Other Views: The beauty of being yourself
There are many "someones" living "somewhere" alone, silenced and afraid to be themselves.
The year was 1998, I arrived at school ready for a day of "big things."
At my locker, I removed the sweatshirt I had worn over the shirt I really wanted to wear that day. A blue and black, T-shirt of a stretchy fabric, that really hugged my frame and showed off my "muscles". My hyper-religious family would not have approved, so I hid it under: an unassuming, every day, run-of-the-mill, sweatshirt. Ready to unveil my favorite tight-fitting T-shirt to my peers, I removed the sweatshirt. The kid at the neighboring locker wasted no time proudly taunting me, "Is that your Don Hoffmann shirt?" I tried to laugh it off, as though it did not bother me. I promptly went the other way, toward the far bathroom, the one least likely to be in use, so I could be alone.
I remember looking at myself in the mirror, looking at my scrawny eighth-grade body. I was flexing my muscles a couple of times thinking, "'Don Hoffmann’ shirt? What! How? How did this backfire? I look great ... don't I?" I talked like this with the skinny kid in the bathroom mirror until the bell rang. I also slipped back into the sweatshirt before making my way to class.
After class, back at my locker, any notions I had of ending my torment with the sweatshirt were readily disabused. The same kid, with a few of his friends now, saw me in my sweatshirt and this only intensified their mockery. "Hey, you covered up! What's the matter? Embarrassed about your 'Don Hoffmann' shirt? C’mon, show us! We never got to see. C'mon," they crowed as they tried to pull the bottom of my sweatshirt up and see underneath.
The sweatshirt was supposed to make things better, not worse. I had covered up because I just wanted the teasing to stop. Now, all I wanted was to pull my bottom lip over my head and swallow myself until I was no longer there. I was not allowed to be myself that day. Not at home, where I could feel safe leaving the house in whatever attire I chose for myself, nor among my peers.
The year was 2004. I was invited to lunch with folks from my congregation. Being that I lived downtown, I decided to walk to the restaurant. That day, I wore: a flat "Newsie" style hat, a brown, 1970’s polyester jacket, and a blue and white striped scarf. Upon joining the group, I sat down and was instantly greeted with, "You look like you've been hanging out with that landlord of yours a bit too much." My landlord at the time? Don Hoffmann.
Here I was, six years later, no longer a kid in high school being made “fun” of by other kids my own age, whom I did not consider friends, to now, an adult being made “fun” of by other adults twice my age, that I did consider friends. This time, I was only mildly embarrassed for being so publicly turned into a spectacle at the restaurant, but also this time… I was a bit angry.
Angry because by this point, Don Hoffmann was no longer just the local photographer subject to the snickering of immature children on "School Picture Day" (and some adults on other days). Now, he was someone I knew. As is often the case, once you get to know someone, you realize how off base your previously held presumptions about them were. He was more to me now; he was my landlord and more importantly, he was also a really good person.
I was angry because I knew that if these people came to know him as I had, they would see how wrong they were about casting him in the roll of their un-funny "punchline." It also made me think, if a straight-guy cannot feel safe to dress how he wishes in this community, without drumming up comparisons to Don Hoffmann, what must it be like for the actual Don Hoffmann to live in this community? I guess only he could answer that.
I also wondered why his was the only name to come up when ignorant people wanted to personalize their "gay punching bag" attempts at humor. Was he really the only LGBT+ person in Wadena? Thinking about it now, he was not alone, but at the time, that is how it felt to many of us. Now, imagine for a second, if that is how it felt to us, did it feel that same way to Don? Like he was the only LGBT+ person in the community?
By imagining that, do you realize how incredibly alone and isolated such a feeling must be? Well, I ask you to further imagine living with that feeling, as part of your everyday life ... for years. If this perspective taking exercise has allowed you to feel some empathy toward such ones, it has also, no doubt, highlighted the tremendous courage of such ones. I will not pretend to know what Don was feeling all those years. But right now, there are many “someones” in many “somewheres” feeling exactly what we have just imagined. You might wonder, if someone did feel that lonely; that marginalized, that on-the-outside-looking-in and apart from their own community, why would anyone stay? Why not shake the dust off your feet and go somewhere more welcoming, somewhere more inclusive, somewhere less alone?
Thankfully for myself, and our entire community, Don has stayed. Whether it took loads of courage or none-at-all, I am grateful that he stayed. Grateful because, at this stage of my life, when I think of LGBT+ individuals within my community, Don is no longer alone, as nearly a dozen others quickly come to mind. Some of whom were from this area but have since moved on. Others are young people not yet able to go out and venture off on their own. How proud I am to know that they feel safe and secure enough in today’s Wadena to come out and be proud of who they are, especially at such a tender age.
Let us be honest with ourselves though. It is not like there are suddenly more LGBT+ people in Wadena than there was 20-30 years ago. LGBT+ individuals are just more visible now because society has finally begun to do what it should have been doing all along, namely, recognizing them as people. If our community has grown into the type of place where individuals are accepted as the person they want to be, that is true community growth and we should all be proud.
Those years it may have seemed like it was just Don representing a community of people within the actual community of people, that however, was likely never the case. Don was just more visible. Don was loud and proud, out, and did not care who knew, nor did he care what they thought. Don was just going to be Don. No matter what.
That is where I find his true beauty in all of this. I do not believe Don set out to be a hero or crusader. He was never on a mission, aiming to liberate the minds of a rural and generally conservative community, or become a beacon for future generations to look to and say, "If he can, why not me?". Don was always, and only ever, doing one thing. Being himself! I find it truly remarkable that just by being his own person, he became an inspiration to others in becoming their own person. He became a symbol, he stood for something simply by standing for himself. When others saw him, they saw proof of what IS possible, even though it sometimes feels unbearably impossible. He would be the first to tell you, "Go do it. Go be you."
If you know Don, cheer him on the same way I know he would cheer you on. If you do not know him but know someone else of the LGBT+ community, do the same for them. Everybody just wants to be themselves and deserves the opportunity to do so. So, let us cheer each other on, and not just during this PRIDE month, we all need support, all of the months. If you have read this far and still hold the LGBT+ community in some form of derision, may you get shampoo in your eyes every shower for the rest of your life. (I kid, I am not really a mean-spirited person) Though, I do hope you allow yourself to be open to others having their equal rights and needs met as well. After all, no one is telling you that you should be gay, so do not tell anyone else they should be straight, that is the least you can do… allowing others to be themselves is not a chore and does not cost you a thing.
In closing, I want to say a big personal THANK YOU to Don. Today, I own a number of good shirts and would be proud to call any of them, “a Don Hoffmann shirt.” For that would mean I am wearing precisely what I want and proudly just being myself. Whatever I decide to call my clothes, please know that I am always proud to call you, Friend. Thank you, Don.