On May 2nd, 2017, I had the honor of addressing graduates at USM’s LGBTQI Lavendar Graduation Ceremony. Here are my remarks:
You wouldn’t be able to tell now, but I used to hate public speaking. The thought of getting involved and having to lead anything, used to give me chills; it made me nervous. But, you know, I knew there was a greater purpose for me in life than to wallow in self-pity and selfishness. There was a lot of bad in the world; deep down, I wanted to do good.
But here’s what made it difficult – I didn’t have the easiest childhood growing up. My single mother was alcoholic, engaged in prostitution, and it seemed that at every turn she had a new boyfriend. I was put in foster care. I couldn’t have asked for a better foster family. But the state Department of Health and Human services was facing allegations of racism and we were moved into a group home, then into a another foster home – where my sister and I experienced emotional abuse. Then my sister Tanya and I were reunited with my two youngest siblings in 2012 and adopted by the Berry family in 2014.
A childhood like that… it kind of messes you up. You don’t know who you are anymore. You don’t know where you belong. On top of that, my adoptive family was deeply religious. Like Trump voter religious. Like “we hate Planned Parenthood” religious. And I knew I liked other guys since I was 7. If they knew then, they probably would have sent me to a conversion therapy camp run by a pastor that visited our church once. My dad once asked me if I was faking all the church stuff. But the truth is, I really tried to get the whole religion thing. I was a student council member at my Christian high school. I was a music leader and a youth group leader. Christian parents loved me and told their kids to emulate me.
But As someone as messed up as I was, the idea of a God with unconditional love was appealing because I was starving for that kind of love in a family that didn’t even know I was gay and having to move from home to home.
So how did I get to where I am today – how did I get over my fear of public speaking and leadership? At some point, I needed to make a choice… do I want to do good, or do I want to protect myself.
A lot of people don’t realize at first that they can do both. You can do good AND take care of yourself. You can be an activist or a leader or a manager; you can do big things; great things. And you can also not drive yourself crazy. And I think it all boils down to our conception of happiness; our pursuit of happiness. So I’ll share three truths (small t) that I think will help you on your journey.
#1 – The Hard Truth: You won’t be happy all the time. But that’s ok!
I think people have this idea of happiness as this state of being where you are happy all the time. Every day. As if nothing in the world can bring you down. But I can promise you – there is no one in this world who is that happy ALL the time. Even those people you see on the street who have this huge smile on their face, as if they didn’t have a care in the world, they’re not lying to you – they simply understand the truth that you take and accept life as it comes; all of its ups and downs, its mountains and valleys and storms and all of its calm and calamity.
There idea of suffering and pain changed at some point. Many of us live in fear of bad things happening. We fear it. We loathe it. We hate it. We don’t want it in our lives.
And we have good reason to. Bad things hurt. Suffering hurts. It’s painful. Sometimes, if we allow it, it brings our entire world to a standstill. It can turn our worlds upside down and have everything crashing down. Whether it’s a parent who disowns you or refuses to accept who you are; whether it’s a break-up (and believe me, I have had some of those); whether it’s a lost friend or a relative you’ve lost. It hurts. And we hate it. We loathe it. We fear it. We don’t want it in our lives.
Just the past year, I lost a friend that I was close to in middle school and high school. He was a friend from church and we hung out a lot. We experimented. We kissed. But this past year, he became one of the victims of the drug epidemic sweeping across this country. And you know what makes it worse? Someone who I used to be friends with, who went to school with both of us, gave him the synthetic drugs that killed him.
Even though we had lost contact – my mind immediately returned to the times we spent with each other in middle school and high school. Despite being closeted and being the only kids of color in our community, and both of us being adopted – in a way, we helped each other cope. But he took the wrong road and made the wrong friends and it hurts.
What hurts most is that I didn’t try harder to be a better influence in his life. I was busy getting an education and trying to make my way in life. I remember after hearing that he had passed away, I listened to the song “How to Save a Life” by The Fray. And I want to read some of the lyrics:
#2 – The Healing Truth: Change what you can and learn to accept what you cannot change.
You cannot change everything. You’re not superman. We’re human. We’re finite. Sometimes we’re smart. Sometimes we’re stupid. Sometimes we make the right decisions and sometimes we don’t. But you know, that’s ok.
How many of you have heard about the five stages of grief? There’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But I want to focus on the acceptance part.
I couldn’t save his life. I can’t change everything. I am not superman. I’m human. I’m finite. Sometimes I’m smart and sometimes I’m pretty dumb. Sometimes I make the right decisions and sometimes I don’t. But that’s ok.
Realizing that you are finite and that you’re human is deeply healing. Too many of us wish we had superpowers and when we wish we had done something differently, we’re really wishing that we had a time machine – but how many of you have watched those time travel movies? What is a recurring theme? Don’t tamper with the past – because it can alter things tremendously.
There were many times I wish I could go back and do things differently. But you know what? I also realize that if I had changed one little thing, if I had stayed in one foster home for a month or a year longer, or if I had gone to a different high school or came out earlier – I wouldn’t have met the people that I have met who have loved me and made a difference in my life. I probably wouldn’t have gone to USM or law school or met people like Sarah and got involved with the Queer Straight Alliance and the CSGD.
The thought of not having lived through and losing all the good experiences I’ve had was just as painful as all the bad experiences I’ve had.
So I had to discover the healing truth that I am human and I can’t change everything. So I must accept the bad WITH the good. You can’t have the bad without the good. You can’t learn to appreciate the good times if you lament about the bad times ALL the time.
#3 – The Hopeful Truth: There will be good times.
There will be good times. Take this graduation ceremony for instance. You’re celebrating an achievement. So I want you to do something for me right now as I wrap up: Let yourself be happy. Appreciate and live in the moment – here with your friends, maybe your family. Relish the moment – think back to the last couple of years and think about all the projects you’ve worked on, or the homework you may have submitted on time, and all the friends you’ve made.
And as you go forward into life with your degree and figure out what job you want and where you want to live and start thinking, maybe, that you want to start a family – now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land and you can adopt kids and there’s assisted reproductive technology and science has even found a way to combine genes and DNA from two men.
There will be bad times. But there will be good times. So remember. There’s the hard truth – you won’t be happy all the time. Suffering and pain exists. There’s the healing truth – you can overcome, no matter how hard, no matter how dark. Just accept that you can change the things that can be changed, but accept the things that you cannot change. That will save you a lot of anxiety and hurt in life. And finally, the hopeful truth – good things have happened, are happening and will happen. Put things in perspective. Remember to appreciate and live in those moments and to not let the bad things make you miss those opportunities to just be happy.
Candidate for Portland City Council District 5.
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