World Pride Toronto Keynote Speech

Summer 2014 kicked off with some incredible opportunities.

One of them included participating in a World Pride event in Etobicoke, Ontario, just outside of Toronto.

It was big, considering the fact that since I was a teenager, I dreamed of being an inspiring public speaker. It was the Universe saying to me, “Check this out- look how close you are to that dream and others being fully realized” and that the opportunity found me without my having to really go looking for it? Further confirmation.

It was also just insanely fun and who can turn that down?

I was keeping the contents of my keynote to myself for a while, but I’m sharing here because it’s a platform and if I’m not using it to share the amazing things happening as proof that they are within the reaches of anyone, then what the hell am I doing?

Exactly.

And so I’m sharing it now.

Here are the contents of the speech I gave, complete with short poem I wrote in about twenty minutes, a day before presenting.

 

I have a philosophy of gratitude. It’s where I begin and end, so I want to take a moment to say thank you to the amazing organizers who made the ground we’re standing on, more than just a pretty view of the lake.

Thank you for joining us here and celebrating with us as members of the community or as our cherished allies.

Most importantly, I want to thank those who came before me and paved the way, fighting for equalities and rights I enjoy every day. I didn’t have to endure all that you did and it’s because of your efforts that we’re where we are today. To my fellow younger generations I want to say: this is something we must commit to remembering now that more of our rights are won. It is because of those who came before us that we have these beautiful freedoms.

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It occurred to me on the way here that there is something incredibly special about this event.

Take a look around you. Go ahead.

Take in how many people surround you here.

This is about the same number of people as the first Pride celebrations in Toronto. Really let that sink in for a moment because it’s so much more than an observation or history lesson.

What is now a Pride celebration hosting the world, with over 2 million people expected to descend upon the city this weekend, started with a dedicated group of people who wanted to celebrate being members of this beautiful LGBT community.

In no uncertain terms, I’m saying that group is you.

The story of our community is one of overcoming identities the world tried to give us, to win rights that were denied us and  many of our personal stories are those of rising up to become so much more.

I would like to say that my identity was something born of my choosing at first, though the reality is that for a long time it was the result of decisions others made about me before I had any say.

I am a woman.

I am a lesbian.

Those 2 statements may seem at first, a simple statement of fact.

They may speak the truth at first blush, but they tell you almost nothing about what life has meant for me.

Identity can both empower and disempower in a heartbeat.

It disempowers when imposed upon us, becoming a cage we’re fighting to be freed from and it’s here that it becomes bullying.

Those who impose identities on one another feel as though we owe them something- a reaction, an energy, information or actions. There’s an unspoken bargain that we’re not invited to the table to negotiate or navigate.

I was raped when I was 16 years old. It was a tough time in my life, without question and it’s something I’m finally free to talk about like this now. I already knew I was a lesbian and had crushes on girls in my classes for as long as I could remember, but I felt like an outcast in high school. My friends sat at the lunch table talking about boys and crushes, while I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.  I wanted so desperately to fit in because the world would assign me an identity otherwise and so I ran, setting up a dating profile and getting a date so that I could talk about something the next day. It was a hard thing, to be so isolated and I felt such shame at the growing realization that I was a lesbian, so I thought that a date was the most logical thing I could do.

Except for the fact that that date in particular, would change my life.

My identities intersected, before I had words for it, when the police officer questioning me at the hospital told me, “Look at sex as like riding a bike and that this time you fell off.”

I was in that moment, a woman without a voice who should’ve known better, covered in a thick coat of shame.

I was in that moment, a lesbian that no one believed because they used an experience in my life to assign me with an identity.

And it happened again when I found myself in an abusive relationship where few believed that domestic violence was a “thing” in relationships between 2 women.

The world was ready to give me identities and I realized over time that the most powerful thing I have to share is not the story of the struggles and their gritty details, but the things I’ve learned from it and to share the ‘overcoming’.

When we choose our identities for ourselves, it is the most empowering choice we can make that becomes the rudder directing the ships that are our lives.

I used to think that the louder I made my voice, the less I would be made to experience my identities but the truth is that even my silence is loud the moment I made them my own.

This is especially true in the LGBT community where we still experience hate and where at times, even though I’m the Chairperson of Peel Pride, I have moments of fear while walking down streets simply holding hands on a date.

Our youth and even some of our adults don’t have the vocabulary to describe oppression and things like inequality. Most know it only as,

“That’s not fair”

“But I was just…”

“I’m only doing…”

If those who came before us gave us rights freedoms and protections this is our gift to those who come after us- give everyone the space where their ‘justs’ and ‘onlys’ need not be the red carpet they use to introduce themselves.

When I came out, I was very much involved in the Christian faith. While away at university, I quickly became part of the Brock Christian Fellowship, attending Bible Studies, talking to campus ministers and joining prayer groups. When I came out in high school, I was told by a well-meaning teacher about an ex-gay ministry whose entire service was based on the premise that being a lesbian is sinful and can be changed with very expensive counseling.

When I came out to my friends at university, in those Christian groups, I was met with a deafening silence where I thought support would exist instead.

Many of the connections and friends I had left me on my own. One of those friends even prayed with me that I would die before I acted on the “sin” within me because it was growing more and more “powerful”.

The reason why bullying impacted me so greatly was because of the way others were committed to defining my identity for me. Their definition of what lesbian means was the social currency that carried me through the shame of their message that I was “less than” because of who I was. As long as I had their approval, it would be okay.

And it never came.

Which turned out to be an amazing thing.

It taught me that so few of us have the right words to explain the fact that we’re not being allowed to define ourselves on our terms and by our standards.

It made me a lot stronger along the way too but what a powerful thing we can give to others, having experienced it ourselves before.

In all of the people I’ve met in the LGBT community in the years I’ve been an activist and since coming out, it’s the one thing that I’ve learned unifies us: we’ve had to walk through the fires of refining what our identities mean for us long before others have to.

I’m sure that there are many allies listening or in attendance here and if you’re looking to make this a more peaceful place for LGBT people, this is the way.

If you’re an LGBT person looking to give back powerfully, this is the way.

A thousand dreams of global change begin with the commitment within.

And in order for us to know how to address global issues, we must remember what it means to reclaim our identities. It is the only way to know what we’re fighting for in the end.

To those who have bullied in the past- you’re free to make new choices every day and I invite you to come into the fold and learn that we are so much more than our identities.

To those who have been bullied in the past, I leave you with the following poem.

Because how dare you.

How dare you rise up from the ash.

How dare you become this beautiful thing despite the odds.

How dare you rise above,

Your race, your faiths, your economics, your orientation, your name, your education, your place.

How dare you remind others that the ones with the most adversity are the ones who shine the brightest.

This world is not always kind to us and our identities,

but fortune favors the brave and history remembers the names of those courageous enough to ask,

“Why not me?”

And it rewards the ones who declare, “I can have that too.”

So now this I BEG of you.

Remember your contents and the gifts you have to give this world.

Revolutions aren’t born in fire or clashing metal swords with raised voices.

Revolutions are born in the depths of your being.

The moment you decide and declare for yourself,

“I am enough.

And I don’t need to be anyone else. This is the day that I begin. This is the day I live my truth for me.”

I am a lesbian, I came out of poverty with no degree and a victim to  violence more than once, yet I boldly stand before you and say,

My future is bright.

I am you.

And me is we.

And the future is beautiful.

So this World Pride weekend, celebrate and dance not because the music is good,

But because you’ve met the thrumming, thumping beat of your heart and the song inside you commands you to move.

Happy Pride and remember the words of Maya Angelou,

Because still, I rise.

And so, I offer you my final gratitude.

One of the identities I’m most proud of is Harry Potter fan and I remember reading them and lamenting the fact that we didn’t live in the same magical world.

Experience has taught me that there is magic here however, and it is in our stories and the sharing of them. So thank you for the stories you tell now and the ones you have yet to tell because together that’s how we’re going to overcoming bullying and make the world a better place for all LGBT people.

Thank you for reminding me that “our word is our wand” and that the world we want to see is at the tips of our lips and the hearts of our hands.

 

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When I say that anything is possible and that dreams do come true, it’s because I’m the living proof.

I’m living the proof at this point in my life.

And it feels amazing, so do yourself a favor and rule nothing out.

Because when it starts coming true, just after the darkest point passes, you begin to see that anything is possible.

On The Wings of Miracles,

~Cheryl~

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