The concept of leadership can be daunting when we so regularly deal with hardships and difficulties in our own day-to-day lives. We might wonder: How can I lead others when I’m dealing daily with the challenges of learning who I am and who I want to become?
From my experience, I say, lead yourself first. Take no shame or guilt from people who don’t support you. Support yourself. Self-appreciation and self-love is the first step to truly supporting those around you.
Growing up, I first thought I had AIDS at eight years old.
I lived in a town that did not support true awareness about health or sexuality. I was a part of a community that made me think that if I liked another boy instead of a girl, I had AIDS. Then one day, I took a fateful bus ride to the only organization in my town that was in the phone book under the title 'HIV', and I met a very compassionate and understanding group of leaders who taught me a lot.
Some would say, they saved me.
I met people who accepted me as I was. I was introduced to people living with HIV/AIDS who were accepting food from an ongoing food distribution center based in one woman's garage. Her brother had died of AIDS.
It was important for me, at that time, to learn the distinctions of seroconversion. HIV is not AIDS. Many readers now may think, well...duh! In my mind, at the time, this was an awakening moment, a time for me to learn a lot from the people I trusted: history, facts, to bend my mind toward the incredible opportunities that I am still benefiting from today.
Their love and compassion toward me changed how I thought about myself. I began to think: I am great, and I am great because I am here with friends who love me for who I am.
I was very happy to learn that liking men did not mean I was HIV positive. It only meant I was gay. What a blessing! In my mind, at the time, all I had known was the opposite: that being gay was a path toward death and loss of family and friends. That I would be alone and ridiculed, stagnant and forever lost.
That is when began volunteering with my local HIV/AIDS organization. I secretly took a bus after school to help with the food distribution program, meeting with and talking with people living with HIV/AIDS and learning enough about their lives to fill a novel.
I continued. I kept going and kept being a part of the group. I kept showing up and kept being involved. Even today, almost twenty years later, I am surprised by the determination of my youth, but I kept doing it. This was freedom in friendship and love, in discovery and self empowerment.
I know service, to other people, is not often considered a personal benefit, but I benefited every day from the stories and the compassion people shared with me, even while they were struggling in health and life themselves.
I didn't think I was a leader at the time. I was simply learning. Simply playing a role, being a student.
That is, until I came to a point in high school when I decided that a Gay/Straight Alliance for students should be created. I had had enough of the bullying and verbal abuse I endured from other students, and I had learned too much to think I was alone in this situation.
From the many histories I had heard, this was no big deal. I could create a safe space for myself and my peers to come together and learn more, to say to each other: you are great, and you have a future ahead of you.
At my school, a teacher needed to sign-on to be a student group sponsor; after asking four teachers I thought I had a good relationship with, it began to sink in that this project was actually a big deal in my town. These teachers were afraid of the higher-ups in the administration.
Then it happened. One teacher came to me and said, "I am here for you if you want." This person of incredible determination, this fearless woman, showed me the true meaning of leadership: she said she would support me despite everything, in any personal professional hardship. That she stood with me and all the other students who wanted a safer place to learn.
All of a sudden, we were in legal proceedings with my high school district.
I had reached out to the ACLU and the Gay/Straight Alliance foundations because my GSA had all the proper and procedural requirements, yet was denied permission to meet,. Those organizations lent me support. They took lead in negotiations.
This would eventually create a Gay/Straight Alliance student club in one of the largest high school districts in the United States. I couldn't believe it.
This teacher, this true and determined educator, who signed on...now, she was a leader. I was just trying my best to say against wrong, "this is right"! As for me, though? It wasn't until my second year of college that I found out that I could be considered a leader, too.
That year, a couple friends and I started the first pan-gender social Greek organization in the United States, what we called a 'frarority'. That year, I finally understood my role as a leader in the queer rights movement.
It wasn't when I hosted gay youth kicked out of their homes by disapproving parents in high school. It wasn't the many youth LGBT summits I went to. It wasn't being part of the marriage equality movement in my town that was initiated after the lawsuit with my high school. It was being in a position to educate people on the importance of self-acceptance, of embracing the friends that will forever surround you, and of being free enough to appreciate who you are as a person.
At that moment, it switched: from simply being me, to understanding my capacity to lead others.
Now I am a volunteer with an international human rights organization, working in health advocacy for adolescents and new mothers. I mainly teach teenagers about puberty and youth development, things that are not often taught in homes.
All of us are leaders in our own way. Most of the time we, as queer people, are better suited for leadership because of the armor we’ve had to wear to survive for today and move toward a better tomorrow.
Today, tomorrow, every day, there is a gift, something to look forward to. We don't know yet -- or at least I don't -- who we will become, but I do know I will help lead the way for myself, and the people I now know are loved ones: my friends and family, and my community.