Leading with Empathy

About a year ago I noticed that my best friend was replying to my texts messages a bit differently. It was subtle, but powerful. She was leading with empathy.

My BFF Jonobie and I text each other all kinds of things all the time. Something that made us think of the other person, a funny pic that we can’t stop laughing about, venting about a crappy day, sharing some exciting news, etc. In the latter two, the thing she and I need most often is someone to hear, acknowledge, and echo what we’re feeling. Not to attempt to solve the problem, or to offer advice, but to empathize with us.

In general I think we’ve always done a decent job of empathizing with one another, but it was often implicit rather than explicit. About a year ago I noticed that many times her response was more direct. For instance:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: That sounds both exciting and stressful!

Or also:

Me: Chest X-Rays are back and I do not have pneumonia! Woohoo!

Her: Yayyay!!! I’m super glad that you don’t have pneumonia!!!

In both cases she leads the response with empathy by expressing that she understand how I feel and shares with me in that feeling. Contrast that with other perfectly reasonable responses:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Them: Boo work!

And:

Me: Chest X-Rays are back and I do not have pneumonia! Woohoo!

Them: <thumbsup>

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these, but they are missing that level of empathy that conveys the sender is there, present, and sharing in your feelings with you — all things that the first set (the ones she actually sent) provided.

At some point I noticed what she was doing, how awesome it was, and worked to integrate that into my texts with other people too. I want to be present for my friends, to convey to them that they are important to me, that I am here to hold space for them.

But what if you don’t know how the other person is feeling after receiving a wall of text? How are we to lead with empathy? She’s modeled that for me too by simply asking, eg:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: Oh my! How are you feeling about that?

or even:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: Woah! That sounds as if it could be either exciting or frustrating!

Me: Actually, I’m excited but stressed out.

For me, texting with empathy was a gateway to me being more empathetic in my in-person interactions too. A few weeks ago Daniel commented that I’ve been more empathetic towards him in our conversations and he’s really appreciated it.

And hearing that I’m better connecting with the person that I love makes me incredibly happy.

A Grand Time

On Tuesday night we saw Steve Grand perform at ACT II down here in Puerto Vallarta. And I can’t tell you how moving it was to hear a man sing about love for another man on stage.

Steve Grand is probably best known for his 2013 breakout country music video All-American Boy about one guy’s unrequited love for another man. As someone who grew up listening to country music, I remember being in awe that we finally, finally, had a country love song by a gay man. Then, admittedly, I lost track of Steve and what he was up to until this week.

On Saturday evening we bought tickets for his Tuesday show, where he performs covers as well as his own work, almost on a lark. Of the four of us going to the show, two of us remembered his music video and the other two were game to be dragged along. It’s very common in PV for performers to walk around the beaches handing out cards marketing their shows, and Steve was no exception. Except Steve one-upped all the rest of them by walking around in a bright blue speedo and a blockbuster smile. And to say that he is incredibly handsome would be like saying that the ocean is merely damp. We were all excited to see him perform after that!

The show was good — really good. He’s an excellent performer and has a great stage presence. What surprised me the most was that, oddly, I knew several of his own songs without knowing they were his! It didn’t take me long to figure out that his song Stay was on Sean’s 2013 mix CD and his song Walking was on Sean’s 2017 mix CD (and somehow I knew his song We Are The Night too, although I haven’t figured out how). These CDs live in my ancient car that only has a CD player and the CDs get a lot of air time so I’ve listened to them, and these two songs, many many times. Enough that I could have sung along.

I never knew they were about another guy and knowing that changed everything about them.

I’ve been raised in such a heteronormative culture that when I hear a guy singing about someone else I assume it’s about a girl. Because it’s almost always true. And to have that preconception totally dismantled about songs that I love by this handsome guy on stage who wrote them was mind-blowing.

Stay with me, we don’t never have to leave
You my southern king, we live it for the daydreams
So don’t get mad—what’s past is in the past
And we can make this last
if you just give me that chance
So when my old man’s out of town but a couple days
I think that you should…

Stay with me
all summer
Stay with me
under the covers
Stay with me
Be my lover

He’s singing about another guy, folks!

We talk about the importance of representation all the time, and I guess I never thought about how that might apply to me in music. I’m ecstatic to have relearned the lesson in such a fantastic way.

I’m certain that my newly-purchased Steve Grand albums will get a lot of air time when I get back from vacation next week. If you identify as a gay man and have the opportunity to hear him in person, I highly recommend it!

We did good & fought bad

As promised in December 2017, last year Daniel and I upped our game to not just do good by donating to charities, but also to fight bad by giving money to local and national political campaigns.

Doing Good

This year we donated over $10k to the same organizations we supported in 2016 and 2017. We think these organizations, both local and national, are doing great work for youth, LGBTQ folks, women, POC, and the environment. Particularly in the case of the ACLU and Lambda Legal, we are proud to be a part of efforts to fight the GOP abomination, I mean administration.

Fighting Bad

In addition to donating to charitable organizations, we got political this year. We promised ourselves that we would do so only if we could continue supporting the charities we cared about first and I’m happy to say we were able to do that.

In total we gave over $9k to Democratic candidates running in the midterms. Not all of the candidates won, but it was worth every penny. I view it like an investment – some pay off in the short term (winning in the midterms) and some pay of in the long term (like Beto riling up Democratic voters for other races in Texas despite him not winning his race). And you can bet that we are in this for the long term.

Fighting Together

I’m more proud of how we were able to raise an additional $6k by engaging other people to donate. Together, we helped take back the House from the Republicans.

In 2020 we will be taking the gloves off again. We’ll continue to encourage voter registration & voter turn-out and put our money where our mouth is to fight for our country.

Why I live a semi-public life

I intentionally live a semi-public life. I blog about work and personal things here, post on Facebook (generally locked to friends-of-friends, which is still a pretty wide audience), post shameless selfies on my Instagram, use LinkedIn, and am highly googleable. I do this because I believe living an open life breaks down stereotypes and misconceptions.

Growing up I felt implicit pressure from my family to present the “right” image to the public. It could be summed up by: don’t do or reveal anything that might prevent you from running for office on an evangelical conservative Republican ticket. And yes, that’s fucked up. This contributed to my shame about being gay and other people knowing that I’m gay. It also boxed me into not wanting to publicly admit that I might do or enjoy activities that might not be seen as “traditionally masculine”.

Over time I’ve realized that while we all present some front to the world, presenting one that demonstrates the breadth and depth of our person and character helps break down stereotypes and misconceptions and allows us to find commonalities in our shared humanity. In short, it helps us to relate to each other.

Growing up I mentally divided up the world into nerds and jocks — you were either smart or attractive, but not both. This certainly contributed to some of my body-image issues. Turns out that’s not true! I’ve always identified as a nerd and over time have both made peace with my body and made great strides on my fitness journey (more on that in upcoming blog posts). It’s also one reason why I post shirtless photos on Instagram — to break the stereotype of what a nerd looks like.1

I likely present a “traditionally masculine” appearance. But let’s delve a little deeper. I often blog about my work in the tech industry – ok, that reinforces the stereotype. I think most people would agree that weightlifting and running are masculine activities and I love both of those. What about reading, throwing pottery, and partner acrobatics? I love those too, but we might be stretching classic masculinity for some folks. Ballroom dancing, baking, and sharing recipes? All things I enjoy and might make some dude-bro’s head start to hurt.

I’m not done: advocating for women & social justice, bellydancing, and knitting? All things I actively do or have done, and I suspect at least bellydancing does not rate on anyone’s “traditional masculinity” scale. Oh, and of course I’m gay and an ardent feminist. So am I masculine or not? Does it matter? Maybe the definition of masculine is so horribly broken and constraining that it actively hurts men and we need to break free of it.

My point is that once you start seeing more of a person you start to break down preconceptions about what boxes they fit into. But until we start showing more of ourselves than the label on the boxes, we only serve to perpetuate the problem.

My openness didn’t happen in a day. I slowly started revealing more about who I am and what makes me happy over time. The more I do it the easier it becomes. I still hide some of who I am for fear of being rejected or judged but that becomes less with every passing year. Eventually I will become the embodiment of Betty White, who just doesn’t give a damn about what people think. #lifegoals


1 Also, frankly, it’s because I enjoy the affirmation since I finally like how I look after hating my body for so long.

Love, Casey

Earlier this month I saw the coming-of-age and coming-out movie Love, Simon. It was touching, heart-warming, and made me wonder when we stopped sharing our own coming out stories.

I came out 18 years ago in Austin at the age of 21. It seemed that whenever I met another gay guy, we’d inevitably share when and how we came out. I think the last time I shared the story was when I met Daniel 5.5 years ago, and before that I don’t even remember. Nor have I heard coming out stories from others in recent history either.

When did we stop sharing our stories? Why don’t we tell them anymore? Was it just too long ago? Is it because I live in a very accepting part of the country now so the stories have less impact? Are they just too painful and we’d prefer not to remember?

Should we dust off our stories and retell them? Much like the heartbreaking stories of the AIDS crisis that so heavily influenced what it meant to be gay in America in the 80s — stories that we’ve stopped telling and are slowly disappearing — are we losing part of gay culture by not telling our coming out stories?

I think we are. I think we’re doing a disservice thinking that people coming out today, young and old, don’t struggle and don’t need to hear that they are not alone in that struggle.

To quote the King of Pop, let’s start with the man in the mirror…

My story

I finally admitted I was gay in 2000 right after college while living in Austin. I’d known it for years but “praying away the gay” had been a miserable failure and I was desperate to stop living a lie.

The very first person I came out to, tearfully, was my good friend Megan who accepted me with open, loving arms. I remember her telling me that me being gay didn’t change anything about our relationship, and it hasn’t. I can’t tell you how relieving it was to finally tell someone and to be loved regardless. I can say without exaggeration that her response to me coming out saved my life.

One of the first people at work I came out to was my friend Jonobie — a woman who has since become my very best friend. Only minutes after coming out to her, she almost punched a guy making homophobic comments. A few months later I came out to my teammate Jenny and she went from utter disbelief to trying to set me up within seconds.

But other interactions weren’t so rosy.

Like Simon in the movie, I came out to my parents at Christmas. Unlike Simon, my parents are conservative evangelicals. There were tears, words of “why are you making this choice?”, “you just haven’t found the right girl yet”, “but you’ll never have kids”, “what did I do wrong?”, “you should see a counselor”, etc. Lets just say that it didn’t go well and has been a very rocky path since. I envy loving, accepting, affirming parents like Simon’s.

I came out to another close college friend sometime in 2001. We use to attend church together in college. I honestly don’t remember the details of coming out to him, but he didn’t accept me with open arms. We remained friends, albeit of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” variety. When I got engaged to Benjamin he wasn’t able to tell me he was happy for me because he believed being gay was a sin. But the story takes a turn for the better when in 2009 he messaged me and said that his sister, whom he is very close to, came out to him and he was able to lovingly accept her. In his letter he apologized for hurting me when I came out to him and thanked me for giving him a chance to wrestle with some of the issues before his sister came out to him. Helping this man be able to accept his sister may be the thing I am proudest of in my life, because I know how much I wanted that for myself.

And it doesn’t end there. Society assumes that everyone is straight unless proven otherwise, so every interaction with a new person may turn into a coming out story. At some point it almost becomes second nature for those of us living in liberal, accepting areas of the country. (I’m sure I came out to some random clerk at the grocery store just last week trying to find something for Daniel.) For others in more rural or conservative areas, life exists in the closet because coming out is a risky ordeal, only undergone for specific people.

Your story

Stories help reveal our humanity, our realness to others. Within our stories we find common ground and commonalities. Coming out stories are no different.

If you’re LGBTQ+, what’s your coming out story?

If you’re not LGBTQ+, what’s a story of when someone came out to you?

So who’s the girl in the relationship?

Earlier today while Daniel was mowing the lawn and I was washing dishes I recalled a close friend’s parent asking them “who was the girl” in my relationship. The question surfaces up one of the things I think is most awesome about same-sex relationships: there are no “expected” gender roles so we get to do whatever works for us expectation-free.

Daniel and I split up some of the classic gender roles in a variety of ways, usually playing to our strengths (he loves the outdoors and nature) and personalities (I’m an OCD clean-freak).

  • He usually cooks and I do the dishes. When I bake he does dishes.
  • We both wash and fold laundry.
  • He mows the lawn. He gardens.
  • He deals with the compost. I take the trash and recycling out.
  • I vacuum the house. He cleans the toilets.
  • We both do the grocery shopping.
  • He takes care of the pets (and by pets I mean house plants).
  • I wash the car. He takes pictures of me washing the car.
  • He handles the house plumbing. I take care of the electrical work.
  • We both work; I make more than he does (tech vs government sectors).
  • Daniel does more of the emotional labor in the relationship (this is something I acknowledge and am working on).
  • I pester him about calling his mother and reminding him of friends’ birthdays.
  • I throw pottery. He blows glass. We both sew.
  • He does woodworking. I write code.
  • I lift weights and run. He rides a bike and played rugby.
  • I’m vain about my hair (and never notice when he gets his cut).
  • We both have some body-image issues.

Of course, most of the time when someone asks that question they’re really talking about sex. And to that I just have to laugh because it does nothing but highlight just how limited some people’s ideas of sex actually are. If you have to ask the question, you’re probably doing sex wrong.1


1 And frankly, that’s none of their damn business anyway. What’s wrong with these people?

Gay community at Critical

Last week Daniel and I attended Critical Northwest, the annual Seattle-region Burning Man. This was our second time to go, the first was in 2015, and one of the things that we felt was lacking in 2015 was a sense of gay community.

This year we put a concerted effort into building and fostering queer community before the event. In the spirit of radical inclusion we decided to focus on a larger queer1 community rather than just a gay community. We created a Facebook sub-group for Critical Northwest Queers to create ideas, we contacted theme camps and encouraged them to host queer-centric events, and we collated and displayed all queer events as part of the Queer Agenda with Camp Waystation during the week.

And overall I think our efforts were successful! I heard from numerous people how they felt that the event this year was explicitly, not just implicitly, queer-friendly and welcoming. The spirit of queer-inclusion seemed to bleed over into other camps flying various Pride flags which was fantastic.

But a queer community does not necessarily imply a gay community. Over the course of the week out of ~1200 participants Daniel and I only found 10 other male-identified people that seemed a part of the gay community — that seemed like our people — and very few of those attended the queer events. So while it felt really great knowing that others were finding their community this year, it was frustrating to feel that we still weren’t finding ours after putting a concerted effort into it.

There are a plethora of possibilities as to why so few gay men went to Critical. Perhaps there were well more than 10 other gay men out there that we never met. Perhaps gay men who were there didn’t identify as queer or weren’t looking for a community. Perhaps gay men are less likely to attend a regional burn (I don’t know what percentage of Burning Man participants are gay men). Perhaps this was an off year. Perhaps my expectations and hopes were just too high.

Regardless of the reason we don’t feel like we found our community at Critical.


1 Yes, I used the word queer although I still cringe internally every time. LGBTQ+ is utterly unpronounceable.