Activist and entrepreneur works to transform lives, shift culture

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Josh Miller  

What does the word queer mean to you?

I love the phrase “a glorious amalgamation.” Partially, because it just feels extra – in the best kind of way. And, because I think it encapsulates what it means to be queer. It’s a mashup of cultural underpinnings, of expressions from across the spectrum, a makeshift celebration that pulls from many lived experiences to create the way I show-up, and you show-up.  

There is a general sense to me that being queer is daring and great. It’s also dangerous. Let’s not pretend that when new and different ways of thinking and appearing come together, it doesn’t challenge the status quo. But isn’t that part of why it’s important? To slowly chip away at the very limiting idea of what we can be.

How do you identify?

I identify as a queer Kentuckian. A cis-gender gay man whose physical appearance could be considered androgynous or non-binary. There isn’t a specific niche into which I fit. That can be empowering and isolating at the same time.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

My family lived on Lookout Mountain, a 15-minute drive from Chattanooga, TN. I’m the oldest of five kids, and was homeschooled until my 10th grade year of high-school. We grew up in a small neighborhood that was primarily conservative and religious.

Being gay was not ok, it was a sin.  

I remember spending Sunday mornings getting my three younger sisters ready for church. From hair to nails and outfits, it was one of the ways I was able to enjoy the creative and beauty loving side of myself. It was a time we shared together that I’ll always cherish.  

I was outed at the beginning of my Junior year as I turned 17. For a year, things were extremely tense.

My parents, the church, the school I attended, all trying to dictate what parts of Josh were acceptable. Being gay was not one of them.

After a year-long power struggle, there were two paths forward. Move out and figure things out on my own with no car, savings, job, or place to live. Or, move to southern Indiana with family. Graduating from high-school and attending college was the stepping stone I knew was necessary to move forward in life, at least for me, so I moved to Indiana, and I’m continuously grateful for my aunt and cousins who have and continue supporting and loving me.

It was in the art room at Floyd Central in Indiana during my senior year, where I started wearing makeup. I was introduced to it through my friend Amelia, who painted me for the first time as a work of art. It was an enlightening experience, and I’ve worn makeup pretty consistently since then. I’m thankful that I had family, related and found, who embraced me. Not the perfect year by any means, but a great step forward.  

And that’s how I got to Kentucky, hopping over the river from the Knobs to attend Bellarmine, being part of NFocus Louisville Magazine, completing my MBA through IU, and meeting my partner Theo Edmonds and launching IDEAS xLab.  

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

My dear friend, team member at IDEAS xLab, and poet/author/activist Hannah Drake wrote a poem called “Power,” in which she says, “There is someone waiting for you to be all that you can be, so that they can be all that they can be.” I think about that statement a lot. We let fear drive so much of how we show-up. But what does it mean for us to courageously embrace our intersection of identities, knowing that it may not only improve our quality of life, but that of others as well?

I also think about how much my understanding of myself has evolved since leaving Chattanooga.

As we continue to learn about the world, we’re able to make space for better understanding who we are – and what we want and value. I would encourage people across all ages to take an approach rooted in curiosity.

Seek to understand the people you interact with, challenge the stories you tell yourself – both about who you are, and about others. All of that allows us to show-up more authentically.  

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

Over the past 12-16 months, a few major shifts have taken place for me as I strive to find balance and better understand how my identity relates to and impacts all facets of my life.  

One was that I stopped drinking alcohol. For years, well, since high-school, drinking was one of my primary coping mechanisms.

There was something cool about chugging vodka in the woods by the fire in high-school, which people found impressive.

Turns out – it impacted how my brain processed alcohol – something I denied for a long time. And, the story I told myself was that I needed it to be social, needed it to show-up in the way I wanted, needed it to belong. In fact, it undermined all of those things.  

I remember standing on the bridge over the creek at Theo’s parents house in Eastern Kentucky, and having a “meeting of the minds” so to speak. Half of my brain prioritized the things I’m proud of and want to excel at. The other half made a list of the things in my life that could undermine what I’m working toward. Alcohol was at the top of the list.

Derby day 2018 was my last day of drinking. It was a great day. Got to enjoy a Mint Julep, spent time with Derby Diversity & Business Summit (DDBS) attendees, and that was it. No drama, no blackout. A year later, and DDBS had a featured mocktail during social gatherings, and The Mocktail Project (founded by Jesse Hawkins) had a booth at Churchill Downs for Oaks and Derby – so I’ve shifted my energy to supporting making spaces welcoming for those who do and don’t imbibe. I recognize how fortunate I am that it was not because of a DUI (or worse) that I stopped, I’m grateful that it didn’t take something like that to help me reevaluate how to move forward in my relationship with drinking.

That shift also required that I relearn what it meant to be social, to recognize that I did have the power to show-up without a martini in my hand, which is why I’m thankful that Theo and I were able to participate in the Aspen Institute Executive Seminar last year.

Through text-based dialogue, I was able take a hard look at my inner motivations, values, leadership and their connection to my identity. During the seminar, I was reminded that, “Being visible can shift culture, often requiring that we trade comfort now so that future generations can excel beyond current limitations.” That’s the analect I wrote, inspired by Confucius, that I shared on the closing night. It isn’t just about showing up as someone who gets misgendered most of the time, because my long hair, makeup, and clothing fit into society’s generally outdated mental model of traits that are solely feminine. It applies to being the only Black person in a white space, being the only Woman in a predominately male industry, being LGBTQ+ in a majority straight space, etc.  

This year, our team of artists at IDEAS xLab – which is the nonprofit Theo and I co-founded and I now lead, focused on leveraging the power of community creativity and culture to transform lives – launched Our Emotional Wellbeing, a project in partnership with organizations including Louisville Youth Group, which serves LGBTQ+ youth under 21.  

It was a mashup of my experiences and our team discussions that informed the creation of the first activity I led – Showing Up 100 – which combined portraiture and collage as a way for participants to visualize the person they are inside. The person they are when no one is watching. The person that brings them joy. As I thought about my relation to the project during one of my early morning runs – and it’s connection to identity, to being in Kentucky – I reflected, and wrote the piece below which I read to the young people before the arts activity.  

Hot pink and burnt orange  

Josh Miller #WrittenWhileRunning #runJMrun

I ran across the bridge  

Pausing to capture the whisps of hot pink cotton candy  

and lavender sky  

My camera refused to acknowledge its beauty  

Depicting hues of burnt orange instead  

 

I wondered how my camera’s struggle to grasp what was so visible to me  

Reflected how people’s lived experience  

Colored their perception  

Their interaction with me, with us  

 

With those of us who  

Show up  

Wondering if people see the greatness  

Emblazoned across our being  

 

I thought back to high school  

When the emo boys in girls jeans were cool  

But the gay in girl jeans was suspended  

 

The look of someone I knew  

Standing in my way as I went to enter the men’s room  

Questioning my gender, my intelligence  

Do you know where you’re going?  

“Yes,” I said greeting him by name

Someone I had worked with for years

“Have a great morning”  

Invisible flames of resentment immediately licking my back

 

The thought of needing a drink  

A way to cope  

It was only 11am  

Thankfully, sobriety has been a welcome relief this past year  

Breaking from the idea that drowning those feelings made things better  

Those thoughts of standing at the conference room table for work  

Wondering if the (mostly straight white men) staring back at me  

Were making decisions about my worth, my capacity as a professional  

Based on the visible difference of gender and expression  

Makeup and androgynous attire  

 

All of these things required  

Naming them  

Challenging them  

That is what creates change and power  

About Josh Miller:

Originally from Chattanooga, TN, Josh is the co-founder + CEO of IDEAS xLab – an artist-led nonprofit based in Louisville, KY that leverages the power of community creativity and culture to transform people’s lives in support of a more healthy, just, and hopeful society.

He is an artist with a background in entrepreneurship, art and business administration, and editorial production – and explores the world through photography (and a lot of running), documenting his journey through joshmiller.ventures. In addition to his outdoor explorations, Josh celebrates the brilliance and strength of marginalized people including LGBTQ+ and Black communities through photography and collaborative storytelling.  

Josh was selected for Louisville Business First’s Forty under 40, and is a distance runner, the Co-Chair of the Louisville Health Advisory Board’s Communications Committee, a TEDx speaker, an advisor for the Derby Diversity & Business Summit, and founding Board Member of Civitas: Regional LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce headquartered in Louisville, KY.  

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