I was talking with my friend, Ben Cort, who was a fellow-speaker at the TEDXMileHigh Wonder event in November. Ben is a national marijuana policy expert, the author of Weed, Inc., and a frequent speaker on addiction issues.
After we had coffee, Ben wrote, “One of the things I kept coming back to was the difference in the reception we each have after changing our lives to live truly. I was thinking how important it is to me when I receive praise/recognition from people because I changed my life. (Ben has been in recovery since 1996.) I draw strength from it. Your story is pretty much the opposite, yet you are somehow leaning into it. I went from feeling heartbreak for you to being pretty damn stunned by your strength.”
Most of the time I do lean into my life. As I said in my TEDx talk, “The call toward authenticity is sacred; it is holy; it is for the greater good.” I lean into my life because I have a lot of LGBTQ brothers and sisters whose lives are far less blessed than my own, and I want to speak a word on their behalf. None of us asked to be who we are. We just are. Yet there are so many within the religious world and on the political right who, because of our current political environment, feel more and more comfortable publicly opposing our civil rights.
There is an even larger group that does not begrudge us our existence, but they would rather not have to interact with us. For them, it is easier to act like we’re not here. They have their civil rights, and don’t particularly want to be reminded about those who don’t.
When I step onto a public platform, it is that second crowd I most often face. They are not hostile, just indifferent. As Ben suggested, I do not begin with an audience that is sympathetic toward me. Arms are folded across chests. People walk out. I have to win over the audience. Usually, I do win them over, and the response is wonderful. But I’m not going to lie. Every time I stand before an audience, I am afraid.
Part of that is a good thing. I have always been frightened to speak in public. I do not want to waste people’s time. I want to add value to their day. If I have not prepared adequately, every person in the audience is going to know it. I should be nervous. But there is a difference between normal nervous and vulnerable nervous.
Ben’s audience wants him to succeed. That he knows his stuff and is an engaging speaker helps, but he usually begins with an expectant audience. That is not the case for me. Whether it is a crowd of 5,000, a university classroom or a dinner conversation, I often begin with a skeptical audience, and it’s tiring.
Ben’s email named something I have not consciously acknowledged. I no longer begin pretty much anything with a leg up. But here is the thing. Half of the world’s population knows what I am talking about. Women have always had to face the world without a leg up. And women of color know it better than anyone else.
Much as I would love to, I will not allow myself any self-pity. I had decades of entitlement and thousands of speeches with an audience eager to hear my words. Who am I to complain?
Privilege is interesting. Most people don’t know they have it until they lose it. Ben Cort is the rare white male who sees more than a glimpse of the privilege he has been given because of his gender and race. Come to think of it, I have a number of those men in my life. There is Mark and Eric and David and Michael and Dave and Jon and Aaron and Colby and my own son, Jonathan, and a lot more that come to mind now that I am naming names.
They have all caught a glimpse of what I am afraid I missed when I was a male. They have a sense of their own privilege, and they are doing what they can to make my way easier. There is quite a contrast between these men and most of the men with whom I formerly worked. I am grateful they protect and empower me. Indeed, I am blessed.