The grace of Yu Darvish

The Dodgers may have one of the whitest baseball teams in the Major Leagues, but they do have a Japanese-Iranian pitcher, a man named Yu Darvish.

Darvish started Game 3 of the World Series on Friday and an Astros player, the Cuban-born Yuli Gurriel, hit a home run off him. Yep, that happens sometimes in baseball.

What doesn’t—shouldn’t—happen in baseball is what did happen next: Gurriel returned to his dugout and pulled the corners of his eyes up in a slant while uttering what lip-readers could clearly see was a racist slur.

Major League Baseball was swift to condemn the gesture. They suspended Gurriel for five games. Starting in April.

Where’s the sting in that? As Martin Luther King said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Still, there was one moment of grace—brought to us by the man the slur was directed at, Yu Darvish. Asked about it after the game, he called the gesture “disrespectful” adding:

“Nobody’s perfect. And everybody’s different,” he says. ” And we’re going to have to learn from it. We are all human beings. That’s what I’m saying. We’ll learn from it and we have to go forward.”

“One of the most gracious and helpful statements”

The next day, Darvish expanded on that in a tweet:

“No one is perfect. That includes both you and I. What he had done today isn’t right, but I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than to accuse him. If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind. Since we are living in such a wonderful world, let’s stay positive and move forward instead of focusing on anger. I’m counting on everyone’s big love.”

On the News & Guts Facebook page, journalist Dan Rather wrote

“In all of my years covering civil rights, this is one of the most gracious and helpful statements I have read. It is in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And the response and conversation that this helped spark is bringing us together as a nation, rather than what we are seeing on the political level.”

Rather pointed out that the choices we make can exacerbate the divisiveness in our country or, perhaps, ease it:

Each of us has a decision to make, especially those in leadership or before the public eye. Do we succumb to intolerance? Do we refuse to listen to the voices of others? Do we play with the easy currency of fear? Or do we recognize that the only future worth a damn for our country, and our world, is to try to get along?

What’s your choice today?


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A presidential speech-writing process — Bill Clinton

presidential speech-writing process
“Little Rock Nine” memorial; detail of Elisabeth Eckford’s statue Photo by Sgerbic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bill Clinton’s library released a fascinating digital exhibit this week. If you’ve ever wondered about the presidential speech-writing process, hop on over to Commemorating Courage: 40th Anniversary of Desegregation of Central High.

This coming Monday marks the 60th anniversary of that signal event in our history. Three years after the Supreme Court abolished the “separate but equal” practice of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Arkansas still hadn’t integrated its school system. When nine young black men and women enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High in 1957, their governor called out the National Guard to turn them away. President Eisenhower eventually intervened, sending in troops to escort the students into the building on September 25, 1957.

I think sometimes karma has a hand in “booking” speakers. Bill Clinton was 11 when the “Little Rock Nine” finally entered their new high school. It was a formative experience for him—and as president, he made sure to shine a spotlight on the event. The first person of color to serve as president, Barack Obama, got to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the March on Washington. A great symbol of the progress we (thought we had) made. That kind of personal connection between speakers and events doesn’t happen every day; when it does, I get the shivers.

Presidential speech-writing process, on full display

So dive into the Clinton Library’s exhibit on Little Rock and you’ll see everything from handwritten notes from the first speech-prep session, to research materials, to drafts prepared by the lead speechwriter, June Shih. You’ll also find a photograph of the president still revising his remarks “backstage” in the High School, just moments before he took the stage.

The folks in my Weekly What program will get a full analysis of the speech and the differences between drafts. But spend a little time on the Clinton Library’s website and you’ll find several articles about different aspects of the events surrounding the school’s desegregation, as well as some moving photographs of President Clinton holding open the high school’s doors for the now-grown Nine, and awarding them the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Clinton’s speech recognized that the country still had a ways to go. But its optimism about the effect the Little Rock Nine had on the education system seems quaint today, 20 years after his speech. The New York Times magazine last weekend ran a piece called “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.” “Resegregation”—spellcheck doesn’t even recognize that as a word! But apparently in some parts of the country, municipalities are forming their own school districts as an end run around integration.

Surely this is not the best way forward for our country. It’s certainly not the future President Clinton envisioned for us 20 years ago. So take a trip back in time and imagine a world of educational equity, freedom, and justice for all.


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Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe yes, maybe no

Some activists unveiled a banner about racism in baseball at Fenway Park this week. Baseball has figured into a couple of political conversations I’ve had in the last week. It’s left me wondering: Can baseball bridge divides in our society?

The case of the curious Lyft driver

I caught a Lyft when I arrived at the Cincinnati airport a couple of weeks ago. It was around midnight but my driver was chatty and I mentioned that I was in town to catch a baseball game. His next question came right out of the blue, like a pop fly in July:

“Are you married?”

He had kind of a thick accent—from somewhere in West Africa, he later told me—so I thought perhaps I’d misheard him. But when I didn’t answer, he asked again. Much more emphatically. Half-turning around in his seat:

“Are you married?”

I laughed and said, “That’s a very personal question.” He explained that he was just wondering because I was a woman going to a baseball game alone.

I tried to smile as I made it a teachable moment: “Well, as you’ve probably noticed in the year and a half you’ve been here, women in the United States often do things without their husbands. And husbands do things without their wives.”

I’m not sure I convinced him that our culture really does allow women to have agency (at least it has historically). But he did ask me how much the tickets were, and said he’d try to catch a game one of these days. If I didn’t manage to enlighten him, perhaps I created a baseball fan.

Can baseball bridge divides? The case of the translator

I found myself watching a game on TV with a relative of mine.

can baseball bridge divides?Baseball is one of the few things we have in common (although he roots for the wrong team). Then in the post-game interviews, one of the players showed up with a translator by his side.

“Now that—that I don’t go for,” my relative said, appending the familiar blather about how if you’re going to play ball here you should learn the language.

I knew I’d have to address the situation—I’m done letting teachable moments pass—but a combination of jet lag and my cold had ground down all my feistiness. So I said quietly, “Oh, I don’t know. Learning a new language is hard.”

And then a question popped into my mind. So I asked it, willing my voice to stay calm and curious:

“Have you ever tried to learn another language?”

I expected to hear something about high school Spanish but he just said, almost sheepishly, “No.”

Was his mind opening a crack?

“Well, it’s hard,” I said, still gently. “And then imagine that you’ve got to speak in this new language you’re learning in front of TV cameras and millions of people will hear you speak, and your bad accent, and maybe you don’t use all the right words. I can’t even imagine having to do that.”

My relative couldn’t either.

Listening, thinking can bridge divides

Now, my relative is not going to run right out and join a pro-DACA demonstration. But he’s thinking about at least one part of the immigration issue in a new way.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe. Not with banners but with personal interactions.

One conversation, one new idea planted. Starting right where you are, whenever you get an opening, whoever you can talk with.

It’s a long road, but it can lead to lasting change.


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How can I help? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I help?
A: Pick an issue and dive in.

It’s no secret: the challenges our country and our world face seem to be multiplying faster than rabbits. Or, to update that analogy to the 21st century, faster than malware-infected bots.

The only way I know to counter the human malware operating in so many people these days is by making personal connections and broadening people’s frames of reference. By talking, and listening. Educating.

Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, told an interesting story on this Monday’s episode of “Pod Save America.” She was speaking on a C-SPAN show one day last year and a viewer called in with an unexpected question. He was scared of black people, he said. How could he deal with this? McGhee, who is a woman of color, gave him some action items (among them: read history; change your news outlets). He embarked on a project to broaden his own horizons, reached out to McGhee via Twitter to thank her. And they struck up a friendship. Who knows how many minds he will change?

Of course, not every racist is open to a conversation like that. Some need a little more overt direction to change. And that’s one of the things the Southern Poverty Law Center does so well. In its 46-year history, it has fought for equity for people of color, LGBT people, students, you name it.

Help — for the Southern Poverty Law Center & for yourself

helpSo when my colleague Emily Levy said she wanted to put together a fund-raiser for the SPLC, I only had one question: How can I help?

She’s gathered together a group of coaches and consultants to offer VIP Days to their clients and pledge a earmark portion of the proceeds for the SPLC. I’m offering two VIP packages for the cause—with a potential donation of $1,200 to help this vital organization continue its work.

Click here for more information about my VIP Day package.

And check out the other offerings here.

Book your package by September 15th and schedule your VIP Day by October 31st. You’ve been meaning to spruce up your creativity, your business, your life. Now you can get the help you want and benefit an excellent cause.

Any questions?

Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Confederate history

Removing Confederate statues has become a pretext for white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity, most memorably in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago. New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the situation more clearly and with more moral authority than many better-known politicians.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu
Mitch Landrieu, photo by Derek Bridges from New Orleans, United States CC BY 2.0

Mayor Landrieu delivered the speech last May, as his city prepared to remove its last few Confederate monuments, and the folks over at Pod Save America—President Obama’s former speechwriters and communications director—recently called it the best speech on the subject they’ve seen. So I thought you might be interested in my thoughts about what makes this speech so compelling.

Every other week, I do a deep analysis of a piece of writing for the people subscribed to my Weekly What series—a yearlong, self-directed writing program that I’ve offered in connection with my Writing Unbound course. Here are some excerpts from my analysis.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu tells a powerful story

Mayor Landrieu begins with two things I usually caution against: a thank you and a list. As for the thank you, at least it’s brief. But the list is not. And I’m okay with that. The Civil War is usually seen as a black- vs.-white thing or North vs. South. But in New Orleans, nothing is ever that simple. So I love that the Mayor began by naming all the tribes and nations whose people shaped the history of this remarkably polyglot city. Then he continued:

But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

He faces the “other truths” head on. And notice the details in the description; he doesn’t let his listeners off the hook by glossing over the horrors of slavery. But he also doesn’t indict Louisiana alone—“America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched.” I winced when I got to that last word.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth….

“An inaccurate recitation of our past”

Later, he demolishes the argument about historical necessity:

To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.

And Mayor Landrieu ends by confronting the charge that removing Confederate monuments “erases history.”

We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals.

If you’d like to read my full analysis, click the green button. It’s a very fine speech. Thank you, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, for your leadership on this issue.

Send me your analysis of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech


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My racist coworker: a true story

not a picture of my racist coworkerYes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.

For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.

The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.

So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.

Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”

My racist coworker

I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our black colleagues working just a few desks away.

“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.

“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”

It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.

I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.

It’s a privilege to walk away

Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.

I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.

White Christmas 

Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.

My partner was talking to some black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my black friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”

Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”

Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.

I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville

I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.

So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.

Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.

We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.


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Multitasking can change the world

Multitasking has a bad reputation these days. As well it should; it’s probably the least efficient way to work. Or to do anything, for that matter. But the right kind of multitasking can change the world.

Take my friend Jan Abernathy. I wrote about her last week. So far we’ve only met in the comments thread of a mutual friend’s Facebook post and in a lively exchange of texts that followed. But I already like her.

I know Jan Abernathy’s multitasking can change the world; indeed, it already has.

You see, Jan works for a small independent school. And like most administrative folks at small independent schools, she wears two hats. In this case, she’s a co-chair of her school’s equity and justice task force. And she also does marketing and communications, which includes editing and publishing the school’s magazine.

It turns out, Jan and I had already met. By email, a few years ago. She remembered my name when our friend introduced us—”But I thought, what are the odds?”

When I sent in my class news for the magazine, it must have stood out. While most graduates write about their children or their career milestones, I wrote about my wedding. To a woman.

I didn’t even think twice about sending the wedding announcement to my high school and college alumnae magazines. But my grammar school….Whenever I see photos of their events it always looks like the Republican convention. (Not the most recent one—the ones before the party lost its collective mind.) You know what I mean: happy, affluent, straight, suburban people sipping Chardonnay.

If they thought the school turned out lesbians, they might spill their wine.

“Got married—finally!”

But I sent in the news anyway:

Got married—finally!—in Dec. 2013. My wife, Dane, works at [Fancy University] so I moved to [Fancy University Town] and am enjoying the perq of auditing classes for free. Still writing speeches for the corporate world (see BennettInk.com) and singing (see ElaineStGeorge.com). Just won a Bistro Award for Outstanding Vocalist.

I expected if they ran it at all, they’d try to slip it in as unobtrusively as possible.

When I saw the return email, I figured they were going to ask me to edit it—”for space,” naturally. Instead they said: Tell us more! Where did you get married? And can you send a photo?

I sent in the the details about the church and the priest and the reception. But a photo? The last thing I ever expected.

The photographer was still a couple of months away from giving us his work, so we didn’t have one of those everyone-lines-up-and-smiles-at-the-wedding pictures. I wrote back that I wouldn’t have anything appropriate in time for their deadline.

The response: We’ll wait.

multitasking can change the worldStill, I understand deadlines. So I sent back the only photo we had at that moment: Just the two of us. Very intimate. Very not suburban heterosexual. I was sure they’d never run it.

They not only ran it, they ran it in a call-out box. My lesbian wedding photo could hardly have been more prominent if they’d put it on the cover.

Eventually my amazement faded and I thought nothing more about it until last week, when Jan Abernathy told me she worked for a small independent school in the town where I had attended a small independent school.

And then she said she remembered my wedding.

I told Jan how much I had appreciated her asking for more details, for a photo. She said she was sure some people were shocked to read about the wedding, but those comments never reached her. And the photo: “I was prepared to fight for that picture,” she texted me. I almost cried. No, I’m lying; I did cry.

Intersectionality and multitasking can change the world

There’s a lot of talk these days about “intersectionality”—that no one is ever just one thing. For instance, I am simultaneously white, lesbian, Christian, an entrepreneur. I can’t really tease out the strands of my personality to present only one at a time. You are many things too, in addition to being one of my readers (for which I am grateful).

Jan Abernathy’s work-intersectionality—what I’ve been calling her “multitasking”—is what got my wedding photo published in that grammar school magazine. The school could have put many people in charge of the publication—at one point long ago, my beloved 4th grade teacher edited it—but they gave the job to the person who also works hard on inclusion issues, someone who gives marginalized people a voice within the school community. And when she opened my email, she saw an opportunity to lift up one kind of voice that doesn’t often get heard in that context. Honestly, I’m still amazed that it happened.

I told Jan that when she asked me for my photo, she made me feel normal. I mean, I don’t go around consciously feeling abnormal, but on two or three occasions I’ve had something happen that showed me what “regular” feels like. And it’s always odd to recognize that “regular” is not my usual state.

As it happened, Jan and I had our text conversation while she was en route to a conference for new heads of independent schools and she told my story, our story, to illustrate the impact that inclusion can have. On a person, on a school. On a community.

I loved that school. When I attended, way back in the late 20th century, it was about as diverse as you’d expect a school in an affluent New Jersey suburb to be. Which is to say not very. I’m glad they had the foresight—and the guts—to hire Jan. And to support her efforts to create visibility for the diverse members of the community, even if it does make some Chardonnay glasses tremble.

But this isn’t just a story about Jan Abernathy. It’s about all of us. Because we can’t be bystanders. If we want a diverse, inclusive culture, we can’t just sit back and let the “inclusion officers” handle it.

So I have some questions for you: Whose voice can you lift up today? Whose story can you tell?

“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” — John F. Kennedy


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Uncomfortable conversations and the invisible asterisk

It didn’t start out as one of those uncomfortable conversations:

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.”

That’s a sentence I might write to any of my writers at any time. But I wasn’t responding to one of my writers. I was responding to a black woman I’d never met, who’d posted on our mutual friend’s Facebook thread about the casual racism of a five-year-old white girl on a playground in my old hometown of Maplewood. My beautiful, mostly diverse, so-proud-of-its-perceived-inclusiveness Maplewood.

we need to have uncomfortable conversations about raceThe little girl told a black boy her age that he couldn’t play on the playground equipment: “Whites only.” When the boy’s father reality-checked this with one of the other parents present, the white man dismissed the comment: “That’s not her personality.”

This friend of my friend, a woman named Jan Abernathy, commented on the Facebook post:

“I would definitely say the ‘it’s not her personality’ sounds accurately reported and happens because we believe that bias is for ‘bad people’ versus part of a system in we all participate because it’s all around us.”

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.” I typed, and pressed Post. And in the next second I thought, Did I just tell a black woman “you’re very articulate”?

I pressed Edit. My fingers hovered over the keyboard. Of course that wasn’t what I meant. My sentence was complete as it stood; no implied “…for a [fill in the stereotype here].” But she didn’t know me; would she understand that? In the end, I added a completely unnecessary “That’s so true” and clicked out of the edit window. Let the chips fall where they may.

Yes, I was uncomfortable. And that’s not a bad thing. Because Uncomfortable is a stage we have to pass through on the way to Inclusion. We really need to get there, as many of us as we can. And that will involve having some uncomfortable conversations.

Uncomfortable conversations — do think twice

My mother always told me to count to ten before I spoke. No one who knows me will be surprised to hear I never took that advice.

But if I think twice, or even twenty times, about my reactions when I’m dealing with someone who is unlike me—especially someone of another race—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because I have grown up not thinking, not questioning the system, as Ms. Abernathy wrote, “that is all around us.”

Because I am a white woman, that system has mostly been no more visible to me than the air I breathe. As a “lipstick lesbian,” I have encountered it from time to time, not often enough to truly remember it exists. It wasn’t until the results of the most recent presidential election came in that I felt it. Because for the first time I was on the wrong side of the system—as both a lesbian and as a woman. My white skin will not save me from the Trumpocalypse.

Now, I won’t presume that what I’ve felt for the last eight months compares in any way to what a person of color feels from the moment they become conscious of the system we live in (for the child in the story, that sadly seems to be about age 5). But it has opened my eyes—eyes that I didn’t even realize needed to be opened.

I’ve been writing about diversity and inclusion for my clients for a decade now. I always thought I “got it.” I think I’m closer to getting it now. But I also know how far I have to go.

The invisible asterisk

Last week, I wrote about the subversiveness of the Declaration of Independence. Well, yes. But there’s an unexpected bit of punctuation in there, an invisible asterisk. That is, the asterisk is invisible to most of us, but for those who do see it…I imagine that sometimes it’s pretty much all they can see. It grounds the otherwise subversive document firmly in the mainstream of its time—and, sadly, of modern times, too.

When our founders wrote the Declaration, everyone understood that the phrase “…all men are created equal” actually meant

*white men of certain socio-economic standing.

Definitely not women. Definitely not people of color. And although the founders didn’t have words like “homosexual” or “transgender,” definitely not those folks either.

In the couple of centuries since our country’s birth, many of our laws have grudgingly caught up with the errors of omission and commission in the Declaration and the Constitution. But the inequality that those foundational documents enshrined—that invisible asterisk—remains rooted in our culture. And not just in the South, home of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, our present Attorney General, who seems hell-bent on rolling the gains of the Civil Rights movement back to, oh, about 1932. We in the North have our own bigots; just ask Philando Castile, who lived in Minnesota.

You can’t get much less “South” than Minnesota. You also can’t ask Mr. Castile anything; he was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer. And that police officer was acquitted by a jury of his Northern peers, just as surely as the all-white Southern jury set the killers of Emmett Till free more than 60 years ago.

I’d like to believe such attitudes would never see the light of day in my town. But as long as we live with the invisible asterisk—as long as we remain silent about that damning piece of punctuation—those attitudes have room to flourish. And apparently even five-year-olds are not immune.

Allies: learn to have uncomfortable conversations

So, really, it’s not enough just to be for inclusion. It’s not enough to be a silent ally, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago in a post about a gay football player. And it’s certainly not enough to let a black father stand alone in trying to correct the situation produced when a little white girl says, “Whites only.” Any of the other adults there could have spoken to the girl. To her mother. Better yet, to both. Because all of us should be outraged that—whether she picked it up at home or at school or somewhere else—a five-year-old can casually spout racist language with no consequences.

We need to have conversations—even uncomfortable conversations—about whether we want to live in a system founded on an invisible asterisk that leaves out so many. And if we don’t want to live with the asterisk, what do we need to do to change our country and ourselves?

Thanks to my new friend Jan Abernathy for giving me permission to quote her in this blog. As it turns out, she works in equity inclusion at a small independent school I know quite well. I would write more about her, but this post is already too long so I’ll save it for another day.

I also want to thank Brittany Packnett, whom I haven’t met except through my phone as I listen to the always eye-opening Pod Save the People. Ms. Packnett has taught me more about what Ms. Abernathy calls the “system we all participate in” than perhaps anyone else.

Educating people is hard—especially if the people you’re educating think they already know all they need to. So thank you both for your work, and thanks to everyone brave enough to engage in uncomfortable conversations.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Lessons for all of us in Ryan O’Callaghan’s retirement plan

Ryan O’Callaghan is gay. This being 2017, that sentence should hardly raise an eyebrow. But that’s not why I’m writing about him today.

Ryan O'Callghan
Ryan O’Callaghan playing for the Chiefs, photo by Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ryan O’Callaghan used to play for the NFL—the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. Okay, a gay man playing pro football, that’s surprising in some quarters. But that’s not why I’m writing about him either.

I’m writing about Ryan O’Callaghan because he had an unusual retirement plan.

As all of us are advised to do, he worked on this retirement plan diligently throughout his career. And so when Ryan O’Callaghan retired from football, his plan was ready to put into action: He planned to kill himself.

Because he’s gay.

And he couldn’t see how he could live as a gay man without the cover of being a macho, presumed heterosexual, football player.

It seems like a relic from some bad 1950s movie, but it’s not. A young man grew up in a small California town in the 1980s and ’90s believing that because he was gay, he had no other path than suicide:

“If you’re a gay kid and you hear someone you love say ‘fag,’ it makes you think that in their eyes you’re just a fag too,” O’Callaghan told Outsports on a recent visit to Los Angeles for his first-ever Pride celebration. “That got to me a lot.”

Ryan O’Callaghan’s pain

When injuries cut his football career short, Ryan O’Callaghan started abusing pain-killers:

“It helped with the pain of the injuries, and with the pain of being gay.”

He built a cabin in the woods and stocked it with firearms. He wrote a suicide note. And then someone with the Kansas City Chiefs suggested he see a counselor for his drug abuse. He was 27 years old and had never said the words “I’m gay” to another human being.

“All I had ever done was think how bad the reaction would be,” O’Callaghan said. “It takes a lot more strength to be honest with yourself than it does to lie. It took a while to build up that strength to even tell her [the counselor]. You have to build up trust with someone. Just telling her was like a huge weight off my shoulders.”

The counselor didn’t try to talk him out of suicide. But she did suggest an alternative:

Why would he kill himself before he knew if he had to? Why not come out to his family and friends and find out their reaction, then choose whether it meant he had to end his life?

So Ryan O’Callaghan came out.

[Excuse me, I need to get another box of Kleenex now.]

Gay…and alive

“Was it great at the beginning?” O’Callaghan remembered. “No. Did everyone totally understand what it meant to be gay? No. But they knew what my alternative was. I told people close to me that I planned on killing myself. So at that point, no one cared. They were just happy that I was alive.”

As he got more comfortable being open about his sexuality, he decided that he would have a “big coming out moment.” Inducted into the football hall of fame in the county where he grew up, he thanked his “significant other” from the stage. But this was 2014, not 1954—or even 1994. The gesture produced no outrage or surprise—in fact, it barely registered.

Lessons for all of us

Ryan O’Callaghan’s story shocked me. How can someone growing up in the the last 20 years not know about the successful and fulfilling lives so many LGBTQ people lead? How could he not know about the role models? About the support systems? But even with all the LGBTQ visibility in our world today, he didn’t. I’m equally shocked by the fact that this kind of life is possible and by the fact that I didn’t realize it’s possible—cossetted as I am in the liberal bubble of the East Coast.

When O’Callaghan came out to Scott Pioli, his former general manager on the Kansas City Chiefs, he thought the man would be shocked.

“People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess,” Pioli told Outsports. “I wasn’t minimizing what he was telling me, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. He built this up and built this up to the point where he said he was nearly suicidal. What Ryan didn’t know is how many gay people I’ve had in my life.”

O’Callaghan also didn’t know that, according to Pioli, he wasn’t the first gay NFL player whom his GM had counseled.”

I added the emphasis there. I mean, good for Scott Pioli for embracing O’Callaghan (literally) when he came out. But why didn’t Ryan know “how many gay people I’ve had in  my life”? Why didn’t Pioli come out publicly as an ally? Not to disclose the names of the gay men he’d counseled, but to say: There are gay players in the NFL, as in every profession. Why aren’t teams having conversations about diversity?

These conversations become even more important in the current climate, when hatred and prejudice have been unleashed across the country. And if Mike Pence and his fellow anti-LGBTQ ideologues ever get the power of the presidency, things will get much worse for us.

So if you’re an ally, speak up. Talk about the gay people in your life. And if you’re an LGBTQ person, speak up. If you don’t feel there’s a safe space to do that where you are, call a hotline and talk to someone. Get yourself out of the small-town mentality and find your place in the world.

We need you. Alive and thriving.


If you are a young LGBTQ person considering suicide, please reach out to the Trevor Project. Adults, talk to someone at LGBT National Help Center. If you’re an ally and you want to educate yourself about warning signs, see this resource page.

Adventures in ‘Merica: Appetite Lost (apologies to Milton)

My friend Robyn and I had dinner at a fancy steakhouse in Phoenix on Thursday—my gift to myself for completing the 365 days of writing (which had grown to 367 by Thursday). We thought we were in America but halfway through dinner it became apparent that we’d slipped into ‘Merica, that mythical land of, by, and for white folks. It probably shouldn’t have shocked me. But it did.

Two retirement-age, straight, white couples sitting next to us started talking about someone they knew: “She’s Indian,” one of the men said. I didn’t hear any malice in his voice, more wonder that no one else had this information. But his companions didn’t quite grasp it, so he explained further: “She comes from India.”

“Oh!” This information surprised the woman with him. She said, “Gosh, she’s so well-spoken.”

My hands flew to my mouth and stayed there until I was sure I woudn’t make a scene. Robyn and I sat in stunned silence. It was like a car wreck on the highway: I wanted to hear the rest of their conversation, and at the same time, I’d already heard more than enough.

The second woman at the table took on the air and posture of an expert, spreading her arms like a politician on the stump as she said: “This is America; we need to be the best.” Okey-doke, no doubt about her political allegiance. I coudn’t tell whether their Indian acquaintance was acceptable to the expert—seeing as how the Indian woman was so well-spoken and all—or whether her presence within our borders somehow prevented Americans from being “the best.”

Eventually the shock passed and Robyn and I resumed our conversation. For the record, we are both well-spoken too.

Elsewhere in ‘Merica

Earlier in the day, as my fellow conference-goers and I finished up our boxed lunches, the sound system, which had been set to “annoying pop” for days suddenly started playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Loudly. A flag waved in closeup on the flatscreen monitors flanking the stage as an older man with a microphone instructed us to stand because we were going to sing the National Anthem.

I stood to the side, gaping in disbelief. A guy I’d eaten lunch with sidled up to ask what was going on.  I said perhaps we were about to start playing baseball.

Do you want to guess what the man onstage did after he finished bleating out the National Anthem?

He tried to sell us something.

The Anthem was nothing more than a gimmick to silence the crowd and get their attention. And of course it worked. But it also generated a ton of ill-will among the true patriots there. People who see the National Anthem as more than an aid to making a quick buck. But that’s life in ‘Merica, too.

I’ll bet the Indian immigrant has more respect for the rituals of American life than those older white dudes. But in ‘Merica, white men get to decide what (if anything) constitutes decorum, which traditions they will honor and which they will flout.

You know what would make America “the best”? Let’s deport all the ‘Mericans. I know just who to start with. We can get along just fine without them.