Three years ago, I posted a picture on Instagram of a pair of shoes I purchased from the Nike Be True collection. I had a few friends in the LGBTQ community who were struggling with some particularly challenging adversity at the time, and while I didn’t think I had any idea what they were facing, I wanted to be supportive. So, I wrote to them. I said:
“The Nike #BeTrue campaign was created to empower those athletes of the LGBTQ community and encourage them to shine beyond the shadows of doubt cast by those who believe that who you love is not only a choice, but the wrong choice as well. I’ve watched too many of the people in my life as well as some complete strangers be questioned, judged and ridiculed because of who they are, and it’s heartbreaking. Though I will never fully know and understand how the members of the LGBTQ community feel, I will always stand for them, because what I do know is that love has no boundaries or limitations. Just as I couldn’t change loving a man of a different race, ethnicity, or background, no one else should be judged for loving someone based on gender. People are people, no matter who they are. And love is love no matter who you give it to. Go spread it without cause, and live each day through it.”
Ironically, I sit here, three years later, now fully knowing and understanding how my friends and those complete strangers felt then, and still feel unfortunately often. As it turns out, I’m right there with them. I’m a far cry from someone who has spent their life shackled by secrecy, suffering in silence. Recently though, I came to know a piece of myself that was confusing, but also undeniable and surprisingly freeing. When something feels off or like it’s missing for a long time, the moment in which you connect the dots is epiphanous. In that moment, time stands still, and a whole new future unfolds right in front of you.
It’s like having a huge puzzle of a breathtaking landscape or cityscape that is your life, but it’s missing one lone piece. It’s hard not to focus on what’s missing, because you know just how stunning the entire picture could be, but you can’t quite envision the whole thing with the black puzzle piece-shaped hole staring back at you. But when you find that piece, hidden deep beneath the couch cushion in layers of doubt, uncertainty, and how things are supposed to be, a flood of what feels like every emotion under the sun will wash over you. The hardest choice in that moment is deciding whether to place that piece where it will fit or to bury it back where it was hidden.
Fear, doubt, and confusion may overwhelmingly rush in first, but love, acceptance, and even a little grace will often show up when you least expect it, taming those treacherous waters that tried to overcome you. It can feel as though you were wearing a mask you didn’t even put on yourself, one of those that only has shallow holes for airways, making it impossible for you to breathe or see effectively. Then it falls off, and you realize what a true deep breath feels like. You realize just how vibrant the colors of the world around you are when you’re not squinting through two shaded lenses. And what ultimately can blanket you in all-encompassing comfort is the authenticity that finally radiates from every square inch of you when the real you is out in the open for everyone to see.
That choice, deciding whether the mirror gets to see the whole, beautiful picture that is you every morning, or deciding to avoid every reflective surface you come across, is far from an easy one to make. No one can change who they love or even rationalize exactly why they love who they do, because there is no rhyme or reason when it comes to matters of the heart. We can tell our minds all day long to suffocate what we think we want or what we’re scared we want. We can even try to trick ourselves into believing we want exactly what our version of the world tells us we should want. And that can be sustainable for a time, but it will always come at a cost. We’ll never be able to extinguish the true flames that emanate from the very fibers of our hearts and who they burn for. You can always choose to hide the puzzle piece or keep wearing the mask, but no matter what you do or what anyone else says, they will never cease to exist, regardless of how you or anyone else tries to alter them. Living beneath that cloak of fear will ultimately never keep others out; it will only lock you in.
At first, I absolutely tried to bury the puzzle piece. Over and over and over, I tried tirelessly to put it in its proper place, but time and time again, I ended up burying it, trying to rationalize doing so in every capacity I could think of, because it felt easier that way. I kept wearing the mask. The people I loved liked how I looked with it on, and for some, it was the only way they’d ever seen me before. What if what was underneath wasn’t someone they wanted to see?
I ran. I hid. I got pretty angry pretty often, too. At times it felt like failure, and at other times it stung like nothing ever had before, because I was affecting the hearts of others in an effort to protect my own. No matter what I did or how hard I tried, there was no time where it felt remotely right or peaceful to keep hiding.
There’s absolutely no shame in fearing pain, loss or disappointment — those are things we all fear, because they can hurt like hell. But your heart was not created to be incarcerated by anything, especially fear. With every beat, it provides life to every little piece of you, and when you learn to embrace your unique heartbeat just as it is, that’s where love begins to extinguish that fear and ultimately wins.
And that’s exactly what I’m choosing to do today and every day: embrace how my heart beats and who it beats for, rather than hide it. I’ve always found labels especially difficult to identify myself with in general. It’s not because I believe labels are wrong or negative in any way. Quite the opposite actually – they provide clarity, belonging and acceptance. I feel that I identify with all kinds of things.
I identify with kindness. With compassion. With empathy. With unconditional and unexplainable connection and community. And most of all, as always, I identify with love in every form that exists, because at the end of the day, love is love, no matter who you give it to. I’m in love with the most incredible person I’ve ever met in my life, and they happen to identify as “her” instead of “him.”
When you meet someone with whom your soul connects, whom your heart skips beats for and your smile shines a little bit brighter for, that can be the just wrecking ball that knocks down that last wall of fear you once frantically constructed around your heart. No other person can vanquish the demons that haunt you, fix the broken pieces your heart may be sitting in, or be the sole reason you live your life. But they can hold your shaking hand when you put that puzzle piece in its perfectly fitted place. And they can help you untie the knot holding the mask on your face. No other person can heal you, but there is so much strength in love from someone who sees you just as you are at any given time and chooses you every single time. When you find that person, never let them go.
I, like every other person out there, didn’t choose who I was in the past, who I am today, or who I will be in the future, but I am choosing to embrace what I can control: my actions. I think Macklemore said it best when he said, “Strip away the fear, underneath it’s all the same love.” Love will always be love, the most powerful force we will ever know, no matter who you are or who you have it for. Love is powerful, love is freeing, and maybe most of all, love is anything but a choice.