Jordan Reeves – TED-Ed Community Manager
I’m going to be totally honest with you. What I’m going to share with you today is something I’ve not shared with anyone before and it makes me really nervous.
On the one hand, I’m an advocate for the LGBT community. I’m a gay man, so their best interest is my best interest. On the other hand, for 23 years I was entrenched in the conservative Christian way that is undeniably prevalent in this part of the country.
I’m from Hueytown, Alabama. I grew up in the South and I know her well. And although I only came out 5 years ago, I also grew up gay. While my childhood was nearly perfect and I never received anything but support from my family, my internal monologue was always, “Am I normal?” “Why is being with a man any different than being with a woman?” So many times I just wanted my feelings to change.
See, I grew up in an environment that was not friendly to gay people and I learned that very early. I can remember people in elementary, middle and high school calling me “faggot” or “sissy”. I don’t blame them, they were just regurgitating their parents’ beliefs. I wasn’t much different. I didn’t use their words but I did stand on their side of the argument. I was both outwardly fighting against homosexuality and internally longing for the moment when I could openly embrace it.
[Audience member: “We love you, man.”]
I love you guys, thank you, thank you. It’s particularly a hard story to tell. And I’ve gone over it over and over and over again, but each time I talk about it, even in front of people, not like in an audience like this, it’s difficult for many reasons. You know, my mom is a very special person to me and while I wouldn’t change much about my childhood, because of the support I had from my family, I would change the fact that I spent most of it living in fear. Mortal fear, the kind of fear that you experience when you’re deep in a nightmare and you wake up screaming. I remember crying until I had no tears left. My heart was broken, not because I had lost love, but because I thought I could never love at all.
Now, I want you to imagine the most intelligent, loving, selfless, kindhearted woman you know. Now double her attributes and add the ability to make the best buttermilk biscuit you’ve ever eaten and you have a mental picture of my mom. She’s one of my best friends, one of my closest confidants, one of my wisest mentors, and hands-down she’s my biggest supporter.
But 5 years ago, around the same time that I came out, I realized that my mom and I are different. It doesn’t mean that we love each other any less, but it does mean that she and I see the world in two completely different ways. I experienced a fundamental change. It was a change that I wanted to make so desperately on the inside, but was so determined to oppose on the outside.
To my mom, it seemed like I became a different person overnight. As a matter of fact, to most people that knew me, it was this instantaneous inexplicable change. But coming out was something I had planned to do my entire life. While I lived in Alabama I was certainly close to my mom. We saw each other every day. She was so supportive through the process. While I was here I never experienced any type of physical harassment, but I did experience, as I mentioned earlier, kids calling me names.
But once I became an adult, I never personally experienced any type of harassment. It was all the environment of the South. The church I grew up in, the way my family believed. And I was left feeling less than comfortable being gay in the South. So I had to go. As much as I loved Alabama and my family and friends that lived here, I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought, “The northeast is a place where I can escape my own self-oppression and the social pressure to be straight.”
So not long after college, I ran after change. My dear friend and mentor, Cliff Simon, said, “You’ve got to go. If for no other reasons, you can see past the end of your own nose.” That’s what it took for me. I had to uproot and move away. So, 4 years ago I moved to New York City. I thought, “New York City and the tolerance and diversity they must be big enough and strong enough to keep out the hate and cruelty that people assume is so rampant in the South.” Come to find out, New York City is often a scary place for a person like me. Prejudice exists everywhere.
My first brush with intolerance was in my favorite, most liberal city, Boston, Massachusetts. I can remember a guy yelling, “You’re gay!” as he plowed past me, knocking me closer to the bus I’d just deboarded. Wearing something very similar to this, I was clearly dressed the part. “Is he with you?”, he continued. “Is he your boyfriend?”, he asked my friend Cindy. Without waiting for my response, he blurts out something that must seem blatantly obvious to anyone who knows me. “Because he’s gay!” It’s happened time and time again.
Not too long ago, someone said to Joshua, my boyfriend, and me, “Why don’t you two have a little self-respect for yourself? There’s religious people in the area.” He mumbles something about being gay and has a seat in the middle of the bus, and a few stops later just before he exits, he does this really impressive middle-finger flipping dance. The irony! The man who was concerned with the environment of religious people is now filling that environment with hatred and vulgarity.
About a year ago, in the Shadow of Stonewall, the Manhattan bar where much of the gay liberation fight took place, a 32-year old man was followed, assailed with homophobic slurs, and fatally shot in the face. Why? Not too much longer after that, my roommate was punched twice in the face after being called a fagot. An investigation was launched, but the man who bloodied his lip was never found. Why?! Not too long ago, right outside my Brooklyn bedroom apartment window, a man’s eye sockets were collapsed as a group of men punched him in the face yelling homophobic slurs. Why?! I hate the prejudice that exists in the northeast. I was never really comfortable being gay in the South, but I can’t say that I’m always comfortable being gay in New York City.
But, thankfully, I think that I know that the solution is not to run away from it. My story is the story of my generation. Just like Cliff Simon was a beacon for me, an example of what it means to be gay and happy. I want to be that for other people! We’re tired of reading hate crime headlines. We’re tired of seeing our friends struggle to come out. We all are ready to live in a world where it doesn’t matter who you love.
I’ll tell you a story about my dear friend, Courtney Baxter. Similarly to me, she was harassed several times after a passersby noticed that she was in a same-sex relationship. She knew she had to do something, so she started QUIP. Or “queer-in-public”. It’s an online crowdsourced street photography project that captures moments of affection between queer couples from all across the world as they flip the switch and the focus on the visible bold love that’s out there despite all the hurdles we still have to face. And that’s me and Joshua, out and proud, madly in love. We all have a heart. And that heart pumps blood to our brain. And that brain helps us make a decision.
So what decision will you make? If we all joyfully accept one another without condition, we can eradicate the prejudice that lingers in our schools, in our churches, in our governments and in our homes. I now know that it’s not about leaving Alabama. It’s much harder. You have to leave your old way of thinking. It’s no longer about my mom trying to convince me that she’s right. And it’s no longer about me trying to convince my mom that I’m right. It’s about the two of us working together to make the world a more loving place to live. It’s not about hating people. It’s time to start hating prejudice no matter where it lives. I love you guys, thank you.
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