In late November, I attended a 2-day SpeakOUT Workshop to learn how to be an effective public speaker. It was just the first step in my ongoing training. Last week, I was given an opportunity to put my training to use for the first time.
Jeanne Gainsburg, a straight alley, Outreach Coordinator and Education Director at the GAGV, asked if I would be willing to assist with a 2 hour SafeZone presentation for the staff of a local halfway house. Delighted and honored, I agreed to help out.
The GAGV SafeZone program was created to “develop, enhance and maintain environments in workplaces, schools and other social settings that are culturally competent and supportive to LGBTQ individuals, as well as straight identified people who care about diversity, equality and inclusion.” Providing real-life perspective with the “T” end of things (transgender), was myself and a trans man I’ll refer to as “Brad” (not his real name). We took turns telling our personal life-stories and struggles involved growing up trans in a non-trans-friendly world. Even though I only met Brad for the first time just minutes before the presentation started, we made a rather effective tag-team during the Q & A portion.
Most of the presentation was handled by Jeanne. She did an excellent job presenting information, including the audience in group participatory learning activities, keeping things moving along at a good pace, and answering questions along the way. She’s been at this for 10 years and I enjoyed observing her in action while taking mental notes to learn from.
An interesting observation
While Jeanne was giving the main presentation, I stood several feet over to her right, visible to the halfway house staff. My focus shifted back and forth from observing Jeanne’s presentation and observing the counseling staff, curious to see what I could read from their facial expressions, in regard to how engaged or not engaged they were. My eyes met with many of the staff members as I scanned the room. Interestingly, they quickly looked away, breaking eye-contact.
It dawned on me that they may be observing me as a representation of a “real-life trans woman” – something they’re not accustomed to in their day to day lives. Contrary to what my online photos may suggest, I’m not passable as female in person. Anyone within several meters, who looks directly at me, will be able to read me as a genetic male, presenting as female. My point being: many of the staff members may have been visually studying me and breaking eye-contact (when our eyes met) so as not to appear rude.
Feel free to look all you want :)
The whole reason I took the SpeakOUT training and agreed to help with the SafeZone presentation is to help create positive trans awareness. This includes allowing others to “get a good look” without making them feel uncomfortable. Shortly into the main presentation, I made a conscious choice to not look at the audience, but rather maintain my visual focus on Jeanne. I wanted people to feel comfortable looking at me. It was something I didn’t expect, but gladly welcomed.
Brad told his story first. He’s done this before and I enjoyed listening to his unique journey. It was interesting to learn about similar experiences we had in common, even though his was a transition from female to male and I am transitioning from male to female. As his story drew to an end, my nerves started to kick in.
From nerves to “natural”
Something very beautiful happened as I started to share my life story. My nerves quickly faded and were replaced with something I can best describe as passion. There I was, up in front of 15-20 people, telling my life story, literally from birth to present day. My use of humor and emotion seemed to keep most of the staff interested in what I had to say. There were a couple of moments when I became noticeably choked up while delving into some rather painful memories. I think it made my story that much more moving.
We’re trained to deliver our stories in a 5 to 7 minute monologue, focusing on the most relevant key points and struggles that shaped who we are. I went a bit long at about 10 minutes.
The feedback from Jeanne and Brad was very positive. Jeanne even called me “a natural”, which I was humbled by and very pleased to hear. There’s much room for improvement in my story-presenting skills, and I’ll continue to work hard to refine my abilities. One of my problem areas is that I tend to verbally linger on some points longer than is necessary to effectively communicate them to the audience. I was conscious of this a few times during my talk. One of the great things about talking to a live audience is the opportunity to make eye contact with them. You can tell when you’ve got their full attention, and when their interest is fading. Different audiences will, no doubt, present various challenges in “holding their interest”. I welcome these challenges and growth opportunities.
Following the presentation, Jeanne handed out evaluation sheets and asked that everyone take a couple of minutes to rate it and offer comments. She shared the evaluation sheets with me and I was very pleased to see mostly high ratings for presentation and educational value. In answer to the question, “What could have made this presentation better?”, a handful of people commented, “More time.” LGBTQ issues are complex – the “T” alone is extraordinarily complex in my opinion (although I am biased). It was very reassuring to know that not only were people getting a lot out of the presentation, but also would have liked to continue beyond the two hours, to explore things in greater depth.
The “thirsty” ones
Some of the staff members remained for a while following the presentation, for some additional Q & A with each of us. They were, what I refer to as, “thirsty” for more information and a deeper understanding. I rather enjoy spending time with the “thirsty” people. They’re the ones most likely to share what they’ve learned with others. With an enthusiasm to learn, understand and share, they’re also more likely to become active and supportive in LGBTQ issues.
“Thirsty” is a good word to describe me, too. I love the opportunity to meet and learn about others. It has been said that the best way to learn is through teaching, and I agree.
So much more to learn, so much more to do
Whether I’m a “natural” speaker or not, there is so much more to learn and I’m eager to do so. My plan is to continue practicing, learning, taking each opportunity to observe other speakers/presenters, and participate whenever invited to do so.
One thing became very clear to me during the SafeZone presentation. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. It felt right, and I feel the calling to become more involved in creating a positive trans awareness. It’s something I’ve been working at on and off since 2009 online via this website/blog. It’s a whole different experience doing so in person. The energy exchange between audience and speaker is a powerful connection. Those who have spoken in front of a group of people before may understand precisely what I’m talking about.
It’s unknown as to when the next opportunity to speak will present itself. When opportunity knocks, I’ll definitely be answering the door, and follow the “cosmic breadcrumb trail” to the next stop on this very rewarding and meaningful journey.
Do you participate in LGBTQ outreach programs? What have your experiences been? Please take a moment to share your thoughts and/or experiences by leaving a comment.