Speaking Out

Speaking Out

Last night I sang my first karaoke song ever. At church. (Another story!)

For me, it was something that, if I was ever going to do it, I just had to do it – sort of like jumping off the end of a diving board into cold water. At some point you have to stop thinking about it and thinking about how scary it is and just hit go.

The song I picked is one I know inside out – it got me through Junior High! Barry Manilow’s “I Made It Through the Rain.”

We dreamers have our ways

Of facing rainy days

And somehow we survive

We keep the feelings warm

Protect them from the storm

Until our time arrives

Then one day the sun appears

And we come shining through those lonely years

I made it through the rain

I kept my world protected

I made it thought the rain

I kept my point of view

I made it through the rain

And found myself respected

By the others who

Got rained on too

And made it through

As I sang those lyrics, I realized how true it’s become of my life.

Last Tuesday evening was significant for me. I was right where I’ve been every first Tuesday for going on three years now – attending OUTspoken at Sidetrack, Chicago’s monthly LGBTQ storytelling night in Boystown. Chicago has a vibrant storytelling scene (think The Moth – true stories told live), but in the midst of all the amazing storytelling events every month, OUTspoken stands out. Members of the LGBTQ community share their stories. Sometime those stories are from fifty years ago and sometimes they’re from yesterday. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re painful and sometimes they’re both and sometimes they’re really hard to listen to and sometimes they’re full of joy.

They are always beautiful.

They’re stories of lives that have been ignored and attacked and demonized and condemned and have found a way to live anyway, from voices that have been shamed and dismissed and silenced and yet still speak out. OUTspoken is a powerful, sacred space where those lives are celebrated and those voices honored.

I have always felt honored and humbled to hear those stories. They are gifts of courage and they have shown me how to be more deeply human and often given me wisdom to navigate my own life.

But last Tuesday, I was on the other side of the mic.

The invitation to tell my own story in that space was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever been given. It was only the second time OUTspoken has had a night of “ally” storytellers, and it would have been an amazing evening had I only been sitting in the audience. My fellow storytellers told remarkable, beautiful stories. But to share some of my own journey….

It wasn’t easy. I spent months thinking about it and working on the words I wanted to offer in this space that doesn’t belong to me and yet nonetheless is so special to me. Storytelling is about so much more than telling a story; it’s about sharing our lives and ourselves. When I tell a story, I’m offering my own sliver of the human experience, and those who receive it offer kinship. The recognition that, yes! in all our individual peculiarities we really do belong to each other.

Storytelling is creating (or finding) a kind of chosen family – something the LGBTQ community has had to do by cruel necessity, but which is deeply valuable far beyond that necessity. Kinship destroys the illusion of us and them while honoring the difference of me and you. We don’t have to be alike to belong to each other, to recognize each other. To recognize and respect the others who got rained on too and made it through.

I told my story, and I received so much more than I could give. A beautiful introduction that said, “You belong here!” The attentiveness of folks who wanted to know what brought me there. The warm laughter of connection. More hugs than I could count. And the generosity of thank-yous I don’t deserve from the very people who taught me how to be brave enough to speak out.

Telling Our Stories

Telling Our Stories

Last Monday, I went to a storytelling open mic in my neighborhood.

I heard stories of middle school crushes and bullies (sometimes they’re the same), of fighting through remarks from family and friends to love yourself the way you are, of becoming a clown (complete with the red nose) and realizing that openly listening to and engaging with others is a lost art, of an introvert whose extroverted mother thought letting her daughter’s friends kidnap her for a surprise slumber party was a great idea, of the unexpected connections that a political canvasser made with strangers. I even told a story of my own for the first time.

Then on Tuesday I went to OutSpoken, a monthly LGBTQ storytelling event that I never leave without feeling challenged and encouraged. There were stories of finding your own identity in the face of others’ assumptions, of bad dating decisions, of respecting where others are and still challenging them to learn. And there was a powerful story from an African-American woman in her seventies about owning her life again after being raped as a child. She named the childhood stolen from her, the mark left on her soul, and claimed her life and the girl inside her.

Stories have power. Words do things.

When we tell our stories, we shape our lives. The things other people told us about ourselves, the stories family gave us – they can all be rewritten into a story that is our own. As we tell our stories we begin to learn who we really are, and as we learn who we really are, we are freed to tell our stories.

But something else happens, too. When we tell our stories, we shape other people’s lives as well.

The crazy thing about telling our stories is that even as they are asserting our individuality and uniqueness, they are also confirming our common humanity. I’ve never heard someone else’s story without finding some sliver of myself in it, of my experiences or my feelings. And that openness to commonality with people very different from me has changed me.

I love Outspoken and identify with the stories told there. They are stories of standing on the outside – of family, religion, society. And even as a straight, cisgender woman, they resonate with me. I grew up as an outsider with my peers and – even though it took me many years to understand this – with the fundamentalist community of faith I called home. I continue to come to terms with what it means to belong to a community where you don’t fit, and Outspoken has become a safe place to explore that.

Even beyond Outspoken, storytelling communities are some of the most generous and accepting I’ve ever encountered. The story being told is always more than a performance – it’s a piece of someone’s life. It’s a community that values listening and encouragement, and applauds the courage to bring what you have. Storytelling is like the potluck of life. Whatever you bring will only expand the meal!

My life was opened up by the stories I read growing up – in the Bible and in so many other books. And the stories I encounter embodied by their tellers each month continue to draw me open in new ways. I feast as I listen and always walk away full.

I’ve barely begun learning to tell my own stories. I hope they teach me how.