My first gay bar was hidden above a strip mall on the outskirts of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I snuck in apprehensively, terrified of being judged, terrified of being misunderstood, terrified of being “caught”. The bouncer, a friend of mine, had assured me I’d be welcome there, and welcome I was. It didn’t take long for me to lose my inhibitions, dancing the night away. I pounded my high-heeled boots rhythmically on the floor, feeling happy, young, and free in my leather skirt and spiky hair. I returned several times, needing a place to express myself, and danced to exhaustion as oversized speakers blasted Depeche Mode, Def Leppard, and the various rap artists climbing their way to music fame.
Despite multiple visits, I never felt that I belonged. Of course – I wasn’t gay. But in Fayetteville, North Carolina in the late eighties, the only place to go dancing if you were underage was the local gay bar. All the other clubs required that patrons be twenty-one, and I was too much of a law-abiding citizen to seek out a fake ID. The gay club, though, welcomed anyone 18 or older. They stamped my hand with glow-in-the-dark ink and banded me with a plastic bracelet to mark me as “no drinking allowed”, and I didn’t care. Dancing and music intoxicated me – I didn’t need alcohol. Hordes of men swirled around me, flirting mercilessly. They gave me the attention that I wanted – the attention any teenage girl wants – but it was a uniquely safe way of receiving male attention, when I knew their true attraction was to other men. When my dorm roommate came for a visit and joined me on the dance floor, they teased us about being a cute couple. We felt hip, and cool, and a little embarrassed. What if, somehow, word leaked out that we’d gone to a gay club together? Would people believe we actually were lesbians? It was a rhetorical question, really. In those days, before cell phones and selfies and livestreams, word didn’t leak out about such things. What happened in the gay club in Fayetteville, stayed in the gay club in Fayetteville.
The sense of not belonging, though - that did not stay in Fayetteville. It has been a part of my life experience the majority of my adult years, haunting me. I grew up all over the world – by the time I received my first college degree, I had lived in eight states and two countries and attended well over a dozen schools. Like any human, I wanted to be accepted, wanted to fit in. So I did the things that people do to be accepted and to fit in. I got the right certifications, joined the right clubs, and achieved the right things. My sense of isolation grew steadily in spite of all of that, and I gradually accepted that being an outsider was my fate. I would never belong. Other people could feel accepted, and valued, and maybe even cherished. Not me. I would always feel awkward and invisible, the square peg in a round hole.
This was very apparent in my writing at the time. Many of my job roles required me to write extensively, and I was quite the technical writing machine. Software manuals, installation instructions, functional specifications! Power up the writing robot and watch her roll. I churned out huge quantities of text – from white papers to bylines to brochures and presentations. A little voice inside my head said, “If you can just write like everybody else, you will be like everybody else, and everybody else will like you. Then you will belong. Then you will feel included. Then you will finally feel at home.”
So naturally, everything I wrote was dry, and boring, and lifeless. Technically accurate? Sure. Full of life and authenticity? Definitely not.
Then one magic day, something amazing happened. I saw a link to a video made by SAP, my employer at the time. Titled "It Gets Better: SAP Employees" it began with the heart-wrenching story of Jeffrey Fehr, a gay teenager who committed suicide after a lifetime of bullying. The video then shared the stories of homosexual employees from all over the globe, showing that it was possible to be welcomed, and included, and loved, not in spite of being themselves, but because of being themselves. Most compellingly for me, it ended with our co-CEO stating “It will get better.” Our CEO!
The day I watched that video, my world changed. Here I was, worried about trying to fit in – when this child – this beautiful child – had been bullied so mercilessly that he felt the need to end his life? And all of these amazing adults – these talents from all over the planet – were willing to publicly “out” themselves, willing to risk their reputations and their careers, to help other children feel included and loved? And our leader supported them? Visibly and publicly, he supported them.
That day, my shell cracked. The shell I had built up so carefully over years and years, the shell I used to protect me even when I was pretending to be a rebel. How easy to dance and feel free in Fayetteville when I’m just your standard straight chick. For me, the visit to the gay club was like an exotic vacation, a stopover in the land of the glamorous, knowing full well that I could return at any time to my genuine home in Heteroville. For someone like Andrew Fehr? The acceptance, friendship, and unabashed joy that I felt in that club – the love extended to everyone who walked through that door, gay or not - could have been a lifeline.
Soon after watching the video, I reached out to moya.watson an employee at SAP who played a key role in making that video happen. I’m not sure what it was about our interaction – her authenticity? Her courage? Her honesty? But it inspired me to take a baby step toward really being me. I suddenly saw that the things I was afraid of - like being laughed at – were so very inconsequential. And I dipped my toes in the waters of authenticity. I started writing like ME – not like the person that others wanted me to be, expected me to be.
To my utter astonishment, in doing so – in expressing my truest self – I woke up in the world of belonging that I had longed for since childhood. I belonged in this world where words could paint a picture, and where I could explain complex technical topics with stories of pumpkins and alligators and imaginary superheroes. I had belonged there always, but I couldn’t see it through the veil of sameness that I had imposed upon myself. I won awards and was offered book contracts, but that was not what brought me joy. What brought me joy – and still brings me joy and drives me to continue to put fingers to the keyboard, are the people who have told me that my writing matters to them: From mothers and brothers who said they cried about my sepsis post, since they also had loved ones with sepsis, to anonymous fans who cornered me in airport bathrooms to share that my poetry gave them the courage to face their own fears, to colleagues who had been uninspired about the Internet of Things until they read my blog about bees. So many stories – so much sharing – and so much joy.
My silence has been broken. But what of the silence of others? What voices do we silence when we ask other humans – or even ourselves - to look like the imaginary normal, to think like everyone else, to live and love like everyone else? My vehicle of authenticity is writing. Someone else’s might be philanthropy, or pottery, or psychology, or journalism, or acting, or any host of talents that make our world a more interesting and vibrant place to be.
How appropriate it is that another term for “average” is “mean”. It is mean – to other people and to ourselves – to deny such talents a place for expression and belonging.
As a teenager in that bar in Fayetteville, I could express myself freely and fearlessly and enjoy a sense of belonging for a few hours even though my life was very different from most of the patrons. My sexual orientation was never important to them. Not one of those patrons in my first gay bar ever said or implied that I was not welcome on the dance floor just because I preferred having a boyfriend to having a girlfriend. They welcomed the person I truly was, not the person they might have wished me to be.
They simply opened their arms and invited me into their world, to be myself among them.
Isn’t it time that we all open our arms in the same way, and give those who are different from us the life-changing gifts of acceptance and belonging that can allow them to be who they genuinely are?