The Value in my Authenticity by Robyn Michalec
I came out of the closet when I was 16 in a Wisconsin town that did not embrace its LGBTQ+ community. In many instances, it outright rejected those who came out of the closet. Fortunately, I have an overwhelmingly supportive family, and I only lost a couple of friends as I embraced my identity as a queer woman for the first time in my life. Despite my luck in receiving unwavering love from my family and many of my friends, I was not shielded from the backlash of my community. I was harassed, bullied, and threatened by classmates and community members who I had previously considered friendly neighbors. I did not hold my girlfriend’s hand in public. There were nights I cried myself to sleep, wishing to be straight.
I think about my younger self often in my service at the Great Falls LGBTQ+ Center. I see my own experiences reflected in the stories of the youth that utilize the Center for resources, referrals, and a social space where they can be themselves in a town that, much like the one I grew up in, is not quick to accept the LGBTQ+ community. When young people gather at the Center together, fully at ease and respected around each other, I feel relief on behalf of my younger self, who could have never imagined a space where she wouldn’t constantly second guess her emotional and physical safety.
That feeling is one that gets me through the difficult days of service—and there are plenty of them. A core part of my service year so far has been engaging in community surveying to identify what resources already exist for the LGBTQ+ community and what spaces may act as a threat. As I work to create networks of affirming religious, medical, and educational spaces, I am reminded of the hatred my younger self would constantly stumble upon in my daily life. Luckily, I have much thicker skin now than I did at 16 years old, and I take comfort in the fact that my service may help the queer youth of Great Falls avoid a small fraction of the hatred the world has at the ready for them. I hope my service will remove some of that constant second guessing; I hope my service will guide them to the doctors, therapists, and educators who will respect them and their identity entirely.
I am here, and I am a proud, openly queer woman. As I plan events, reorganize programming, and survey my community, I am fully and completely here. That in and of itself is essential in my service. I’ve thought about how to describe this, and I think the only way I know how is through a cliché: I am the person my younger self needed.
And while my presence may seem like a given part of my service, it also has not been easy. Every day, there is an underlying fear of being my authentic self in my community. I question how I dress, how I present myself, and how I describe myself and my experiences. Every week, I encounter anti-LGBTQ+ speakers, posters, Facebook messages or posts, and visitors to the Center. Every day, I consider only bringing only part of myself into my community. But from my own experiences before Great Falls, and in my time here the past five months, I know there is value in bringing my full self to everything I do. There is indispensable value in creating spaces where people do not have to fear bringing their full selves to participate in life. As long as there is value in that, I commit to never leaving apiece of myself behind.