50 years ago, queer men and women risked their lives and fought for equal human rights. Without these brave individuals we would not be in the position we are today. In some countries still, homosexuality is illegal in 2020, and once again let’s be thankful for those brave individuals leading the way for change.
But what about in the West? It’s 2020 – a very different landscape, with very different challenges. Despite some current political setbacks, the annual ‘LGBT+ Pride’ events have largely become somewhat of a main-stream celebration of queerness and, in many countries, the levels of acceptance are hopefully starting to now out-way just that of tolerance. And that is great. It’s wonderful to celebrate how far we’ve come. But is progression slowing down?
For many of us, not all, it no longer requires much courage to openly pledge our superficial allegiance to this minority group. To ‘wave the rainbow flag’. Are we in fact becoming somewhat complacent with what we have achieved? Do we even know WHAT we want to achieve? Are we aiming high enough? Are we being inclusive enough with our objectives? Are we ignorant as to what improvements still actually need to be made? Are we truly doing the best we can to move things forward? Or are we just waiting and wondering, what’s the next theme?
Well, if we look below the surface, it’s pretty obvious why we don’t want to look at the next theme. With increasing suicide numbers and rates of mental health conditions 3x times higher in the LGBT community compared to that of the general population, it’s clear that there is still a lot of work to be done. This ‘trend’ needs our attention now.
So as leaders, where do we even start? How can we help?
For this piece I am going to lean heavily on the work of Dr. Brené Brown. You will most likely know who she is. She is a research professor who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers.
Her latest book, Dare to Lead, is the culmination of a seven-year study on the future of leadership. She is infinitely more qualified than I am, yet her teachings are incredibly accessible and often simple in their premise. I have found her work highly poignant and remarkably relevant to the work we need to do in the LGBT+ community.
Brown starts, “We are raised to believe that courage is an important value. That we should be brave in our life. Yet we are also raised to believe that vulnerability is weakness. But there is no courage without vulnerability.”
She defines vulnerability as a feeling created through the combination of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
“Can you think of an example of courage in your life that did not require some degree of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure?”
Well, can you? I certainly can’t. All the notable acts of bravery in my life such as ‘coming out’, dealing with my addictions, and perhaps even writing this article – have all left me feeling uncertain, at risk, and emotionally exposed.
Brown sums it up perfectly, “We get told to be brave, but never put ourselves out there.”
From my personal experience of ‘gay culture’, there is little tolerance for vulnerability. Perfection and armour are rewarded and necessary. It’s how we have evolved. It’s how we have survived.
According to psychologist Alan Downs, author of The Velvet Rage, “since we were young, most of us were heavily focused on winning the acceptance of others to compensate for that inner feeling of being unacceptable”. Does this ring any bells?
The same could now be said for many of us in our work environments, where we spend more than half our lives. How many of us feel as though we need to be perfect at work in order to be accepted? That we need to shield our work colleagues or our bosses from certain aspects of our personal life out of fear of judgement or rejection? We control our behaviour and construct our identity through the belief that we need to behave ‘appropriately’ if we want to ‘succeed’. I certainly did. And guess what, in hind sight it sounds a lot like my childhood!
And what about your internal environment? What’s going on inside YOU? How much room is there for vulnerability?
If vulnerability requires a willingness to fail. How often do you feel as though you are actually WILLING to fail?
If you are anything like me. I NEVER wanted to fail. I would do anything I could to avoid failure.
What are we so afraid of?
Could it be that a failure in life may be interpreted as ‘I am personally a failure as a human being’? Could it be that others may think you are flawed? Or not as perfect as portrayed? Again – sounds like my past playing out in my present all over again.
Brown states, “If you’re not willing to be vulnerable, you can’t be brave. It’s that simple.”
So as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer men and women, how can we learn to lean more into our vulnerability? A state of being that we’ve worked so hard to avoid.
Well first, we can start to understand where our fear originates. We need to start a process of self-investigation.
You could begin with asking yourself… Where does my insecurity come from? What has caused my need for perfection? How have I built up these layers of emotional armour? What are my underlying beliefs?
These are incredibly uncomfortable conversations. Trust me, I have done it. But that’s how it works. You need to listen – really listen – and learn.
You will learn about blind spots that you didn’t know you had. And confirm things that you knew but perhaps chose to ignore. I have started this process a few times, and sometimes got to a point when I just decided I wasn’t ready, and put it all back in the metaphorical box under my bed.
Doing this work requires ego strength, that’s for sure. It is going to be uncomfortable. But, when you choose courage over comfort, you take your life into your own hands. THAT is how you move forward. THAT is how WE move forward. THAT is how we LEAD the way.
Don’t underestimate awareness and understanding. They can be the power force behind courageous movements, and monumental change. And remember, as Brown states, “brave leaders are never silent and complicit. It is their job to excavate the unsaid.”
So what is the thing that is not being said in gay culture? If you are really part of the western LGBT+ community, then you will know. If you don’t know, yet claim to be part of it, then you are likely living in a little bubble.
How about the fact that there is still so much pain, suffering and intra-community conflict. Still so much self-hatred, denial, internalised homophobia and avoidance of shame. Suicide, chem-sex, addiction, homelessness, mental health conditions – these are all HUGE problems within the community, RIGHT NOW.
Are you comfortable enough to talk about ‘LGBT+ Equal Rights’, but not comfortable talking about these life-threatening issues?
Campaigning in the West for inclusivity, acceptance and diversity is great, but are you actually being ‘brave’ by doing that? It was certainly brave 50 years ago when those doing so were running the risk of being killed. But what about now? Are you brave enough to take change to the next level? Are you brave enough to uncover these deeper wounds that have merely had a rainbow plaster applied to the surface? If not, why?
We can’t create the inclusive culture and community that we all desire until we start having these difficult conversations.
As Brené says, “It’s easier to cause pain, than feel our own pain.” And as a community, we have become very good at avoiding feeling our own pain since it really wasn’t an option growing up. Hiding our sexuality because we were ashamed of who we were. After many years, that internal dialogue is very ingrained. Many of us manage to suppress those un-processed feelings of self-hatred and shame from childhood through unhealthy coping mechanisms, but they are reemerging in our adult lives if you look closer.
As a community, we are currently taking our own pain and trauma, and inflicting it on each other through the culture that we are creating, the standards we are setting, and the expectations we now have – of each other and ourselves. Driving each other to extremes – in search of the perfect body, of success, self-worth, acceptance, and in avoidance of facing our internal struggles.
Are you silently complicit in how this is all unfolding? Or are you doing something about it? Doing nothing doesn’t help. We can’t do it alone. We are all in this together. We need each other.
Brown concludes, “As human beings, we are neurologically hardwired for connection with other people. In the absence of true connection, love and belonging – there is always suffering.”
Do you truly feel a connection to yourself? Love yourself. Do you feel as though you belong in this world exactly as you are? Accept who you are – unconditionally. Or do you always strive for more? Try to be someone improved? Do you constantly seek and need validation from others?
Down also explains, “Authentic living means that you take responsibility for your own actions. When those actions create problems, you can’t escape by denying your responsibility.”
Are YOU ready to take responsibility for your own actions?
With the ‘Who am I?’ personal development retreat programme that I have created, my aim is to provide a safe space for us to start being more honest, and practice being more vulnerable. In this case, practice doesn’t make perfect. But it definitely drives us in the right direction. One step at a time.
It doesn’t mean it won’t be uncomfortable. But our programme focuses on building trust amongst a group of individuals who are all there to do the work. There is a mutual respect. And that is really important. You get to share your story with a handful of people who have earned the right to hear it by showing up to do the work on themselves too.
I agree with Brené, “you don’t measure vulnerability by the amount of disclosure. You measure vulnerability by the amount of courage it takes to show up, when you can’t control the outcome.”
In our sessions it isn’t about saying everything or just saying something for the sake of it. You may not even say anything at all. And I can guarantee, if there is one thing to be said about this programme, it’s that to get the most out of it you have to relinquish control over what it is that you are going to find out about yourself. Trust the process.
So coming back to our original question…
How do you become a brave leader and create an improved culture for the LGBT+ community?
You start with your ‘self’.
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” Brené Brown
Find out more about the ‘Who am I?’ personal development retreat programme here.