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Sometimes Inspiration Comes With Instant Coffee

SpeakOUT presentation

By George Grattan

Here’s what I expected: Hard folding chairs. Bad instant coffee. Binders full of “how to” materials. Nervous strangers. A chilly church basement. Assorted bagels. A long day with an early start. Sincere interest alternating with jaded boredom.

Yup: I was heading into a training session.

In this case, the one-day Fall 2014 Speaker Training for SpeakOUT Boston, the nation’s oldest LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual) speakers bureau. And I was heading into a room with 21      fellow trainees, 6 trainers, and a few other volunteers.

At first, I got what I expected, for the most part, with some key differences and some critical improvements. For one thing: the instant coffee was really good. No, really.

More importantly, I got a surprise almost from the start in the group’s diversity. Every identity along the LGBTQIA acronym seemed to be represented, and by more than one person, which is rare in circles that tend to be disproportionately full of cisgender gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women.

Scott training

Scott Grady, senior trainer, kept the training flowing throughout the day.

As a bisexual cisgender man, I was floored to discover myself just one of at least four in the room—that rarely happens, even at meetings of bisexual organizations. The transgender and intersex communities were well represented as well, with at least 5 people present identifying their sex and/or gender identities in these ways. Allies were in the circle in the form of two PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of LGBTQ People) members, one a retired dad with a lesbian daughter, the other a grandmother with a gender non-conforming granddaughter.

We hailed not only from around Boston and Massachusetts, as I had expected would be the case, but also from New Hampshire, Colorado, Illinois, and even California, with representatives of the American Institute of Bisexuality in attendance from Chicago and Los Angeles. All in all, it was, to me, a pleasantly and surprisingly eclectic and engaged group of would-be speakers, veteran speakers and trainers, and other volunteers.

James & Julie

James and Julie told their stories early in the day to demonstrate SpeakOUT’s format to the trainees.

And the food? The food was actually amazing. All day. Loads of fresh fruit. Greek yogurt. Peanut butter. Good bagels. Tacos for lunch. Homemade cookies, fresh-baked in the afternoon. Go figure.

But we weren’t there, officially, to nosh. Rather, we were drawn by the promise of becoming ready to “tell the truths” of our lives to a wide range of audiences—from high school health classes to college and university clubs to church-affiliated social justice groups to corporate diversity training gatherings—in order “to create a world free of homo-bi-trans-phobia and other forms of prejudice.” Simple, right?

Far from it. Even for those of us with a background in theater, teaching, presenting, or others forms of performance (many of us in the room), the prospect of getting up in front of groups of people and telling some of our most emotionally intimate, significant, and transformative life moments in order to foster greater understanding was daunting. I confess to having had more than one bout of butterflies during the day, and this was only training.

Still, as one veteran trainer told us in a session on dealing with fear, “You can’t stop the butterflies from coming, but you can teach them to fly in formation.” Marshaling the nervous energy that comes with public speaking—which ranks tops in surveys of what people fear most, along with death, snakes, and spiders—is a key part of being able to put oneself “out there” to the audience in an authentic way, and we picked up a number of tips and tricks and time-tested techniques for doing so. From breath control, to articulation, enunciation, and projection, to providing story hooks and sensory details, we learned how to craft stories a few minutes long and deliver them with some sense of calm and authenticity.

Ellyn talking

Executive Director Ellyn Ruthstrom described the process of setting up engagements and working with speakers.

As is nearly always the case with such trainings, by far the best moments of the day occurred during small group sessions, where we got a chance to drill down into our stories and work on story-shaping with smaller teams. I found myself moved to tears at hearing the expression of a father’s anguish over the fear his lesbian daughter had felt at coming out in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death. I shared in the rueful, painful laughs offered by a bisexual woman as she recounted two instances in which those in the LGBTQIA community who should have known better had called her very identity into question. I marveled at the story of a transgender child having found near-instant acceptance and support of his transition from his grandmother. I enjoyed hearing the journey one young woman made from being a combative outsider because of her “big gay family” (she has a lesbian mother and grandmother) to being proud of her own queer identity. I went cold and clammy with recognition at the story told by a fellow bisexual man about the moment he felt “found out” by his high school classmates in a publically humiliating way. Hearing the truths of these lives transformed me, and inspired me to try to tell my story in better, more powerful, more honest and transparent ways.

Bill explaining

Tenured speaker and board member, Bill Barnert, contributed many great tips to the training.

In a morning session I worked on a tale about first realizing I was “different” when, in the fourth grade, I was told I couldn’t give Valentine’s Day cards to both a little girl and a little boy I had crushes on, and about my sense of disappointment in not getting any recognition of my affections from either of them. It’ll make a cute story, and will probably work well for younger audiences and high schools, especially if I remember to include the sensory details of the construction paper and the paste on one’s hands alongside the emotional roller-coaster of waning childhood and its first crushes. By the afternoon session, I felt moved and supported enough to tell a story that plunges a bit deeper into my heart, that of coming out as bisexual only “partially” in my twenties, and of “completing” that process with my family just this past year, including coming out to my mother on Mother’s Day. (Yeah, I’m working on a pitch to Hallmark…)

The helpful critiques and support I got from the small groups and the larger groups throughout the day were immeasurably valuable. I’m not quite ready to tell my stories in front of a “real” audience, but I’m close. A few “shadowing” opportunities to see how it’s done will allay my lingering hesitancy, which is great because SpeakOUT requires exactly that kind of observation before sending new speakers out to be paired with veterans to give their first talks.

Alex & Rob

Rob Mersereau and Alex Lucchesi demonstrated how to respond to difficult questions.

I’ll be honest: I’m as much of a cynic about these types of trainings (having been to a number of them over the years on various topics) as I am an idealist about the value of the work they’re training people for. I came into this training prepared to endure, and to check several requirements off a list, expecting I’d pick up a few tips and techniques and maybe gain some confidence, but not much more. Mostly, I expected my butt would be killing me from sitting on a folding chair all day.

(Okay, that last one did happen.)

I didn’t expect I’d be crying at more than one story during the day. I didn’t expect I’d get to engage with such a diverse group of people. I didn’t expect the lead trainer and all his assistants would be knowledgeable, funny, kind, tough, supportive, and capable of sticking to a schedule. (Wow.) I didn’t know I’d meet so many fellow bisexuals, along with so many transgender people, and parents, and grandparents, and young activists. I didn’t know I’d conquer my own fears enough to speak in front of the whole group at the end of the day, which I would have told you I absolutely wouldn’t do if you’d asked me a day or two before. And I really didn’t know I’d find myself in a group-hug at the end of a long day, in a chilly church meeting room, not squirming, but enjoying these people, and wishing I had more time to spend with them. I don’t “do” group hugs.

But we’d all earned this one.

So, I guess I’ll be getting out there on some SpeakOUT engagements as soon as possible, because if I learned one thing in training it’s this: everyone gets a lot more from a SpeakOUT experience than they’re expecting. Even cynical idealists like me.

 

 

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