By River Olsen
When SpeakOUT’s Executive Director, Ellyn, asked me if I was ready to tell my story for the Walnut Hill School for the Arts engagement, my heart both skipped a beat and started racing off into the hills. I was thrilled and excited to finally have a chance to step up and speak out – to tell my story for the first time as a SpeakOUT speaker. But that enthusiasm came hand-in-hand with anxiety, stress, worry, fear, nerves. I ruminated like this for days: “Am I ready for this? I have only shadowed once, and I don’t feel like my story is interesting enough. I’m really soft-spoken. What if I can’t answer a question correctly? What if I freeze up? What if, what if, what if?!”
Despite all my worries, I agreed to take on the engagement and spent hours working on my story – writing drafts, outlining, and trying to fold interesting hooks into its telling. When the day finally came, Ellyn and I drove out to Natick to meet our fellow co-speaker Marcy and the student leadership of the Walnut Hill School GSA (cleverly re-monikered as the Gender & Sexuality Alliance). We were greeted with lots of smiling, laughing, and warmth – my tenseness lessened a bit.
At last we were all led into the auditorium where three chairs awaited us on a stage. While we were sitting on the stage as some 200 teenagers streamed into the room, I was sharply aware of a sense of ecstatic anticipation – a jumbled mix of nerves and elation. It was finally happening! Music began to play from the loudspeakers, and as I looked out into the audience, I saw several students jump to their feet and start dancing amid the rows of seats. Immediately, I grinned at the expressiveness and genuineness of these students, and my nervousness fell away.
The students themselves were amazing! I could feel that they were truly listening to our stories, and they all asked such interesting questions. One question that stood out in particular was around how we handle traveling in countries and cultures that are less-than-friendly for LGBTQIA folks. I deeply admired the way my co-speakers worked together to answer the question from their own experiences, especially when I wasn’t able to think of anything to say.
Another set of questions from students and faculty asked Marcy and me about genderqueer and genderfluid identities. It was a rare gem to have such an engaging and nuanced conversation around non-binary gender identity in a setting like that. It really gave me a lot of hope to see wonderful questions like these coming from folks who genuinely want to learn from experiences different from their own.
When I first started to speak, I stuck pretty closely to the story I had prepared in advance. But once I spoke, I discovered – with some surprise, I might add – that I was truly moved by finally hearing my own story spoken aloud. It was liberating and validating and affirming and unburdening. And as I continued to tell my story and answer questions, I noticed that I was now speaking from my heart – an authenticity that was finally becoming transparent. That was the reason my nerves had disappeared – I was just being myself without fear of judgment.
River Olsen is a queer trans woman who lives in East Boston with her wife, Katie, and daughter, Lisbeth. She is currently in the second year of her MDiv program at Harvard Divinity School, and has been interning with SpeakOUT Boston for the last six months.