I think one of the hardest, trickiest, most admirable things to do in this world is to be yourself.
I grew up in central Indiana in a town called Anderson.
Anderson was a small-ish town just outside of Indianapolis. I’d like to say we were suburb-of-Indy status, but we weren’t. From a very early age I knew that I wanted to be a performer/musician/pianist/singer/entertainer/whatever. I didn’t know exactly what the label was when I was that young.
All I knew was I had seen videos of Elton John up on stage in front of thousands of people, playing the piano and singing songs he wrote, and once I saw it I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
So my parents signed me up for piano lessons. I was about 5 years old at the time. I loved it. I went every week to my lesson and learned new exercises and went home and practiced for hours and hours. When my parents had friends over for dinner I would sit at the piano after dinner and play songs for them. (I’m sure what started off as cute was eventually pushed into the slightly annoying category here.)
I started to play piano at our tiny little Methodist church for the Sunday morning offertory.
Tiny little me would sit at this giant piano in front of our entire congregation and play the song I had practiced. Old ladies would pat my head and pinch my cheeks after the service and tell me what a good job I did. This was my first taste of what it felt like to do what I wanted to do. I was performing! I was a musician!
Obviously, I wasn’t conscious of all these thoughts at the time but I was a kid who had found something he truly loved. I was having the time of my life without any inhibitions or self-conscious worries.
Then I got a little older. I started noticing that some of my friends who once were taking piano lessons alongside me weren’t taking piano lessons anymore. They were slowly, one by one quitting piano so they could have time to play baseball or basketball or some other kind of sport.
One day, when I was in fourth grade, our music teacher asked me to play a song on the piano in front of the class.
Sunday morning offertory was one thing, but this was my school and all my friends, and I was so excited to show them all what I could do. Knowing that I was going to play for everyone, I wore my best outfit that day—my turquoise turtleneck and my favorite jeans, which, for the record, had an elastic waist and elastic cuffs at the ankles.
I walked up to the front of the class and played my piece. Everyone clapped. Stardom.
Then I noticed 2 boys in the back of the class laughing, and not laughing out of sheer joy from witnessing such an amazingly compelling rendition of “Minuet in G.” They were laughing at me. At lunch that day, as I was carrying my tray to my table, one of the boys from my class yelled out to me as I walked by his table: “Why don’t you dress like a real man, piano fag!”
I rode the bus home that day crushed.
Things were different from that day forward. I lost a little bit of that uninhibited freedom I had always got from playing the piano. The message was clear—the piano wasn’t cool. I wasn’t cool. Also, turtlenecks and elastic waist jeans were apparently off the cool list.
I started dreading going to my lessons each week. I would beg my parents to let me quit. I stopped practicing. I stopped playing in the school band. I stopped performing in community plays and musicals. I quit the community choir I had been a part of for years. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be accepted.
Fast-forward to my senior year of high school, when the youth group choir director at my church said the youth band was looking for a piano player. It had been years since I had taken a lesson or played in front of anyone at that point and I still had fears of being made fun of but I went anyway.
And I loved it.
I was back. Every Wednesday night for that whole year I would go to church and the youth band, and I would lead praise and worship songs as the rest of the youth group sang along. It was like a beautiful homecoming being on that stage doing what I loved and worshiping the Savior who gave me the love for what I was doing.
Now, of course, my 32-year-old self would love to go back in time and make different choices. I’d make choices based off who God truly designed me to be. I’d make choices without caring what other people thought. I’d be happier. I would simply be myself.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that, not only do you live a happier and more fulfilling life when you are true to yourself, but people want you to be yourself. I’ve mostly learned this the hard way when I try to hide a part of who I am in order to fit in.
I believe that God designed us all.
And I believe that God gave you that weird, unique, interesting thing about yourself to share with the world. I have so much respect and admiration for people who have the courage to be who they truly are, regardless of what people think.
I love my life, and I’m so grateful for where I am today. But the crooked course I took to get here was constantly corrected by wonderful people being who God made them to be. These people influenced my life through their courage. I am able to be myself today because they were able to be themselves.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be made fun of on some level, but as I recount my story, I am humbly aware that my personal experiences of rejection and alienation pale in comparison to what so many of our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community face.
I think (and hope) that our world now is a safer and more compassionate world for the LGBTQ community than ever before. As I celebrate the wins and milestones along the way, I realize that, as an ally, I have not had to bear the harsh weight of the losses and the setbacks. As I pray for compassion and equality, I also pray that I not become a quiet bystander but an active participant who pushes the fight forward.
We need each other to be our true selves, for the sake of ourselves.
If you’re not being true to who you are, if you’re not at that piano lesson because you were made fun of, if you’re not in that job because you’re afraid to fail, if you haven’t come out because you’re afraid of what people will think—you are depriving us all of knowing your true self.
Let’s be ourselves. And let’s show one another the love of Christ, not only by accepting each other for who we are, but by realizing that we can only reach our full potential together when we support each other to be the individuals God designed us to be.
Check out Jon’s new album Like Us, set to be released October 9th