Harnessing Our Stories
Just about every LGBT conference these days has a workshop on “Telling Your Story.” As a blogger, speaker, and filmmaker, I am certainly not one to object to storytelling; it’s what I do. Still, I see a need to ask ourselves some questions about our storytelling: why do we tell our story, how do we tell our story, which story do we tell, and to whom do we tell it? Storytelling can be a powerful asset in our movement but it needs to be harnessed.
Why do we tell our stories
My friend Shane Claiborne says “Sometimes we speak to change the world, other times we speak to keep the world from changing us.”
At Soulforce’s recent Symposium on Faith, Love, Science, and Reparative Therapy, I gathered stories on video from many of the attendees. Some of them, such as Rev. Jeffrey Jordan spoke with a fiery conviction on not only the need for full inclusion of LGBT people in all aspects of society, but also of the gifts we queers have to offer ourselves and others. He spoke to change the world, and I couldn’t help but listen. Others told of digging deep to find the courage to come out and of giving themselves grace and forgiveness for the mistakes of their past. One young person shared through watered eyes of finding a place to show emotion and to heal from the wrongs of the past. This person spoke to keep the world from changing them.
Our stories must lead to action
Telling stories can be a cathartic experience for the teller and the hearer. Catharsis can be valuable in its own right and yet if we want to bring about change, catharsis alone is insufficient. Our stories must lead ourselves and those around us to action. They must inspire, empower, and educate us to go forward and take tangible actions in the world around us.
How can our stories lead to action? When we begin with the end in mind, our stories are powerful engines for change. How will the listener respond? When they hear how I was scared to tell my parents that I am queer, will they write a letter to their child? When my friends tell of how something as simple as going to the bathroom can be daunting while they are in transition, will businesses create gender neutral restrooms? When I share about how my sexual orientation has informed and enriched my life, will churches put LGBT people in leadership positions? When I tell stories of awesome things straight people have done, will others take steps to be vocal and visible allies?
Which stories do we tell?
The overriding public narrative of LGBT lives is one of shame, sorrow, hurt, heartache, and injustice. The woman who couldn’t see her sick wife in the hospital, the son who was kicked out of his home, the child who was forced to wear clothes that didn’t feel right, the college student who was murdered, the marriage that ended. These stories are all true and valid and valuable… and they are not the only stories.
A popular counter-narrative to the one of despair is that of normalcy. “We gay folks are just like you, we just happen to be gay.” It’s well-intentioned but it’s incomplete. I’m NOT just like everyone else and there is value in that difference. Equality and even unity is not the same as conformity.
When we only tell sad stories or stories of normalcy, what stories are we leaving out? How can we tell of the real harms we have suffered and the real injustices which need to be corrected without hosting a pity party? How can we tell stories of our strength and resiliency while noting that our difference is part of what makes us beautiful?
We must tell unusual stories
We must fight against the grain to all tell the same stories. We can share those stories which make us unique because through specificity, we can tap into something universal.
I can tell of the beauty and significance I attach to every single relationship because there was a time when I couldn’t take a single relationship for granted. I can share the extensive thinking I’ve done on marriage and parenting since “getting married” and “having children” aren’t expected of (or even desired for) me by society. My experience as a cisgender gay male around the policing of my gender can help me breakdown gendered barriers. I can share how I realized I lost privilege when I came out as queer and how that opened my eyes to the other forms of privilege I hold and how that privilege gives me unearned benefits which others do not have… I can facilitate in connecting the dots and encourage everyone to work to end all privileges and oppressions.
What unconventional stories do you have to share?
To whom do we tell our stories?
Virtual activism is popular these days, isn’t it? On National Spirit Day, many of my friends turned their Facebook profile pictures purple. My sister is a sophomore at the University of Maryland. I looked through her 1,383 friends and I was the only friend with a purple picture. Our message ostensibly directed to young people that it’s OK to be queer was not reaching its intended audience: students.
We must take our stories to the places where they are not heard
A few years ago, a co-worker invited me to The Haven, a worship and Bible study group of Christian artists in NYC. During a small group session, I used my experience as a queer person to respond to one of the discussion points (unrelated to sexuality). Having an openly queer presence was challenging for some (including my co-worker) and inspiring for others who felt like outsiders. I connected with a guy afterward who is still a friend today (and way more out and comfortable with himself than he used to be).
Coming out and sharing our stories is inherently a form of activism and must always be a personal decision. No one needs to come out and no one need share their story. Safety and survival are a priority. For those of us who can come out and want to; when we take our stories into unpopular places, we bring truth and justice into those places by our mere presence. Where do our stories need to be heard?
We can tell our stories at work, at our schools, in the organizations we work with, to our friends, to our family members, to our extended family, to our neighbors. Our Facebook wall is a good place to start sharing our story and we must take it further still!