I came out in the summer of 2007 and in my mind the opportunities to be a leader or to be respected by society went out the door in that moment. I chose my happiness over society and over the years that same society tried to teach me that by being myself I was choosing a life on the margins of society. I do not believe that being gay is a choice, but I did have to choose whether I would live a lie or if I would live as who I was. The act of coming out would lead to an amazing journey, but in those initial moments aspirations, dreams, and ideas of contributing back to society seemed to fly away. I would learn about people like Bayard Rustin or Harvey Milk, but in my life I didn't have any gay role models to look up to. Queer as Folk and Pride in Atlanta were the representations I had in high school, but I don't know if I saw myself in that. The saying "grow where you are planted" is a nice concept, but if you are planted in a place where homosexuality isn't celebrated or you don't have access to the Harvey Milk & Bayard Rustin's of the world....you might just wither a little too.
So fast forward and I went into undergrad thinking I could never find a place outside of the LGBTQ community. The vandalism of my car, the hurtful words, and other things had left me a little withered after high school. I got involved in the Alliance for Gender and Sexual Diversity, had an opportunity to take on a chair position, and figured that organization would be my journey. Then this thing happened....street preachers came, I stood up, and provided a counter narrative. A different perspective, a challenge to the ideals that caused me pain, and realized that the messages of society pushed me to be better, to stand for more, and to fight for a better world where regardless of the color of your skin, the gender of your significant other, and the god(s) you believe in.
The narrative changed because the approach and the understanding of what it meant to be a leader changed for me. A leader wasn't just the heterosexual men serving as president, it wasn't the elite making policies to benefit themselves, and it wasn't a world where "leaders" would allow individuals to be marginalized for simply how they were born. My definition changed and how I viewed the world changed with it. I define leadership as the capacity to positively influence and impact the world outside of the authority of your position or identities. A leader is a person who stands with not for those who continue to be marginalized. A leader is an individual who works tirelessly for the benefit of others with little thought of their personal gain. Finally, a leader is a person who does not accept the status quo, when the way things have been done leave individuals withering where they are planted.
Now I am a white, cisgender, educated, middle class gay man. I grew up in a privileged space where my identity as a gay man was really the only thing that made me different from the individuals I grew up around. There were two families of color in my neighborhood and very few at the schools I attended. My family's Socioeconomic Status matched those who we lived around and who I went to school with until my Junior Year of high school, where I found myself in a lower SES. I am able bodied and do not have any mental or physical impairments that limit me. I share this to provide context that besides being gay I lived a privileged life. If my race or SES had been different, my perspective could be different, but the lessons I learned are a testament to the importance of a leadership construct that is inclusive and representative of the people of this nation.
When I interviewed for my previous job in campus programming at the University of Colorado, Boulder I was asked how I define Social Justice and how I integrate the concept into my practice. Without thinking words began to flow from my mouth, which demonstrated to me what those two words meant. For context, I define Social Justice as the work done to create a social system that is equitable and creates protections and supports for marginalized groups in American society. In my practice this means owning my whiteness, my education, my middle class background, my level of ability, my identity as a gay man, and standing in support WITH those who continue to be oppressed and marginalized. I end with this as a charge to anyone who will take it that even in spaces where it may not be common place or feel like it "makes sense" we should challenge the norms and status quo of our society. The leader I am today is because I was able to make it through, but what if we made the journey a little easier....imagine what could happen then.