The Power of Personal Stories
Reggie is a gay African American man who experiences deep seated prejudice every day of his life. He also is a friend I am just getting to know. I imagine that Reggie has viscerally felt prejudice and intolerance since the age at which he developed a conscious awareness of the cruel realities surrounding him.
I, as a gay white man, have also faced my share of prejudice and intolerance–two horrors that permeate society. Yet, all too often, I find myself caught up in my own unique experiences with these horrors. In doing so, I fail to understand the points at which my struggles intersect with the struggles of countless other oppressed people surrounding me. So, two days ago, I found myself reaching out to Reggie with what may seem to you like an easy request. I asked Reggie to sit down with me to tell his story of living as a black, gay man. He agreed.
Stories. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who experienced unspeakable abominations, once said, “God made man because He loves stories.” Muriel Rukeyser, an American poet and political activist, said “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Each and every one of us has stories to tell, but we must not forget to listen to those stories. Here, at Care2, we are in an especially unique position to listen. Care2 is a community of over 9 million caring and concerned individuals–activists, advocates and volunteers concerned with righting wrongs. We are the perfect audience if only we take the time to open our ears and hearts to hear the stories around us. Movements ignite, lives change, opinions shift and wounds heal through compelling stories.
In the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, some of our most powerful stories involve coming out of the closet. Harvey Milk, the subject of a film now playing nationwide in theaters, was known as an ardent advocate of coming out before he was assassinated. He proclaimed to the world, “come out, come out wherever you are!” To come out is to tell a story that continues to evolve throughout a lifetime. Milk screamed this message to the world because he knew something that remains true to this day; coming out and sharing our intimate life stories leads to compassion and acceptance. In this case, coming out is a story that breaks down the barriers of fear, ignorance and homophobia that often dwell within people listening to that story for the first time.
My friend Reggie didn’t have the option to come out as a black man. The color of his skin, in a sense, came out for him. Yet, he had the choice to come out as a gay man and did so, led by his own bravery. There are countless people around us like Reggie with diverse stories to share and the courage to share them. Children who have been molested, refugees that have been threatened, beaten or mutilated in their native countries and women who have faced pervasive sexual harassment and career obstacles merely due to their gender. These are but a few of the people around us with stories to share. They are diverse stories and they are powerful stories. They are stories of civil rights and struggles.
I mentioned that asking Reggie to tell me his story might seem like an easy request. Yet, that is far from true. Asking someone to share their story of prejudice, oppression or abuse is a direct request to share the most intimate of experiences. In my case, it was a request that conveyed my ignorance and lack of understanding of what Reggie has experienced. I first had to admit to myself that I never reached out to Reggie or other people like him and that I was, in a sense, one of the ignorant people that I seek to educate through my own activism.
Take a moment to overcome your natural tendency to live within your own world of activism. Reach out to any of the over 9 million people on Care2 or the people you live with, love and spend your days with. Ask them to tell you their story, and listen. Do so as I sit down and listen to Reggie’s story. Together, we will grow and unify through these stories. We will gain perspectives that may change our paths and will most certainly expand our horizons. Above all, we will fight ignorance and misunderstanding in a way that does not require protests, petitions, formal organizations and all of the time those efforts require. We have all of the tools we need within us to listen. This, the most simple of actions, may very well help to better our world.
Ryan Kerian, 2008.
Image courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.