As we enter the month of June, we also enter a month dedicated to celebrating Pride. "What does Pride Month mean to you?" we asked Benjamin Heyn, a resident and LGBTQ+ activist within the Grand Rapids Community. We've learned that it goes farther beyond what many of our eyes have been trained to see. This Q&A is part one of a two-part piece with Benjamin Heyn.
As we enter the month of June, we also enter a month dedicated to celebrating Pride. "What does Pride Month mean to you?" we asked Benjamin Heyn, a resident and LGBQT+ activist within the Grand Rapids Community. We've learned that it goes farther beyond what many of our eyes have been trained to see.
Rapid Growth Media: What does Pride month mean to you?
Benjamin Heyn: For me Pride—be it month, week or a parade—is an opportunity to not only wear glitter and crop top down the street, but to express yourself in a way that honors the fact that trans people, gay people, and queer people in general, fought, bled, and literally died for my right as a human to be recognized. There are a lot of people that think Pride perpetuates negative stereotypes the LGBTQ+ community, but I think its an opportunity for us to come together and celebrate our differences.
RG: What has been your most impactful Pride experience?
BH: Last year, the morning after the Pulse massacre, I drove the grand marshal’s convertible in the Key West Pride parade. To my right was Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk’s nephew, who has been for a lifetime a champion for oppressed peoples in dark corners of the world. When he left Key West, he went to Kiev and led the Gay Pride parade there and had rocks thrown at him. He puts himself in harm's way because he sees how important it is for people to see that you are more than how others define you. I want to be more like that; I strive to be more like that. I am intentional about putting my voice, my body, and my agency in between the oppressed and the oppressor at any opportunity. When I see it I say something. I want it to matter that I am gay, because it matters to me.
RG: You say that it matters that you are gay, but we hear so frequently in common culture that it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter?
BH: I appreciate the sentiment. I appreciate the allies of the LGBTQ+ community that are doing their best to recognize me as an individual, not me as a label. But I also believe that it does matter; me being queer matters. It doesn't define me, but it is included in my definition. Too often young people hurt themselves or take their own lives because they are told who they are is not enough, is incomplete, or full of sin, or they feel limited because of how full of shame they are, or the guilt that has been placed on them from external voices. That’s why it matters why I am gay.
When someone tells me “I am cool with it,” or I've been to a gay bar, it was weird or “it just weirds me out,” I meet them right there. I’ve learned to not get angry and not be combative. Instead, I’ve learned to ask better questions. I’ve learned to take a deep breath before I speak. I've learned to listen, because their voice matters, too.
RG: How do you empathize with that mindset?
BH: I've learned to ask better questions. What does this feel like for you? What is your experience? I appreciate everyone doing their best. I try to meet them where they are.
RG: When did you begin to discover this sense of self?
BH: In my early 20’s I began the coming-out process. From 19-22 I was in the beginning of my journey as an openly gay man. I think its important to acknowledge and appreciate that it is a process. Coming out is a challenge; every singly moment of every single day. Especially at the beginning.Those three little words that are so life changing. "I am gay".
But you find strength when you have a level of self-understanding and self-respect. To get to that point I had to walk through self doubt, shame, insecurity, and more mistakes than I care to remember. There was emptiness in my very heart and soul. A very emptiness of not being a part of the “American Dream”—the middle-class ideal that I grew up with. Within all the systems in my life—my school system, religion, popular culture—all the messages I was receiving were telling me that was the goal. And for a long time I bought it. Until I met somebody that introduced me to who I really was.
RG: Your first relationship after coming out, what did that change for you?
BH: Through falling in love I was able to find the courage to own my reality and accept my truth. Losing that relationship was also the reason I hit a depth so low and I was able to address my alcoholism. The most beautiful thing about the truth it is always there. It isn't my quote, and I don't know who said it, but for the longest time it scared me. But now I live by it. I embrace it. Through accepting my sexuality I no longer needed to hide behind substances - coming out and getting sober are interconnected for me. I am not afraid of my truth.
Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.