LYG Executive Director on Queer life and mental health

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What does the word Queer mean to you? How do you identify?

I choose to identify as Queer because I find it to be the least restrictive label. For me, no matter who you are or what you do, we are called to be creative.  One of my least favorite words is normal. I want to live in a world where we celebrate and grow into our personality, strengths, and an understanding of our weaknesses. When we try to normalize something that’s different as a way to create tolerance or acceptance, we often just shift another “weirder” identity to the margins. The focus of discrimination and oppression directs its gaze toward another group.

Being queer is about more than who’s hand I hold, or who I kiss on New Years Eve. It’s about being disruptive to the “norm” and radically welcoming everyone to the table. Being queer means living into the fullness and possibility of me, and also understanding how that fits into and supports my community.

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

I’m originally from Union County, Pennsylvania. It’s a small rural area in the geographic center of the state in the Allegheny Mountains that is similar to a lot of rural Kentucky.  I love my family, and I miss my home, but it wasn’t always the easiest place to grow up. I had a lot of amazing friends, but the culture in the region is resistant to all kinds of change. I lived as a guy who identified as male, loved soccer and the outdoors, and who was also actively involved in the arts. I also did well in school, and I was sensitive, and did my best to listen. I spent a lot of time in the school system being told (especially by my peers) that I was wrong for behaving certain ways or liking certain activities. I was often called “gay” as a slur. I didn’t feel shame about the label, but it created dissonance in my life. I missed a lot of school my sophomore year because I just didn’t want to deal with a specific group of guys who decided to target me for their taunting and teasing. It made me extra aware of other male identified friends who hid their sensitivity to avoid this experience, and it made me sad.

Fortunately, I was lucky to live in a community that is predominantly kind (even if my peers were not always), and to have a resource like Penn State University close by to generate access to resources and more progressive thinking. I was also gifted with a family, that while complicated at times, is unendingly supportive. As long as I wasn’t harming myself or others, I was encouraged to explore my own identity and to grow the interests and talents that fed my passion. I grew up in a working class family of farmers, truck drivers, furnace repair people and custodians.

I understand the value of hard work, and the joy of working with my hands, and I was also encouraged to create art, sing, dance, and play music.

My life has not been without difficulty or crisis, but I’ve never held much shame about who I am or the things and people I love. As an adult, I recognize the immense value of a foundation that allows me to let go of shame and live into every part of me.

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

Don’t rush. Believe in your power. It’s ok to be confused or to not know. You don’t have to make a choice for anyone but yourself and it’s ok for that choice to be no choice at all as long as you’re content and love yourself. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t “manly” enough and so I was taunted and teased by my peers. When I joined the queer community, I was too masculine and I was rejected for passing or not fitting an expected mold. Everybody and every community makes mistakes. Don’t let their mistakes distract you and don’t let them convince you that your value exists in fitting a mold or choosing from the world’s narrow options. If you don’t see a path that you like, make your own. It will be harder, it will be scary, and sometimes it might even be sad and lonely. It will be worth the work.

Take healthy risks. It’s scary. You will fail. When you succeed it will be amazing. Either way, you’ll learn a lot and grow. A lot of the best things in my life are from the times I jumped into something even though logically it didn’t make sense. I’ve been hurt a few times too, but I’ve found a lot of joy in the scary bits.

There will be a lot of failure along the way, but you’ll find people and relationships that provide you with true joy and love. These people will not love you in spite of your weakness, but they’ll delight in the fullness of you. It won’t always be easy, and there will be sadness, and loss, and disagreements, but when you’re willing to work for a relationship or a community, and that person or group is willing to return that energy, you’ll create an unendingly supportive family. They’ll help you find pieces of yourself that may have never existed.

Ask for help. It was the hardest lesson I learned in my young adult life, and the most valuable. It is not weak to reach out to your community when you’re in need. When I was in my 20s, I lived out of my car for short period of time when I was in between housing and work (my mother doesn’t even know shhhh). During that time I was supported by some truly amazing friends who took turns hosting me at night so I didn’t have to sleep in my car. The memories of cold nights filled with good conversation, silliness and beer, and warm cuddles on the couch fill me with joy when the world is stingy with happiness. Those memories also help to strengthen courage and quiet fear. Fear is so often the emotion that leads us into darkness or hatred. We need those moments of light and joy to cast that fear away.

Seek out mental health care and lean into the work of that care. Talk about it with your therapist, with your friends, and with your family (chosen and birth). There is power in naming and in community.

What issues do you see in the queer community?

I worry that we don’t live into a community of radical welcoming. As a group of people who know what it means to be alienated, hated, feared and attacked, my hope is that we would learn the value of acceptance, welcoming and a celebration of the weird and wonderful. However, we build our cliques, and archetypes and ask members of our community to “fit in” in the same ways the “normal world” asks us to conform to their relationship ideals and archetypes.

Despite our own oppression our community suffers from racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of prejudice. Don’t assume because you’ve been oppressed in one way, that you understand the complexities of a full system of oppression.

I love the term “Queering the..” because to me it communicates a desire to disrupt the norm of that specific system. Whether it be history, art, community or just the norm in general, I want us to be a community that invites its members to do things differently.

What do you think would solve those issues?

One of the major foundations of my belief system is “All Are Welcome.” It sounds pretty, but it’s admittedly quite complicated. When you believe everyone is welcome at the table, it also means you have to believe in some level of a giving up. When you choose to come to the table, and radically welcome anyone into your community, it also means that everyone coming to that table has to leave something behind. Maybe it’s our prejudice, our sense of what is right and wrong, a belief in entitlement, our power, or a feeling of justice rooted in repayment or vengeance; we have to give up something to create space for everyone. There’s a lot of fear created by this process, and it requires a lot of trust and a willingness to make mistakes together. And maybe welcoming doesn’t hold the level of importance that I assign it to in my personal life.

Living with welcoming as a boundary creates a very grey space, and I don’t have answers to all of my questions on this topic. I had a theology teacher who taught me the metaphor of “monsters under the bed.” This is the understanding that no matter what stance or life philosophy we subscribe to, there’s a gap or weakness in that system.

In every choosing that we make, we’re choosing which monsters we can negotiate in our life.

I’m still learning what those are for me and the ways I try to live, and I’m lucky to have strong friendships to provide guidance and support in that learning.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

I’m not sure that I would even know what “mainstream” is in the queer community. I’m a white cis-gendered man. There’s a lot of privilege inherent in that identity and it certainly gets me a certain level of access that I’m not familiar with from the earlier part of my life. I’m always thinking about what it means to have that privilege and what responsibility is inherent in that experience. There’s a lot of nuance in that work, and I’m sure I’m making mistakes. I try to keep people in my life who can partner with me in that work and help me keep perspective. Even with those privileges, people don’t readily love the person at the table who wants to talk about giving up power and sharing it across the community, and that sometimes creates a feeling of exclusion. I still have the power of choice in that situation, and that’s a gift that many do not possess.

I will forever be that awkward guy, who’s not entirely certain if he’s good at the things he’s doing or just lucky. I do my best to lean into that awkwardness and delight in the parts of it that create the space for growth. When I find someone who also delights in that awkwardness, I know I’ve found something solid.  I spent a lot of my youth feeling excluded, and then I started investing in creating my chosen family. If being part of the “mainstream” of any community means excluding someone else, then I’d rather not belong.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)

I actually have a specific answer for that question: Wesley Forest Summer Camp in Pennsylvania. It’s where I went to camp for the few years that I was a camper and I’ve continued to volunteer there since I graduated. I served my 17th summer as volunteer staff this summer, and two summers ago I transitioned into a Dean’s role for my week of camp. WF is the first place I remember feeling empowered by my chosen community to be fully me. I could be quirky, awkward, funny, and sensitive and I was encouraged to explore all of those identities. I love the relationships that I’ve created in my time there, and some of the friends I have from my time at camp are where I feel most loved. I’ve been privileged to have a place invest so strongly in me and to be able to return that investment back to that community. I can’t imagine missing a week of camp.

In honor of complete honesty, I’ve been depressed recently and it’s made it hard to enjoy the places that give me rest and joy. I still practice and seek those spaces, and I connect with loved ones. That joy will return, and until it does, I have people to keep me accountable to the work that depression requires.

I have a family history of depression and bipolar disorder, along with a lifetime of crisis moments. I’ve had anxious periods throughout my entire life, but the past several years, my depression has become intense, and sometimes overwhelming, About two years ago, my anxiety moved form occasional, situation-specific anxiety, to a general state of anxiousness. This makes it incredibly hard for me to motivate or focus on anything, including the activities and experiences that typically bring me joy.

I know that some of this is circumstantial. I’ve just experienced a significant number of really difficult life events; Deaths of loved ones, loss of a relationship, distance from close friendships and family, economic stress, lack of a feeling of progress and some other difficulties sprinkled throughout. However, it’s been more difficult to come out of this state than when I’ve experienced hardships in the past. I’m by no means anti-social, but I find it almost impossible to socialize, having spent all of my energy completing the daily and weekly tasks that we all need to complete to survive.

I’m finding that it’s difficult to find a joy that used to always exist in the midst of the pain. My life has always been a mixture of crisis, and love, and while the crisis can be amazingly shitty at times, the ever-present created the ability to see Joy where most people miss that joy. What can be most frustrating about depression is that I still see that Joy; I’m just not sure how to access it for myself at the moment. I feel fractured, like the pieces and people of my life aren’t coming together in the ways that I need at the moment and I don’t have direction to figure out how to fix my own brokenness. My inability to make decisions is exponentially worse with depression (I was never very good at it to begin). A lot of my depression is rooted in my lack of success — scratch that — success isn’t the right word…Lack of growth; progression in my life. I’ve been very intentional throughout my life with my relationships, and work, and I still feel very stagnant. This makes it incredibly difficult to trust that I can make decisions.

I’m starting my own therapy back up in January and I want to work on discovering authenticates within my anxiety and identifying causes. This identification would help me start determining what I can filter out of my life and focus on the parts that that create joy.

Joy requires work. Don’t be afraid to do that work, and learn and develop the skills that help you identify when someone or something is worth the effort and when it’s best to walk away. Then learn how to end well. I intentionally use joy when I speak here because I think it’s different than happiness. Happiness is wonderful, and it is fleeting.

Joy sinks it’s heels in and weathers the storms. The more we can find joy, the sturdier we can build our foundations.

I’m also going discuss in therapy if medication might be necessary. Our bodies are amazing, and often out of our control. Sometimes we need support regulating that chemistry.

Who influenced the life you live now?

I’ve had so many valuable people and communities and that is the true wonder of my life. When you have those people, whether it be 1 or 100, they can make the heaviest loads a bit lighter, and the joy much sweeter. These relationships don’t happen by accident. You must be intentional with your love, your trust, your truth. Relationships are full of happiness, and hope and strength, and they’re also work. Find the people who will do that work with you, and your life will be fuller for the effort.

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