There are some things that just feel right. Serendipitous. Kismet. Destined. And that is how I feel about the booth that I had at the Manatee Pride Festival this past weekend. So many seemingly random things fell into place that I can’t help but wonder.
Let’s back up just a bit. In January, I got laid off. Being laid off wasn’t a surprise, but it’s timing sure as heck was. I thought I had at least until May or June before needing to worry about “what’s next”. But there I was, looking at a fairly small savings account, two months’ severance, and a lot of bills.
So, I did what any self-respecting want-to-be-entrepreneur would do. I cashed out my 401k, put myself on a strict budget, and decided to jump headfirst into starting a business. I built my first website, started working on a sample story for some friends, and started researching how to run a business.
I needed a place to test my ideas and heard about the Manatee Pride event. I heard about it 3 weeks before it started. And decided to attend. Little did I realize what I was getting into! Having a booth that people want to approach and can understand what it is that I do is a LOT of work.
Lucky for me, my girlfriend is a graphic designer and was able to design almost all the materials I needed- from business cards to an eye-popping banner which could be read from afar. But we still needed some “swag”. You know, the stuff you give away in the hopes that people remember you.
There are the standards: beads, candy, branded pens, stress balls with your logo on it, etc. But none of those really work for story tellers. What would be a good “hook”? I was flummoxed. Had no idea or plan, right up until the day before the festival.
And then, just strolling through the Dollar Store in the teacher aisle, there was a packet of papers. Just the right size, just the right subject matter – a blank caption box titled, “My Story”. “It’s perfect,” I exclaimed and quickly did mental calculations in my head.
“I can get 240 of these for only 24 dollars and they are expecting around 2500 people, so if 10% are interested in my booth, I will have almost enough.”
Sold! I took them all. Sorry teachers, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.
I still really didn’t know what I would “do” with them. Should I staple my card to it? A brochure? I wish I had a stamp made, then I could brand it in a cool way… but with less than 12 hours, a custom stamp was out of the question.
I still didn’t really know why I thought they were perfect, but I just rolled with my gut. That morning, I had to put the booth up almost entirely by myself because my fantastic girlfriend with the amazing artistic skills was at home with a wretched stomach virus. So, I did the best I could, which wasn’t bad. The fellows next to me, Ray and Jay were kind enough to help me put the banner up and my pal Bethany showed up just in time for the show to start.
Folks were walking by and walking by and walking by and no one was stopping. Bethany had the feeling we could arrange the giveaways better. We moved some of the candy and beads to the back table and moved the “My Story” papers to the front. And we wrote a couple of cheeky samples and then hung them on the table to encourage participation.
“Ooh, what’s this for?” asked the kid. “Hey, I am collecting stories and would love for you to write yours. It can be about anything you like, just write something, if you please,” I replied, attempting to hold back on the enthusiasm and not scare the poor kid away.
And so he wrote. He wrote something that moved my heart and made me think about how far we’d come as a society and community since I was his age in 1989.
“I told myself in 5th grade that I’d always be a straight girl. Fast forward half a decade and it turns out I was happier being a pansexual guy!”
We read it out loud and asked a few questions and then thanked him for his time and story. He went on his merry way and we were both just shocked. 15 years old and already comfortable being who you are? That’s incredible. And so cool.
And then more people stopped by. It was really difficult to get most of the adults to stop – they were too shy, too grown-up?.... I don’t know, but not many would share their stories. But they loved reading about these kids. And I watched, not too intently or in a creepy manner (I hope!) and watched many an adult moved to tears from these stories.
Here is one of the grown-up stories I was able to collect:
“After years of abusive boyfriends, I meet (sic) the love of my life doing the Rocky Horror Picture Show! Now we are married and I’m living my life as my truest self. Don’t Dream It, Be It!! RHPSIP.org”
And her wife joined in the fun:
“I was 13 when I realized I was a lesbian. Rocky Horror helped me embrace that when I had no support and was kicked out of my church. I am now married and myself.”
There was another adult who shared her story, and I am so incredibly grateful that she did. Because her story and a few others really affected a few of the kids who had been alienated by their families.
“When I was 10 I told my mother I wish I was a boy so it would be okay for me to like girls. My mother immediately told me I was never to say anything like that again. I didn’t. I spent the next 25 years trying desperately not to like girls. I researched, I tried to pray away the gay, and went to counseling. Nothing changed.
Finally, at the age of 39 I accepted that there was nothing wrong with me. God made me who I am, and He loved me no matter what. I have been out for 8 years now. My family can’t accept if but it’s their loss. I’m living my truth and I’ve never been happier. The weight of the world is off my shoulders. 😊“
One young lady had just gotten off work and was walking by when her friend started reading the stories. I watched them both, the one in work clothes found it hard to hide her emotions. She was definitely touched… and so I asked her for her story.
“I was raised strict Christian. I spent my first 12 years in denial. It was the seeds sown creating my depression. I finally learned to accept myself and love whomever I want, regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender. Thank you all for being here. Love to all. Pan-pride!”
I had hoped the stories would get attention, and they did. I had hoped they would be conversation-starters, and they were. But I hadn’t any idea that writing these things would be so incredibly cathartic- that they would bring healing to kids who hurt, but I am thankful they were and did.
A few folks encouraged me to save these stories for posterity’s sake. And they are right. I am going to keep these stories and the others on a page on my site and try to collect more from every event. If you see your story and would prefer it not be online- no worries. Please just email me and I will take it down.
If you would like to add your story, thank you. Just email me and I will add your voice.
One man's idea was to contact the Library of Congress to collect coming-out stories and I would love to make that happen. But will need some help. If you have ideas on how to make that happen, guess what you should do? Yep, email me and let’s put our heads together.
Thank you for making it this far. I hope to help you tell your story, however you’d like to tell it. Yep, email me if you’d like to get started or learn more.