“…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost
For over 30 years of going to my workplace and being fearful that my sexual orientation would be found out; I never dreamed I would be standing in the Oval Office with the President speaking with him about LGBT Rights. Yet, one day I found myself greeting President Obama, and thanking him for caring about the lives and civil rights of LGBT people.
Instead of being afraid, I was actually grateful for the opportunity to be a witness to history changing.
After feeling for so many years that “the closet” was my only option, how did it also happen that I was invited to testify before Congress to share about my life as an African American, Lesbian, and federal employee? Though nervous, I was grateful for the chance to speak in support of a law that would extend benefits to LGBT families for Federal employees.
And while these two events of standing up for LGBT rights really happened, this is not where the real story begins. My story is really about learning why it was important for me to come out. And my journey began with “one small step.”
I was not “out” at work. There were no family photos in my office. I worked hard to avoid conversations about my weekends and holidays—switching pronouns, not using names and the like. Perhaps a few friends knew I was in a relationship with a woman, but there was no open discussion about my life. Living such a double life exacted a deep toll on me—health issues, depression, and paralyzing anxiety about my sexual orientation.
I thought if I was found out it would have a negative impact on my career and professional mobility.
Like many LGBT people, I just wanted to live my life, but that was easier said than done. Discrimination was real. And for sure it was never on my radar to be a voice for LGBT causes.
Coming up in the Baptist and Pentecostal Black church settings, I experienced firsthand the common demonization and pain of exclusion that, unfortunately, continues to be the reality for many LGBT people. I saw with my own eyes the tragic consequences imposed on LGBT people. At that time, I felt no other recourse than to leave the church, and distance myself from friends and family. I learned well the “don’t ask don’t tell” mantra, and I dared not risk really living “out.”
It was devastating to realize that hiding from myself and my family was my own internalized homophobia. It was personal blindness that prevented me from seeing that I was a whole person deserving of life and the pursuit of happiness in every sense of the word. Trying to avoid prejudice did not save me. I just learned to live with more locks on an already bolted closet.
As life would have it, I would revisit the notion of spirituality hoping to find a way to healing and maybe even God.
Thankfully, welcoming arms inside a local Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Washington, D.C., invited me to reconsider my faith and the healing began. It took time, but I found that God was not my issue. Religion was pitted against my sexual orientation and against my spirituality. Realizing this I began to recover the gifts of the Spirit I had previously denied.
I reignited my faith walk and enjoyed feeling accepted in a faith community. And in many ways my family began to see me for who I am. Yet, work remained a place where I didn’t feel safe to be ALL of me. Until…
When the passing of Proposition 8 in California took away the legal right to marry for gay and lesbian people, it was a turning point for me. This decision to uphold Proposition 8 sent me a stark, clear, yet unbelievable message—that even when the courts protected our full civil rights, discrimination could be legally reinstated by a majority vote.
To be honest, I found myself not only angry about this outcome, but I could not believe that people were given the right to vote away the rights of another group of people!
I know about political maneuvers, but this action was a direct blow to all who believe in justice, and especially to every LGBT person in the US and around the world who dared to believe “that all are created equal.” That injustice kicked me in my gut! It cracked my heart open!
With this realization the light came on and the blinding scales fell from my eyes. Deep in my bones I understood that if I was not contributing somehow to progress, my invisibility and silence simply made way for more harmful and destructive actions like Proposition 8 and “praying the gay away.” There was no time to dwell on guilt for my inaction. I felt a call to do something.
So I prayed—“What can I do? What small thing could I do?” I was not praying as an activist. I was praying as a person who wanted to make one step that would add my voice to the chorus that “LGBT lives matter.”
In that moment, I looked up at my work computer screen and noticed an email entitled “LGBT Pride Photo Exhibit.”
That year as a part of Pride month, my agency’s LGBT employee’s group sponsored a LGBT photo exhibit to make our families visible and to celebrate them. Questions raced through my mind—At work? Could I? Would I participate? With this spark of inspiration I called my partner to share what I was thinking. Having never shared my life at work in any real way, this was a significant step. A photo is such a small thing. I wondered…could I make this one step?
With a little awkwardness, I submitted our 4×5 photo. Not knowing what to expect, some days later I walked the long hallway to this fairly large photo display. It didn’t take long to spot our photo because we were the only African American couple in the showcase.
Picture this (excuse the pun), our photo had been enlarged to triple the original size and it was centered among the other gay and lesbian families all of whom were Caucasian. Suffice it to say, many feelings ran through me at that moment. But I found myself chuckling and thought “well…there is certainly no hiding in plain sight in this showcase.” With that I turned on my heels and headed back to my office, and felt the most interesting feelings bubbling up.
Though submitting the photo of my family seemed like a small act, my heart was full and I had such a sense of courage.
I realized I had let go of the false safety of the closet and had become willing to be seen as who I am—a same-gender loving woman. Wow! A sigh of relief and hopefulness rushed out of me as I opened the office door to the ringing of my phone.
Racing to answer the phone, I picked up the receiver, and from the other end, I heard: “Hello, may I speak to Rev. Holmes? This is the White House calling on behalf of President Obama.” I sat down before I fell down, not really believing the words I heard. After hearing that the White House was inviting me to stand with President Obama for the signing of an Executive Order extending benefits to partners of gay and lesbian federal employees; I asked, “How did you find me?” The response was simply, “we heard about your family photo.”
Wait…there’s more. I hung the phone up and immediately it rang again. It was a Washington Post reporter calling to ask for an interview and that the Post had heard about my family photo. His next question was “May I run your photo with the article?” Incredible! Unbelievable! Really!?
By now, tears were streaming down my face as the message sunk in: “I am the change I have been waiting for.”
When the day of the signing came, and I was standing beside President Obama as he signed a law that would forever change my life and the lives of many LGBT people, I realized how important it was to take that one step.
And if all of this was not enough, just days before the White House signing, I was in my office and the phone rang again. This time it was Congress inviting me to testify in support of a law to extend benefits to federal LGBT employees and to share why LGBT families are important!
Whether large or small our step, the real meaning is about being true to ourselves and who we are. And then begin with taking one step, whatever that might be.
For me, my one small step was sharing my family photo at work.
Who really knows how the news of this one photo traveled to the powerful places it did or why the image of my family struck the chord it did. But it is clear to me that from this one small act of courage and being willing to do what I could do, a difference was made for me and so many more.
And for all of this I am so very grateful.
Photo by Stephanie Houfek, provided by Rev. Candy Holmes
Presbyterian Church in America