Belonging...what does the word evoke for you? Who gets that uneasy feeling, like they don’t belong when they are in a new situation, or when they are outside their tribe? What’s your experience? For most of my life, up until about 12 years ago, I’ve hidden a big part of who I am. I’ve always felt like an outsider, and this feeling caused me to put up a wall that I let very few people through. I was gay and didn’t want people to know so I didn’t let them in, didn’t let them get close. I was judging myself and didn’t want others to judge me too. This has created a sense of not belonging that follows me around still. There are times when I get that unbelonging feeling, and at first I don't know why. But then I remember. It stems from living so many years protecting my secret. And I know I'm not alone in this. Many of us, especially in the LBGTQ community, have this coat of armor in place. We may not be aware of it, but it's there.
In junior school, I had an unfortunate nickname that unwittingly revealed my secret, which made me retreat even more, other than from my best friends. I can't even tell you what it was because the pain of it it still so raw (why are kids so mean anyway?) In high school I was friends with people in all sorts of cliques. I never quite belonged to any of the groups but had solid friendships in many. This trend followed me to my adult life and is still true today, and is something I am proud of, truth be told. I am not defined by belonging to one group or another, but that doesn't mean it's not lonely being on the periphery. Even within my own wonderful family I didn't quite fit in. Not through any fault of my siblings or parents but I was always “different” and felt like an outsider. This feeling however, was self-imposed. I didn’t feel good enough, so I must not have been. Because I was hiding who I was, I didn’t belong anywhere.
Many of us in the LGBTQ community have this sense of not fitting in, of feeling like we don’t belong. This often causes us to follow one of two paths...hiding ourselves, or being so “fierce” that we are always performing. Same net result I think, we keep people at arms length and don’t let them see the real us. Our closest friends are "like" us, but we're not comfortable outside that inner circle.
So what happened 12 years ago to change this for me. I met my wife Debbie and I felt seen, really seen for the first time in a long time, maybe the first time ever. I belonged finally! It started the process for me of coming out fully, and embracing my whole self, not just the parts that I wanted people to see.
Perhaps that’s all any of us wants, to be seen for who we truly are, and to be loved!
To this day I sometimes get that “us vs them” feeling when I’m in a large group of people who are not “like me”. But when I am with my tribe I’m totally relaxed and outgoing. A while ago I was invited to participate in an LGBT event as one of a few coaches doing “speed coaching” for the participants. It was a networking event, which used to mean I’m uncomfortable, feeling like I don’t belong, and shy about approaching others. Not at this event, this was my community and, subconsciously at first, I was more myself...funny, at ease, and not wanting to run for the door! That sense of belonging is important, and it’s all well and good to have it when you're in your comfort zone, but let’s face it we don’t spend most of our lives there so what can we do to make things better?
We can change this dynamic and it starts with self acceptance. When you love who you are, you care a lot less what others think of you. You have the strength to be authentic and be seen.
Here’s what I know for sure, we must first belong to ourselves. What I mean by that is have self-appreciation, to like yourself and who you are...all of you. Not the facade that you present to the world, I mean the real you, the good, the bad, and the fabulous!
What I see in my community of LGBT brothers and sisters is that we hide, even if we’re out of the closet. We hide our true selves much of the time, either by flaming out or dressing down. If this is authentically who you are, fabulous! Use it as a window for others to get to know the real you, not a shield to protect against them. But if it’s not who you are, if it is a wall you’ve created, love yourself enough to start to tear it down. Many of us put up that wall that says “I dare you to label me, to judge me.” And when we do that, they don’t disappoint (or so we tell ourselves.)
So what do I do these days? Despite still feeling like an outsider sometimes, I proudly show up as myself everywhere I go. Not always easy but I’m determined!!! I wear the clothes that best express who I am, I hold my head up high. I express my opinions, and write articles like this one, revealing myself bit by bit! I don’t pretend to have all of this figured out but I know that having the confidence to “go as me” has helped me belong, at least in my own heart and soul, and when you belong there, you belong everywhere.