Yesterday was a transformative day for me. I was invited to speak at an amazing event - the #upfront confidence celebration and diversity party hosted by its amazing founder - my dearest friend, Lauren Currie aka Redjotter. And so I did. I stepped up front for the first time in my new look. Most of the speakers were also taking a similar big step to go on stage to speak about something they feel passionate about - also for the first time.
In many ways you could say that #upfront is about bravery. I saw people take one first step after another to becoming something they want to be. Someone with the power and confidence to speak out in front of an audience. Building that belief in themselves that what they have to say is worthwhile, and feeling that confidence grow in themselves to know that others will want to listen to them.
When I was first invited by Lauren I felt a bit of a fraud. I have no trouble with public speaking, ever since I won the public speaking prize at school. I have had lots of practice ever since. Most recently championing the case of my charity, WorkingRite, for the needs of late teenagers to have the chance to get to get a job, even if they haven't done well at school, or don't want to go down the path of more qualifications and classrooms into their mid 20's. Oh dear. Don't get me started. As a society we have we got the educational needs of our young people so wrong. Endless tests from early childhood onwards, and as I heard recently from my good friend and colleague, Mags - homework each night for six year olds! WTF
The first speaker at the #upfront party was Leila Willingham - 17 years old. What a gifted young woman. But afterwards she told me that she and her friends feel under so much pressure to study for countless exams in order to secure that perfect career path. Anyone reading this over 40 - answer me this question: are you doing now what you wanted to do when you were 16? So far almost none have answered yes. Most didn't have clue at that age. So what are we doing as a society inflicting this fear in young people that if they don't pass their exams with the perfect grades, their future is ruined? When in truth if the follow the route the education establishment wishes for them, they have a high likelihood ending up with a degree that employers are less than impressed with, without the work experience that employers would be impressed with, and a debt around their shoulders for decades to come.
But back to 'bravery'. One the most common responses I have received in my journey this last year is to applaud my bravery. On one level they are right. There have been many times when I have felt scared to face the world in my new look. But I question - what am I afraid of? In truth I recognise that fear from my childhood and my early experiences of being bullied. In the process of turning that around I learned in my teenage years how to fit in. Many men have learned to do that. We are an intolerant gender in our boyhoods. The human need to belong, coupled with the narrow acceptance rules fiercely policed by the 'gang' are enough to make any boy scared of the consequences of standing out from their peer group.
And stand out I most certainly do; choosing as I did last year, to be out as a goaty bearded cross dresser at 60. And therein is the clue that makes me question whether it is actually brave. Did I choose? Did I really have any choice? You could say that I had the choice to choose to not be myself; something I had in fact been doing for decades. But in the last few years that choice became no longer available to me. I believe that the search for 'the truth' is part of the human condition, coupled with curiosity, inquiry, and the drive to use our intelligence to solve the worlds ills through science and discovery.
For me it has been a search for my own truth. While many parts of me were thriving, there was this other part which stubbornly refused to be suppressed. Once I had committed myself to a personal integration; to bring all my facets into one whole, the option of choice became narrower and narrower. Once on the path, did I really have the choice to go backward; to unlearn what I had learned? So maybe what I am saying is that I had no choice but to be brave. Or perhaps, to paraphrase the famous words of Frankin D Roosevelt - The only thing I had to fear, was fear itself. But throughout my recent journey some words of a wise man I was once close to have been my companion along my path: my guiding star. When you are truly free, there is only one thing you can do.