Ash Beckham: When to take a stand — and when to let it go

This summer I was back in Ohio for a family wedding, and when I was there, there was a meet and greet with Anna and Elsa from "Frozen." Not the Anna and Elsa from "Frozen," as this was not a Disney-sanctioned event. These two entrepreneurs had a business of running princess parties. Your kid is turning five? They'll come sing some songs, sprinkle some fairy dust, it's great. And they were not about to miss out on the opportunity that was the phenomenon and that was "Frozen."

So they get hired by a local toy store, kids come in on a Saturday morning, buy some Disney swag, get their picture taken with the princesses, call it a day. It's like Santa Claus without the seasonal restrictions. (Laughter)

And my three-and-a-half-year-old niece Samantha was in the thick of it. She could care less that these two women were signing posters and coloring books as Snow Queen and Princess Ana with one N to avoid copyright lawsuits. (Laughter) According to my niece and the 200-plus kids in the parking lot that day, this was the Anna and Elsa from "Frozen."

It is a blazing hot Saturday morning in August in Ohio. We get there at 10 o'clock, the scheduled start time, and we are handed number 59. By 11 o'clock they had called numbers 21 through 25; this was going to be a while, and there is no amount of free face painting or temporary tattoos that could prevent the meltdowns that were occurring outside of the store. (Laughter)

So, by 12:30 we get called: "56 to 63, please." And as we walk in, it is a scene I can only describe you as saying it looked like Norway threw up. (Laughter) There were cardboard cut-out snowflakes covering the floor, glitter on every flat surface, and icicles all over the walls.

And as we stood in line in an attempt to give my niece a better vantage point than the backside of the mother of number 58, I put her up on my shoulders, and she was instantly riveted by the sight of the princesses. And as we moved forward, her excitement only grew, and as we finally got to the front of the line, and number 58 unfurled her poster to be signed by the princesses, I could literally feel the excitement running through her body. And let's be honest, at that point, I was pretty excited too. (Laughter) I mean, the Scandinavian decadence was mesmerizing. (Laughter)

So we get to the front of the line, and the haggard clerk turns to my niece and says, "Hi, honey. You're next! Do you want to get down, or you're going to stay on your dad's shoulders for the picture?' (Laughter) And I was, for a lack of a better word, frozen. (Laughter)

It's amazing that in an unexpected instant we are faced with the question, who am I? Am I an aunt? Or am I an advocate? Millions of people have seen my video about how to have a hard conversation, and there one was, right in front of me. At the same time, there's nothing more important to me than the kids in my life, so I found myself in a situation that we so often find ourselves in, torn between two things, two impossible choices. Would I be an advocate? Would I take my niece off my shoulders and turn to the clerk and explain to her that I was in fact her aunt, not her father, and that she should be more careful and not to jump to gender conclusions based on haircuts and shoulder rides -- (Laughter) -- and while doing that, miss out on what was, to this point, the greatest moment of my niece's life. Or would I be an aunt? Would I brush off that comment, take a million pictures, and not be distracted for an instant from the pure joy of that moment, and by doing that, walk out with the shame that comes up for not standing up for myself, especially in front of my niece.

Who was I? Which one was more important? Which role was more worth it? Was I an aunt? Or was I an advocate? And I had a split second to decide.

We are taught right now that we are living in a world of constant and increasing polarity. It's so black and white, so us and them, so right and wrong. There is no middle, there is no gray, just polarity. Polarity is a state in which two ideas or opinions are completely opposite from each other; a diametrical opposition. Which side are you on? Are you unequivocally and without question antiwar, pro-choice, anti-death penalty, pro-gun regulation, proponent of open borders and pro-union? Or, are you absolutely and uncompromisingly pro-war, pro-life, pro-death penalty, a believer that the Second Amendment is absolute, anti-immigrant and pro-business? It's all or none, you're with us or against us. That is polarity.

The problem with polarity and absolutes is that it eliminates the individuality of our human experience and that makes it contradictory to our human nature. But if we are pulled in these two directions, but it's not really where we exist -- polarity is not our actual reality -- where do we go from there? What's at the other end of that spectrum?

I don't think it's an unattainable, harmonious utopia, I think the opposite of polarity is duality. Duality is a state of having two parts, but not in diametrical opposition, in simultaneous existence. Don't think it's possible? Here are the people I know: I know Catholics who are pro-choice, and feminists who wear hijabs, and veterans who are antiwar, and NRA members who think I should be able to get married. Those are the people I know, those are my friends and family, that is the majority of our society, that is you, that is me. (Applause) Duality is the ability to hold both things. But the question is: Can we own our duality? Can we have the courage to hold both things?

I work at a restaurant in town, I became really good friends with the busser. I was a server and we had a great relationship, we had a really great time together. Her Spanish was great because she was from Mexico. (Laughter) That line actually went the other way. Her English was limited, but significantly better than my Spanish. But we were united by our similarities, not separated by our differences. And we were close, even though we came from very different worlds. She was from Mexico, she left her family behind so she could come here and afford them a better life back home. She was a devout conservative Catholic, a believer in traditional family values, stereotypical roles of men and women, and I was, well, me. (Laughter)

But the things that bonded us were when she asked about my girlfriend, or she shared pictures that she had from her family back home. Those were the things that brought us together. So one day, we were in the back, scarfing down food as quickly as we could, gathered around a small table, during a very rare lull, and a new guy from the kitchen came over -- who happened to be her cousin -- and sat down with all the bravado and machismo that his 20-year-old body could hold. (Laughter) And he said to her, [in Spanish] "Does Ash have a boyfriend?" And she said, [in Spanish] "No, she has a girlfriend." And he said, [in Spanish] "A girlfriend?!?" And she set down her fork, and locked eyes with him, and said, [in Spanish] "Yes, a girlfriend. That is all." And his smug smile quickly dropped to one of maternal respect, grabbed his plate, walked off, went back to work. She never made eye contact with me. She left, did the same thing -- it was a 10-second conversation, such a short interaction.

And on paper, she had so much more in common with him: language, culture, history, family, her community was her lifeline here, but her moral compass trumped all of that. And a little bit later, they were joking around in the kitchen in Spanish, that had nothing to do with me, and that is duality. She didn't have to choose some P.C. stance on gayness over her heritage. She didn't have to choose her family over our friendship. It wasn't Jesus or Ash. (Laughter) (Applause)

Her individual morality was so strongly rooted that she had the courage to hold both things. Our moral integrity is our responsibility and we must be prepared to defend it even when it's not convenient. That's what it means to be an ally, and if you're going to be an ally, you have to be an active ally: Ask questions, act when you hear something inappropriate, actually engage.

I had a family friend who for years used to call my girlfriend my lover. Really? Lover? So overly sexual, so '70s gay porn. (Laughter) But she was trying, and she asked. She could have called her my friend, or my "friend," or my "special friend" -- (Laughter) -- or even worse, just not asked at all. Believe me, we would rather have you ask. I would rather have her say lover, than say nothing at all.

People often say to me, "Well, Ash, I don't care. I don't see race or religion or sexuality. It doesn't matter to me. I don't see it." But I think the opposite of homophobia and racism and xenophobia is not love, it's apathy. If you don't see my gayness, then you don't see me. If it doesn't matter to you who I sleep with, then you cannot imagine what it feels like when I walk down the street late at night holding her hand, and approach a group of people and have to make the decision if I should hang on to it or if I should I drop it when all I want to do is squeeze it tighter. And the small victory I feel when I make it by and don't have to let go. And the incredible cowardice and disappointment I feel when I drop it. If you do not see that struggle that is unique to my human experience because I am gay, then you don't see me. If you are going to be an ally, I need you to see me.

As individuals, as allies, as humans, we need to be able to hold both things: both the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. You don't learn how to hold two things just from the fluff, you learn it from the grit. And what if duality is just the first step? What if through compassion and empathy and human interaction we are able to learn to hold two things? And if we can hold two things, we can hold four, and if we can hold four, we can hold eight, and if we can hold eight, we can hold hundreds.

We are complex individuals, swirls of contradiction. You are all holding so many things right now. What can you do to hold just a few more?
12:21
So, back to Toledo, Ohio. I'm at the front of the line, niece on my shoulders, the frazzled clerk calls me Dad. Have you ever been mistaken for the wrong gender? Not even that. Have you ever been called something you are not? Here's what it feels like for me: I am instantly an internal storm of contrasting emotions. I break out into a sweat that is a combination of rage and humiliation, I feel like the entire store is staring at me, and I simultaneously feel invisible. I want to explode in a tirade of fury, and I want to crawl under a rock. And top all of that off with the frustration that I'm wearing an out-of-character tight-fitting purple t-shirt, so this whole store can see my boobs, to make sure this exact same thing doesn't happen. (Laughter) But, despite my best efforts to be seen as the gender I am, it still happens. And I hope with every ounce of my body that no one heard -- not my sister, not my girlfriend, and certainly not my niece. I am accustomed to this familiar hurt, but I will do whatever I need to do to protect the people I love from it.

But then I take my niece off my shoulders, and she runs to Elsa and Anna -- the thing she's been waiting so long for -- and all that stuff goes away. All that matters is the smile on her face. And as the 30 seconds we waited two and a half hours for comes to a close we gather up our things, and I lock eyes with the clerk again; and she gives me an apologetic smile and mouths, "I am so sorry!" (Laughter) And her humanity, her willingness to admit her mistake disarms me immediately, then I give her a: "It's okay, it happens. But thanks."

And I realize in that moment that I don't have to be either an aunt or an advocate, I can be both. I can live in duality, and I can hold two things. And if I can hold two things in that environment, I can hold so many more things. As my girlfriend and my niece hold hands and skip out the front of the door, I turn to my sister and say, "Was it worth it?" And she said, "Are you kidding me? Did you see the look on her face? This was the greatest day of her life!" (Laughter) "It was worth the two and a half hours in the heat, it was worth the overpriced coloring book that we already had a copy of." (Laughter) "It was even worth you getting called Dad." (Laughter) And for the first time ever in my life, it actually was.

Thank you, Boulder. Have a good night.