Ash Beckham is an energetic and dynamic public speaker. Her YouTube video, I am SO GAY garnered 350,000+ views in less than 2 weeks. The video has been shown in classrooms and boardrooms around the globe increasing the number of actual views to well over 500,000. By blending honesty and humor, Ash delivers unforgettable talks about why we need to remove the word “gay” as a pejorative from our lexicon. Through a personal connection with her audience, Ash inspires people to individually change and be part of a bigger societal shift toward conscious word choice.
E: How did that first talk come about and were you surprised when it went majorly viral?
AB: The first talk was Ignite Boulder 20 and that came from the inspiration I found at Ignite Boulder 19 December 2012. I had never been to the event before and the first speaker had me completely hooked. He was authentic and charming and awkward and vulnerable and I loved him. I thought “I bet I could do that”. I do event work, primarily in the summer so my winter time is pretty slow. I promised myself, next time they were having one I would apply – expecting it to be in May. Turns out it was February but I kept my promise and they picked me. I really never expected it to go viral at all. It was written for the 850 people in that room. Not half a million. I was just excited it was going to be on YouTube so my buddies that missed it could see it. I really didn’t expect more than that.
E: I go into the schools as a representative of my local LGBT Center and talk openly about being a lesbian, and sometimes bring my transgender friends with me. When I ask the kids how many times TODAY that they heard the word Gay or Fag almost every hand in the room shoots up. I hope I am making a slow but steady dent in the behavior by showing up and telling my story. What do you think it will take to really turn the tide?
AB: I think it takes 2 things. Teachers need to be strong enough to demand that derogatory speech in any way will not be tolerated in their classroom. No one would think twice for disciplining a child for using the N word. There is no difference. We have to make classrooms safe and protected spaces for our kids. Secondly, kids need to be empowered to stand up to their peers. We need to have a societal shift that moves us toward compassion and empathy and taking responsibility for the way our words impact others. There was a time when racial slurs were accepted by the majority. No longer. We need folks to stand up and say it is not OK to call someone a fag. In any negative context – ever.
E: My son is writing his college application essay about being from an LGBT family and taking a stand to educate his peers about how using gay slurs hurts people. We’ve had several suicides in our local schools in the past few years because of gay bullying, so I am acutely aware of how serous this issue is. Do you have any advice for parents and kids in gay families? Do you think it’s the non-gay parents and kids that can take a stand and make an even bigger impact?
AB: My advice would be to keep communication open. Adolescence is such a hard time for students and their families regardless of sexuality. I think parents need to be open to whatever is going on with their kids regardless of if they completely understand it or not. I know that is easier said than done, but it is critical. And parents need to be brave enough to take a stand for their kids to ensure their protection at school. Also, I would say it is critical to find the allies in your community to stand with you. That impact will be even greater. And I think non-gay parents and kids have a tremendous impact. The power of the ally is immeasurable. It used to be that our allies were our family members and closest friends. “I support equality because my sister or my college roommate is gay”. Which is great but also not objective. When we have people standing up because their pediatrician is gay or their kid’s best friend’s parents are gay, it broadens our circle to include people that choose to stand up for gay folks. Not because it is their duty as a family member. It normalizes our issue which makes it less scary.
E: I struggled to come out of the closet in the 70’s and people seem to think its so much easier today. Do you believe that is true?
AB: In some ways, sure. There are GSAs and laws in place to protect kids coming out more so than 40 years ago. But I think its also harder. Social media and bullying are so much more intense than 40 years ago. No matter how advanced the culture has become, you still have to come to terms with the fact that you are not like the majority of folks in society. You are different and you can’t change it and people will judge you and criticize you and hate you for that. I don’t care what decade it is, that is an extremely difficult thing to do.
E: I think keeping secrets is unhealthy for mind body and spirit. Is coming out as gay really so different than other ‘shameful’ circumstances? Why are closets so detrimental to us as humans?
AB: I tried to address this in my most recent talk in September at TEDx Boulder. The biggest reason they are detrimental is because when you are in the closet about something, you are not living your life in an authentic way. You are not living your life to your full potential. That is harmful to you and to society. We need all the greatness we can get. We don’t need perfect. We need authentic. And on a more physical level, living in a closet causes stress. And chronic exposure to stress and the chemicals it releases in your body disrupts nearly every system in your body.
E: Whats on the horizon for Ash Beckham?
Still working that out. Hopefully more speaking engagements in 2014. I really enjoy working with students to make their schools a safer place. But the message resonates with many adults as well. I feel like the vast majority of society wants to live in a way that doesn’t impact others in a negative way. Sometimes we are just not aware of the way our words and actions affect others. I feel honored to be a part of the conversation of creating that awareness.
Find out more about Ash Beckham at ashbeckham.com.