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  • benjaminnewman01

Mod. 1.0 - Public Narrative: From Three Stories to One

Prepare written versions of your Stories of Self, Us, and Now in preparation for developing your public narrative. So that you are prepared to begin working on editing your three stories (Self, Us, and Now) into a single public narrative when you arrive in Minneapolis for Leader as Community Builder, your prep week assignment is to submit written versions of your three stories. The reasons for this are (1) to ensure you capture these stories as fully as possible and have all the necessary elements included; and (2) working with written versions to start will be easier than working from your videos.



In life, we all carry various identifiers that people use to understand us. They might be where we're from, our upbringing, our personalities or our physical traits. Our identifiers can be either positive or negative, and I saw both sides growing up closeted in the Midwest with Deaf, Armenian, Polish grandparents on my mom’s side, and Jewish immigrant grandparents on my dad’s. My parents gave me even more identifiers when they became Evangelical Christians and chose to homeschool me and my 9 brothers and sisters. Whenever I left the house, which was rare since I was homeschooled, I began to see how my identifiers shaped other people’s perception of me in different circles. Whether I was at Armenian day camp, celebrating Hannukah, going to Sunday School at Church, or meeting other Deaf folks, each one perceived me differently, but the one commonality they shared was that it was not okay to be gay.

The result was that I didn’t come out to friends until I was almost 25, and it was another two years before I told my family. I knew my parents wouldn’t be supportive, so whenever I’d think about coming out, I’d start to feel the emotionally impenetrable walls I’d built up over two decades start to bubble up as my most trusted defense mechanism. So I did what Midwesterners do best, and I avoided the conversation off for as long as I could. So what changed?

Well, in the spring of 2015, I was living in New York City, working my ass off at two jobs, and building a great professional network in hospitality and the performing arts. I had a work conference in D.C. and on my train back to the city after the conference, Amtrak 188 derailed just past 30th St. Station in Philadelphia, killing 8 people, and injuring 200 of the 243 passengers and crew. I was one of 35 people fortunate to walk away with only minor scrapes and bruises.

For weeks afterwards I felt like a ghost. I researched coping strategies and discovered the term NDE, or Near Death Experience, and how some NDE survivors experience intense emotions causing extreme behavior. I remember feeling like I just wanted to eat, workout, drink, and dance, as if my body was saying “if you’re going to BE ALIVE, you’re going to fucking LIVE!”

While navigating these extreme emotions, I realized how my fear of coming out to my parents was preventing me from living as my authentic, true self. After surviving the train crash, it was as if the emotionally impenetrable walls I’d built up out of fear had been broken down by the NDE and I suddenly felt empowered to put up my fists, knowing I was finally ready to face whatever reaction my parents might have when I told them I was gay.


While the circumstances that led to me coming out to my parents may have been unique, the experience of confronting one’s fears, in the face of potentially dangerous or harmful circumstances, is certainly not. My community is made up of the millions of people all over the world who have faced, and continue to face, tremendous adversity and persecution for who they are and have found incredible strength to overcome life-threatening circumstances. I grew up hearing many stories from both my Armenian and Jewish relatives of what it was like for their families and communities to overcome the threat of extermination and find the strength to survive both the Genocide and the Holocaust. It taught me that if they could survive being persecuted for who they were, then I could survive coming out to my parents.

And while the fear of backlash or ostracization from my parents was bad, there are millions of Queer people all over the world, who face the same kinds of threats my Armenian and Jewish family members faced during World War I and World War II. In the United States today, many Queer people are blessed not to face persecution for who they are, but that’s not true for all Queer people, and it’s only in the last decade that mass acceptance for the LGBTQ community has emerged. According to recent data collected by the Pew Research Center, 7% of Americans, approximately 23,000,000, identify as LGBTQ of which 1.5% or around 5,000,000 identify as nonbinary or trans. With so much risk associated with identifying as queer, and minors not included in data collection, the actual percentages are likely higher than those reported. And while the media makes it seem that LGBTQ acceptance is growing, and corporations are more than happy to slap a rainbow on any product to appear like inclusive allies, the ACLU is currently tracking 491 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in 45 states.

These bills are not just political stunts designed to fire up a base of voters or gain election support from donors. They are part of a very real effort to take America back to a time where queer people were forced to live in hiding and faced very real consequences for expressing their sexual and gender identities. Their goal is to reinforce a cruel and false ideology that teaches people to believe lies about the queer community and to disregard the veracity of their lived experiences. Their arguments mirror the same ones used by some of history’s most despicable characters to justify their actions as they sought to exterminate entire populations of different ethnic and social groups in the first half of the 20th Century.

One of those targeted groups in World War I, were the Armenians. Their experience at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, was not only the reason why the word genocide was invented, but also became a source of inspiration for Hitler’s plans to exterminate Europe’s Jewish and Roma populations during World War II. On August 22, 1939, in a statement to his commanding generals preparing for the impending invasion of Poland, Hitler is quoted saying “I have placed my death-head formations in readiness with orders for them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

If it seems like an exaggeration to create a parallel between the experiences of Queer Americans today and those of 20th Century Armenians and Jews, I would offer a reminder that thousands of queer people were also the victims of Hitler’s hateful ideology.


When I came out to my parents, I realized that my conviction to live proudly as an out, queer person was built on my family’s heritage of both Holocaust and Armenian Genocide survivors whose hope and resilience in the face of literal extermination led them to America’s shores to rebuild their lives. I remember saying to them, "I am an Armenian and Jewish, Gay man. Powerful authoritarians have spent millions of dollars and enlisted the might of armies in order to ensure that my combination of identities would never exist. So now that I’m here, am I supposed to hide who I am? Or do I wear my identities proudly and show the world what an Armenian, Jewish, Gay man looks like?”

Today, I feel a deep responsibility to show the world what that looks like by noting the parallels between our current political landscape and the circumstances that forced my forebears to leave their ancestral homes. I hope that queer people today will not have to worry about a future where our identities are the focus of violent political worldviews, but a future where we can live like everyone else. Where laws protecting LGBTQ+ rights are irrevocably ensconced into the constitution ensuring equal treatment and justice for all. Where we have spiritual homes that fully accept and celebrate our identities; where we have accessible and affirming healthcare because all medical professionals receive training in LGBTQ+ health; where our identities are not subject to arcane language and offensive grammar; where the varied intersectionalities and spectrum of gender identity is not up for debate; and where all non-binary, transgender, and genderqueer individuals are safe and able to live their lives as valued members of society, and where the only time a political leader uses the word exterminate is in reference to hateful and dehumanizing ideologies.

Surviving a train crash may not have been the impetus I imagined for coming out to my parents. But my near death experience taught me to ask two questions: What kind of life do I want to live? And what am I willing to die for?

I want to live honoring the legacy and sacrifices of my Armenian and Jewish relatives by embodying their spirit of determination to fiercely advocate for queer people by remembering the lives of the queer revolutionaries who stood up and fought during the Stonewall Uprising, by dancing proudly in the streets of New York during Pride, and by sharing my story armed with the power of three fundamental truths:

that Queer rights are Human rights;

that greater freedom for Queer people means greater freedom for all;

and that each of us has a role to play in creating the future we want to see.

Thank you.

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