see how it was all going to turn out for them. But I could have been easily drawn away from writing by the demands of daily work and life and how tired I sometimes was; by how often I wanted to just do nothing. At the time, I had a subscription to these daily Buddhist wisdom emails and one day I got this bit of scripture from the Dhammapada (translated by Thanissaro Bhikku)

Having applied himself

to what was not his own task,

and not having applied himself

to what was,

having disregarded the goal

to grasp at what he held dear,

he now envies those

who kept after themselves,

took themselves

to task.

I tacked this to the bulletin board behind my computer monitor, at eye level. I’m looking at it right now.

DD) I love that quote. And that story! You're such an inspiration to me while I take on the task of writing my book.  Tell me two new things you learned about yourself while writing:

SS: I am here to make things with words. Life becomes timeless and deeply blissful when I am creating a moment in a story.

DD)   See, even in that answer you made something beautiful. In your own (beautiful) words, why is your book good summer reading for my tribe/community?

SS: Grace Grows is about a woman who is learning who she is and how to live freely and authentically. It’s about rapturous romantic love (and sex). It’s about comprehensive, lifelong sexuality education. It’s about forgiving your parents, and how friends can be family.

DD)  This was so fun. Please share anything else you want my readers to know:

SSGrace Grows has an accompanying original soundtrack of the songs in the story that Tyler Wilkie writes for Grace Barnum. They were written by my collaborator (and husband), real-life singer-songwriter Lee Morgan, and they are truly amazing and lovely. You can hear one of the songs, “Her,” on my website, along with samples of the other songs: http://www.shellesumners.com/grace-grows-book/original-songs/

Grace_Grows_Soundtrack_Cover

 

You can purchase Shelle's book, Grace Grows, right here: http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Grows-Shelle-Sumners/dp/1250003504/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346373958&sr=8-1&keywords=grace+grows

Grace_Grows_(3)_hires_final_cover

Other links about Shelle:

www.ShelleSumners.com

www.facebook.com/ShelleSumners

http://pinterest.com/shellesumners/my-novel-grace-grows/

http://pinterest.com/shellesumners/makes-me-think-of-grace-and-ty/

https://www.facebook.com/leemorgansongs

www.youtube.com/GraceGrowsNovel