What's Your Coming Out Story?

Jan 23, 2015
Originally published on March 9, 2016 12:51 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Keeping Secrets

About Ash Beckham's TED Talk

Equality advocate Ash Beckham offers a fresh story about empathy and openness — and it involves pancakes.

About Ash Beckham

Ash Beckham is an equality advocate whose TEDx talk "Coming Out of Your Closet" went viral. She shares how coming out as a lesbian helped her appreciate our common humanity and better understand the secrets that we all have. She speaks all over the country.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's the Ted Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, ideas about secrets. A few weeks into her freshman year at Ohio State, Ash Beckham kissed a woman for the first time.

ASH BECKHAM: All of a sudden everything made sense. I was like, oh, this is what love songs are about. It's like the world of romance and love all of a sudden made sense.

RAZ: So it must've been amazing. I mean, on campus you were pretty open about it.

BECKHAM: Oh, no, I actively tried to hide it.

RAZ: Oh.

BECKHAM: You know, so I kind of had my straight world and my gay world and those two worlds didn't meet.

RAZ: Like, you were secretly dating a woman and very few people knew.

BECKHAM: Oh, like, that woman and I (laughter).

RAZ: OK, so this was all about 25 years ago. The world was a different place.

BECKHAM: There was no Ellen DeGeneres. There was no media portrayal of lesbian women. There were these kind of, like, negative stereotypes, if they existed at all.

RAZ: And Ash was scared because it wasn't just the secret about being gay that she was keeping. It was how being gay made her so much happier.

BECKHAM: To not be able to share the great things that were happening in my life with my parents became really hard for me.

RAZ: And when she'd go home at Thanksgiving or Christmas and see her family she'd steer the conversation to things like weather or TV shows because the fear of being judged was so powerful that she just couldn't talk about her secret. And that feeling started to become corrosive.

BECKHAM: I was so, you know, angry and bitter and uncomfortable with who I was. You almost feel like when you're hiding something, you know, you start to hunch over and you walk a little bit more stooped and you're, like, just physically protecting your heart, I feel like for lack of a better analogy. And so you actually, physically in the world, get smaller.

RAZ: By the time Ash was in her mid-20s, her relationship with her parents was distant, so one day her mom reached out.

BECKHAM: Then my mom had said, you know, things seem different. What's different? What's, you know, what's going on? We don't talk about anything anymore and we don't talk about anything that's important and I feel like you're cutting us out of your life. And, you know, I was like no, no, it's just busy out here. You know, you come up with a thousand excuses and finally she's like, are you questioning your sexuality? And I was like, yeah.

RAZ: And just like that the secret wasn't secret anymore. It was an incredible feeling, but in some ways it was just the beginning because Ash Beckham was still learning how to be open about who she was. Here's part of her story from the TED stage.


BECKHAM: I'm going to talk to you tonight about coming out of the closet and not in the traditional sense, not just the gay closet. I think we all have closets. Your closet may be telling someone you love her for the first time or telling someone that you're pregnant or telling someone you have cancer or any of the other hard conversations we have throughout our lives. All a closet is is a hard conversation, and although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary and we hate it and it needs to be done. Several years ago, I was working at the South Side Walnut Cafe, and during my time there I would go through phases of militant lesbian intensity - not shaving my armpits, quoting Ani DiFranco lyrics as gospel. And depending on the bagginess of my cargo shorts and how recently I had shaved my head, the question would often be sprung on me, usually by a little kid - are you a boy or are you a girl? And there would be an awkward silence at the table. I'd clench my jaw a little tighter, hold my coffee pot with a little more vengeance. The dad would awkwardly shuffle his newspaper and the mom would shoot a chilling stare at her kid. But I would say nothing, and I would seethe inside. And it got to the point that every time I walked up to a table that had a kid anywhere between 3 and 10 years old, I was ready to fight.


BECKHAM: And that is a terrible feeling. So I promised myself the next time I would say something. I would have that hard conversation. So within a matter of weeks, it happens again - are you a boy or are you a girl? Familiar silence, but this time I'm ready, and I am about to go all Women's Studies 101 on this table.


BECKHAM: I've got my Betty Friedan quotes. I've got my Gloria Steinem quotes. I've even got this little bit from "Vagina Monologues" I'm going to do. So I take a deep breath and I look down and staring back at me is a 4-year-old girl in a pink dress, not a challenge to a feminist duel, just a kid with a question - are you a boy or are you a girl?

So I take another deep breath, squat down to next to her, and say, hey, I know it's kind of confusing. My hair is short like a boy's, and I wear boy's clothes, but I'm a girl, and you know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress, and sometimes you like to wear your comfy jammies? Well, I'm more of a comfy jammies kind of girl.


BECKHAM: And this kid looks me dead in the eye, without missing a beat, and says, my favorite pajamas are purple with fish. Can I get a pancake, please?


BECKHAM: And that was it. Just, oh, OK, you're a girl. How about that pancake?

RAZ: I wonder if, in some ways, like, you are freer if you don't have any secrets - like, if you're just - if it's all out there then it's like nobody can sort of hold anything over you, you know?

BECKHAM: Right, if you just are who you are in the world I think there is a huge freedom to being authentically who you are, and that a lot of ways, you know, if you're limited in your ability to openly and honestly and authentically express yourself your output to the world is less. There's a net loss to energy being put in a closet.

RAZ: Do you think we keep secrets to protect ourselves?

BECKHAM: Oh, absolutely. A secret, typically, is holding what you perceive as one of your imperfections and those secrets are, like, the nitty-gritty of what's going on. Like, those end up being your scars, the stuff that you would, like, Photoshop out of your life if you could, but it's just to you genuinely are. And you find out that the people that you interact with on a daily basis or care about do have these imperfections. That empowers people to show theirs, too.


BECKHAM: So, like many of us, I've lived in a few closets in my life, and yeah, most often my walls happen to be rainbow, but inside, in the dark, you can't tell what color the walls are. You just know what it feels like to live in a closet. So really my closet is no different than yours or yours or yours. Sure, I'll give you a hundred reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here's the thing - heart is not relative, heart is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone you just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming-out story is harder than telling your 5-year-old you're getting a divorce? There is no harder, there is just hard. We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else's hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard. At some point in our lives, we all live in closets, and they may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door, but I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.

Hard conversations are still not my strong suit. Ask anybody I have ever dated. But I'm getting better, and I follow what I like to call the three Pancake Girl principles. Now, please view this through gay-colored lenses, but know what it takes to come out of any closet is essentially the same. Number one - be authentic. Take the armor off, be yourself. That kid in the cafe had no armor, but I was ready for battle. If you want someone to be real with you they need to know that you bleed, too. Number two - be direct. Just say it. Rip the Band-Aid off. If you know you are gay, just say it. And number three - and most important - you are speaking your truth. Never apologize for that. And some folks may have gotten hurt along the way, so sure, apologize for what you've done, but never apologize for who you are. And yeah, some folks may be disappointed, but that is on them, not on you. Those are their expectations of who you are, not yours. That is their story, not yours. The only story that matters is the one that you want to write.

RAZ: I mean, it sounds almost too simple, but revealing a secret, I mean, can really change your life.

BECKHAM: Oh, yeah. There are few things that can happen to you externally that can be more impactful than being honest with yourself. I mean, me finally coming out changed the course of my life, and when you kind of give yourself permission to be who you are, the impact that that has on everything from, you know, your physical stature to your emotional health to your physical well-being to the people you bring into your life - there is nothing more impactful than giving yourself permission to do that.

RAZ: Ash Beckham lives in Boulder, Colorado. Check out her full talk at ted.npr.org. By the way, Ash recently revealed another secret.

BECKHAM: About four days ago, I proposed to my girlfriend and for a week I had to keep it from her and that was...

RAZ: Oh, congratulations.

BECKHAM: Oh, thank you. She said yes, so I was excited.

RAZ: (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.