Out & Equal Board member Trippe Davis shares how his journey in courage and authenticity pays-forward the healing…within his own family and beyond.
I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs with two older sisters and generally loving and kind parents. We were not wealthy (my father was a United Methodist minister for 35+ years), but we certainly never struggled or were without the things we needed to survive and thrive. Importantly, all four of my grandparents and both of my parents received some form of higher education, and my sisters and I were all expected to do the same. On the outside, I had the perfect family life… except that I was a young gay boy in a conservative family and geographic location, and I had no role models or even language to understand who I was. By the time I was a teenager (and even after I came out at age 25), I often imagined a van pulling up to my house to take me away to some gay conversion camp or hospital. This isolation taught me to hide and to never show any vulnerability – just to survive.
While my family taught me that being gay was a sin and morally reprehensible, they also taught me the value of being an individual – doing the right thing and standing up for what I believe and think to be true, even if it is unpopular. Those family lessons in individuality drove me to come out to my family and friends even though I was terrified of what would happen or how my life might be affected. Coming out was the first step on my long journey of becoming authentic. Although I did not ask for help when I was struggling with my own sexuality, I recognized that I had to be true to the core of who I was, so that I could be healthy and content with life.
Unfortunately, the lessons I learned as a young child and teenager taught me that I could not be vulnerable if I was going to merely survive. I was taught from an early age that I should only, or at least mostly, rely on myself to survive in the world. My parents loved me, but they were clear that they would not support me after college. These were good lessons but combined with my self- and societally-imposed isolation I came to believe that I should only rely on myself for my emotional and mental well-being too. I spent so long protecting myself from being outed as gay that I was not able to be vulnerable or to ask for help. I thought that protecting all of me was the only way to survive in the world.
As my life became more complex with a challenging career, a family that grew to include a husband and three children and aging parents, my go-to defense was to lock down and try to just force my way through life. It was a miserable way to live, inevitably lead me to being incredibly unhappy, and finally fed my addictive disease to a place where I could not function as an employee, a spouse, or a father. The very thing about my personality – protecting my innermost self at all cost – which allowed me to survive long enough into my twenties to be able to come out of the closet, had ultimately turned against me. By my late thirties, my automatic, emotional defense mechanism told me to protect myself, do not ask for help or even let on in any way that I was hurting. I thought that I just had to wait long enough, and it would get better.
A few friends and some work colleagues saw that I was hurting and finally convinced me to ask for help. Through a lot of hard work over the years, I have been able to understand myself better, to overcome my brain’s tendency to want to deal with stressful or hard situations with addictive behavior, and to allow myself to be vulnerable.
One of the most surprising and gratifying aspects of asking for help is that my colleagues at work have been so incredibly supportive. Through an Inclusion office that includes our Well-Being initiatives and a company that believes all of our employees Belong, I found colleagues who were understanding of my struggles and who wanted me to succeed. I found people eager to help if they were just asked. To me, that willingness to get involved and to help truly embodies Out & Equal’s theme- “the Business of Belonging.” I carry that theme into my Out & Equal board service, and I am so proud to be supporting an organization that is at the forefront of helping all workplaces on this important journey. Work is where we spend so much of our lives and time, and now more than ever, the wider LGBTQ community needs us.
What I wish I had learned earlier in life was that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Asking for help when you need it is incredibly courageous and strong. To my surprise, I found that asking for help boosted not only my health but my work and career. Being open and authentic with colleagues about who I am and when I need help or when I need to collaborate with others to deliver the best service to clients and customers, has made me a better consultant and a more respected colleague.
Most importantly, my hard-earned life lessons allowed me to be there when my thirteen-year-old came to me full of anxiety and told me that he is transgender. As he approached me one day saying, “Hey Dad, you know those Gender Cool kids, I think that I am like them,” I flashed-back to my conversation with parents who responded to my coming out with, “Son, Satan is attacking our family.” I merely smiled and told my son, “Yeah, I kind of thought so. I love you, and we will figure all of this out together.”
The greatest joy I have found from my own difficult coming out journey and recovery from addictive disease is that I am now given repeated opportunities to be there for other people who are hurting. Being healthy is wonderful but being in a position to face someone who is hurting, look them in the eye and say, “I understand your pain. You do not have to live like this, and together we can make it better,” is an amazing gift.