By Liam Bailey
When asked to think of “who you are,” what comes to mind? The words that pop into my head are descriptors and identity words. Everyone is made up of a multitude of identities and these are important for how we move through our lives. The world we live in isn’t always celebratory of every identity. Indeed there are many who choose to discriminate. At HQ, we have chosen to make a promise to our members, and our community, that all identities will find safety and celebration here.
Embracing who I am was tantamount to my survival. Growing up, I discovered quickly that some things aren’t always accepted, and that includes some people’s identities. I was born into a farming family in a small Michigan town. Even as a small child I was different, very feminine and boisterous… I didn’t feel like the other boys… but I knew I liked them. But I also knew these feminine traits and innocent attractions weren’t acceptable to many people around me, so I learned to hide who I really was.
This hiding prevented me from embracing and exploring all of who I was, and set back my development quite a bit. While many people around me were exploring who they were, taking dates to dances, and having the innocent romances of youth, I was struggling to hide myself in order to stay safe. It wasn’t until I was able to stand up and proudly declare who I was and explore the possibilities of that person that I began to have those pivotal experiences and grow into myself. Only then could I find my stride and start moving toward the place I would thrive.
I’ve found many of the lessons I learned to ring true for members of HQ as well. Youth that become members here are almost always in some form of crisis, which carry additional burdens. But members who feel pride in themselves and their identities experience an easier time boldly stepping into the situations that will carry them out of crisis and toward resources. Conversely, if a member feels they must hide a huge part of who they are, they walk with even more fear that they will be rejected or attacked as they look for help.
Inside the walls of HQ we work hard to embrace every part of a person, and to make space for them to be and do what they need in order to thrive. Staff work to embrace language that affirms the whole person, while celebrating the parts of ourselves we are most proud of – identities. It is important to us that staff identities reflect those of our members. We proudly boast a staff full of POC and LGBTQ+ folks, many of whom live at the intersections of other oppressed identities. For HQ to be a safe space for members, it must be full of loving and experienced individuals who can understand and relate to member experiences. This is a huge part of building meaningful and transformative relationships inside our walls.
My experience at HQ has been filled with friendship and support. From the moment I was hired my identity as a Queer + Genderqueer person has been celebrated, and my experiences viewed as a major asset. Even when life got tough and I struggled, I felt embraced and celebrated by my coworkers and leadership. Those parts of my identity that often made it harder to navigate the world became points of celebration here, and I knew that I didn’t have to hide any part of me or what I was going through.
More than just creating safe spaces inside our walls, we want to help build a more safe, just, and celebratory community that works hard to embrace everyone. One of the ways our team engages the community is through showing up and showing out at local events like Rock the Block and Grand Rapids Pride. These events are opportunities to make connections and build important relationships that support our members and open doors to opportunities for success. The whole staff come together to be a part of these events. We love when members join us and stand proud about who they are! Moments like these really bring home why HQ makes such an intentional effort to be present and to have important and celebratory conversations wherever we go.
It’s not easy to recognize when those around us might be facing challenges due to the way society views their identity; or when they are struggling with their history that we can not see. Investing in others and showing them you value them for who they are requires little effort, but can have a lasting and transformative impact upon their day and maybe their lives. I’d like to challenge you to become a safe person for your neighbors and the travelers you meet on your journey. I challenge you to take HQ’s example and work to create the spaces where every individual can be celebrated for all of who they are. No one succeeds alone, it takes a community. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the support of others, like my HQ fam. Who helped shape you? Who will you be a part of lifting up?