Countless times I have heard disparaging remarks or hurtful jokes about people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. For those of us in this community, the ones we remember most are those that are directed or targeted towards us personally.
We all have those. I remember a few. I have worked hard to forget or replace the hateful words with thoughts and words of love. Well, mostly.
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The truth is that some wounds last a lifetime—and so many of us are wounded.
There are more than 900 hate groups currently operating in the U.S.; Muslims, Jews, Black people, and members of the LGBTQ community are most targeted. 20 to 25 percent of gay people experience a hate crime in their life. I would guess that every single one of us has experienced a rejection that left us with deep emotional wounds, and the impact takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth.
Like many LGBTQ people, I have suffered the prejudice of friends, family, and coworkers throughout my life. This judgment kept me from living authentically for part of my life, kept me from accepting myself fully. I wanted to be good and perfect, but being gay, I was told, made me “less than.” My lack of authenticity cost me relationships and connections; as I avoided my true self, I also avoided others.
Accepting myself and learning to live authentically, despite judgment and despite the deep wounds of rejection, took many years and a lot of work—and a lot of writing. I am a storyteller and poet. I write about love, loss, regret, and all of those experiences and feelings that make us human.
As I chose to live authentically, to break down the walls I built to protect myself from others, I became visible and vocal. I now use my writing to inspire change, build bridges, and expand our humanity. In my book and in my talks, I shine a light on those moments of intensity and insight that help us all grow.
My stories are personal to me, but the lessons are universal. When you live on the edges as a member of communities that are granted less status or privilege, you have unique experiences and moments that help you build deep insight.
Deep insight is rarely
Born out of privilege
It comes from
Experiencing the pain
Caused by others – or
The misgivings of life
To the voices
Of those who cry out
They sit along the edges
Outside the circle
Deep insight they bring
How we can all
Be more human
More loving – more giving
Deep insight is rarely
Born out of privilege
My 35-year professional life has been anchored in the development and transformational aspects of Human Resources; I now have the privilege of being the Chief Equality & Inclusion Officer at P&G.
I have been fortunate to have work that validates me. We are committed to being a force for good and a force for growth. We aspire to create a company and a world where equality and inclusion are achievable for all; where respect and inclusion are the cornerstones of our culture; where equal access and opportunity to learn, grow, succeed and thrive are available to everyone. And it’s the combination of my personal and professional experiences—and the deep insight they have imparted—that have prepared me for this work.
I had to make the choice to live authentically and trust others to accept, embrace, and value me for who I am. Imagine me coming out of the corporate closet and expecting my boss and my coworkers to accept me when I had so many previous experiences of rejection.
Sitting across from my new manager, Scott, in July of 1997, I was nervous. I told him I was going to be a mother—that my partner, Cindy, was pregnant with our child—and that I wasn’t sure how people would react or behave towards me when they learned. Without hesitation, Scott said, “Congratulations. There is no greater honor or joy than being a parent. And if anyone here gives you any problems, I will take care of them. You have my full support.”
I felt free and proud. I chose to live authentically. Scott chose to be a visible and vocal ally, and I truly learned that activists, allies, and champions can change the world—both systemically and one life at a time.
Activists, allies, and champions pushed P&G to make the types of policy changes that ensured my family had access to the benefits and security my straight colleagues took for granted. I am forever grateful for them; in a country where, even now, an individual can be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in 28 states, and over 50% of LGBTQ employees are closeted at work, P&G recognizes publicly that inclusive leadership helps us inspire and receive the most from the most essential and most valuable assets in our company – P&G employees. We believe deeply that a more equal world is a better world.
Scott was my first great ally in the workplace, but he certainly has not been the last. As I embraced my own choice to live authentically, I have been given ample examples of one truth: great leaders don’t allow people to be treated as “less than.” They understand the need and power of a level setting.
We are taught to see things and people
As better than and less than
Why not “different than?”
We have this need to level up and down
I win – you lose
You win – I lose
One up – one down
Why not “level set?”
Grant you space to be you
And I get to be me
We no longer need
To make one better than
To make one “less than”
What will it take to “level set?”
To see each other as different
But equally magnificent
Create space where everyone can shine
Cindy and I have needed to make many choices in order to build our life together and the family we love. In 2004, we moved to New York for a short period so that we could adopt our own children, as two people of the same gender in Ohio could not be legal parents together (back then). I had to resign from P&G to make the move, but I returned to P&G eighteen months later, as a legal mother to all three of our daughters.
We had to wait for thirty years, but on July 25, 2014, I married my best friend and life partner in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the deck of The Red Inn overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with our three daughters looking on.
Friendship. Career. Children. Marriage. Family. Love. Systems, policies, laws, and people focused on keeping these from us. We were wounded, time and again, by judgment and rejection.
But by choosing to live authentically, we gave other people the opportunity to become visible and vocal allies. Some did not. Some, like Scott and my mother-in-law, Alice, did—validating our humanity and our love and our ability to live fully as ourselves.
In 2005, Alice became the first person ever to introduce me properly: “This is my daughter-in-law, Shelly,” she said to a neighbor. A simple statement that was so meaningful. In 2005, I couldn’t legally marry her daughter—but we were connected by love, commitment, and three beautiful daughters. Alice didn’t need the law to properly define our relationship; she acknowledged the love and the relationship we had. No blanks, no pauses.
No Blanks, No Pauses
We don’t usually get the privilege
Of a title or label that includes and embraces us
We get the pause and the blanks
“This is Shelly and …. uhhh, Cindy”
It’s the kind of pause that forces the listener to wonder
Who I am and how I fit in
The realization usually settles in as they see me with my partner and kids
That all changed one rainy day in May
Sweet, loving, 86 year old Alice introduced me to a neighbor
“This is my daughter-in-law, Shelly”
No blanks, no pauses
Only love and genuine acknowledgement
Of who I was to her
No blanks, no pauses
Our daughters, Ali, Kate, and Nicole, have been some of the greatest gifts of our lives. They are incredible—smart, funny, and kind. They have the type of deep insight and kindness that are born from experiencing life differently than most. When Nicole was just five years old, she asked, “Hey, are we like the only family in the world with two moms or what?!” Of course, they aren’t—and we have been so fortunate to surround ourselves throughout their lives with the visible and vocal allies, activists, and champions that value our full humanity.
Still, no life is free from the wounds of rejection. On Mothers’ Day, 2013, one of my daughters sat Cindy and me down for a conversation that I hoped we’d never need to have. One of her former friends was bullying her, demeaning our family and her for having two moms.
My heart sank, and tears streamed down my face. I went to bed angry—but also very, very proud.
When my daughter told us, she started with, “I want you to know how much I love you. I can’t imagine having or wanting any other parents. You have given me so much—so much love. The most important thing you have taught me is to love and accept everyone. I try to do that. I need to share something with you. I don’t want to hurt you. I just need to tell you something.”
I was proud that our daughter had learned the lessons we so hoped she would learn. Bullies feed off of vulnerability; rejection cuts deeply into our softest parts. That bully made our daughter the target but underestimated the strength and power of love. Our daughter gained wisdom and deep insight from a lifetime of living authentically, surrounded by people who have made that choice.
I wrote a poem for my daughters when they were much younger:
A Letter For My Daughters
There will be those who will not like you
They will scorn, frown, and resent your very existence
They will pass you by, mock, tease, and never invite you to their birthday parties
They think that gay parents are less than – with nothing of value to teach
Their eyes are blinded by prejudice, fear, and hatred
Things you never learned from us
We’ve taught you kindness – share it abundantly
We’ve given you love, lots of love
Draw from it to keep you whole
We’ve given you faith, trust, and confidence in God, Self, and Others
You will need them often
Remember, your two moms came together
To create a family and legacy of love
You are an integral part of that plan
Yes, there are those who don’t see us in this light
Be patient and show them that love has no boundaries
My life, my career, and my family were built on top of the deep wounds of rejection and judgment—but the foundation was love, choice, authenticity, and truth. We have gained deep insight from our experiences and stood on the shoulders of the allies, activists, and champions who came before us to become the allies, activists, and champions that will push the world forward.
We will create a space where everyone can shine.
Shelly McNamara is the author of No Blanks, No Pauses and the Chief Equality & Inclusion Officer at Procter & Gamble.