Interview with Sam Wilson
When I was in High School, I knew of one guy a year ahead of me, who was “out” and proud. At that time, it was normal for everyone to call things “gay,” and for most of us, the prominence and significance of sexual orientations besides straight were complete mysteries. Without Google or extensive social media sources for learning/connecting with others, it was more difficult to get accurate information and was more of a process to “discover” what it meant to be non-heterosexual. When you’re in middle school, it’s developmentally normal to feel different and to see yourself as abnormal / the only one in the world who feels that way, or thinks like that, etc. Without the internet, people had to rely on books, magazines, clubs, or other people to find out about others who were “just like them.” It took intention, effort, time and other resources to actually see that there were others who had been there, done that, and not only survived, but were now flourishing (and fabulous).
As such, I was somewhat lazy about it; I didn’t prioritize discovering my “sexuality” or “orientation,” so it was really more about figuring it all out and explaining to MYSELF what or who I was first and foremost, as opposed to explaining that to others. It’s still a journey that I am on, honestly… I think our gender identities, orientations and affectations are fluid and evolving, as are our notions and understandings of them as a society. We are constantly creating, updating, redefining and reclaiming words related to our identities, so it can be confusing and complicated to figure out how we define ourselves, to ourselves, first…before we even go on to then explain that to others. I’ve yet to find a single word that completely and forever captures my own nuanced understanding and appreciation of who I am in terms of my gender and sexuality, though I will claim certain words in certain contexts. I am particularly mindful of not shying away from associating with certain words or groups of people because the last thing I want to exude is any sense of shame for being something other than heterosexual. In fact, the easiest box I put myself in is “not straight,” but beyond that it’s complicated!
When I went on to college in NYC, I was in my school’s musical production of Rocky Horror, which was an incredibly liberating experience for me. I was surrounded by people who were mostly gay or bi, and we were all getting to dress up in gender-bending outfits while singing provocative songs to overly-sexualized body movements. It was such a fun way to explore that whole world, and I also discovered glitter spray, which was, well, a true love-at-first-sight moment for me.
I think that the most significant difference today versus 5 years ago is that so many more people now know someone who is “out” or who otherwise claims a non-binary gender identity or non-straight orientation. I think that hatred is rooted in fear and ignorance and dehumanization. When more and more people started being open about their sexuality, it became increasingly difficult for bigoted folks to hold onto their stereotypes and Othering. “The gays” aren’t actually just some clandestine group of weirdo perverts who hang out in major metropolises, actually; your adorable little niece is a lesbian, and that sweet boy who delivers your newspaper likes other boys, and, who could forget when Mrs. So-and-so, aka the town grandmother whom you’ve always admired so much, finally came out to the whole town at the rummage sale last spring? Newsflash! They’re everywhere, they’re people just like you and me, and some of them even have no fashion sense either and will actually not judge every single thing that you’re wearing right now (though if you’re trying to get into Club Cafe anytime soon, you may want to reconsider those cargo shorts… just sayin’).
Other than that, I think that the vocabulary and the language and the words are all expanding and constantly evolving, which actually creates some rifts between older and younger folks in marginalized and activist communities. Your mom may have burned her bra in the 60s and consider herself a hardcore feminist, but it’s your teenage daughter who can thoroughly explain what cisgender and genderqueer mean to your conservative aunt when it comes up at Thanksgiving (you know, after a debate about who gets the carving privileges).
Another critical and somewhat more recent development in terms of how we think about social justice, from what I have observed, is the notion of equity versus equality. I think that a lot of us grew up thinking that equality was the goal, and we used to think that the golden principle was good way of framing how to treat others. Now, however, I think that folks are coming to a more evolved understanding of both of these concepts, however. Equality, in my opinion, is a distraction from the reality that we are all actually not the same, have not been treated the same way our whole lives, and have not all had the same levels of privilege and access to resources and power. Equity seeks to lift up groups who have historically been marginalized and systematically oppressed. Equity urges us to listen to voices from diverse and often-unheard sources; it calls us to proclaim that #blacklivesmatter, for example, because black lives are not being treated equally. They have unequal levels of privilege, power and resources in our current society, which have led us to this point where their very lives are constantly at risk. Disproportionate levels of violence and hatred toward them compels an equitable response that counteracts society’s claim that they do not matter. Similarly, in a world that pays women 72 cents and men a dollar for the same work, do we give everyone an extra 28 cents? I also prefer the notion of the “platinum rule” to the golden rule that I grew up with, which dictates that you treat everyone how *they* want to be treated. My (straight, masculine) brother, for example, may not mind if someone tells him that he’s throwing that ball like a sissy, so doesn’t think twice about saying it to me (and wouldn’t be breaking the golden rule if he did). But my personal story and background make me more sensitive to comments like that, so I am impacted differently, which matters.
The biggest critical issue today, in my opinion, is the recognition of intersectionality, and appreciation that injustices are rooted in systems of oppression that are all interrelated. When you fight for LGBTQ Justice, you cannot leave out racial justice or economic justice, for example, either; systems of oppression work insidiously against people with multiple marginalized identities, so we need to recognize this in order to properly dismantle them. All of our liberations are tied up with one another; we are all working to resist hate and embrace human dignity and love.
Similarly, I think activists need to be especially mindful of the inclination to be pitted against other marginalized groups, whether as a battle for resources or ideologies or whatever. Right now, for example, we need to hold the LGBTQ community in our hearts but actively resist societal pressures to inflate Islamophobia. We cannot appreciate and accept the comfort of a hug from mainstream society if, while doing so, it stabs our brothers and sisters behind our backs. As a marginalized community, we need to express solidarity with other groups who have been historically oppressed and vilified in this country, which means recognizing the rights and dignity of our Muslim siblings and neighbors too. It is especially imperative that liberal faith groups show their support here too; conservative Christian rhetoric that is filled with hatred has poisoned America’s sense of religiousness. Interfaith alliances that promote justice and peace are critical in reclaiming and restoring spirituality and faith in our 21st Century USA.
Similarly, we need to recognize that the tragedy in Orlando happened on “Latin Night,” with promotional materials featuring trans women of color, and victims who were overwhelmingly people of color. The continued and horrifying violence toward trans people, people of color, and especially trans people of color, needs to be named. We need to recognize that this is an enormous problem, and then take similarly enormous steps against it.
I think that youth are generally more willing to learn, be taught new things, and overall have a greater sense of curiosity about the world and how it works. I also think that youth have a delightful innocence and sense of hope (as opposed to older folks who have become disillusioned), which invigorates them and allows them to take more risks. I also think that youth today have access to so much information, and can much more easily build connections with folks who would have been geographically inaccessible in the past. They are better able to use social media and other innovations to quickly respond to things and also build bigger and better responses. Many folks think of youth as our future, but I would argue that they are also our present. Their skill sets may be a bit different, and some of them may waste time on the detrimental aspects of our screen-focused society, but they can be quite powerful, knowledgeable, and hardworking, and, as I mentioned before, are often more adept at understanding our increasingly complex notions of gender and sexuality. One of the best parts of my job is getting to act as both a teacher and a student; listening and learning from young people is a gift that more people need to open themselves up to.
Younger generations are also increasingly moving away from religion and faith, as exemplified by a dramatic rise in the so-called “nones,” i.e. folks with no religious affiliation or system of beliefs. I believe this is a response to the harm that has occurred in the historical ties between religions and politics, wherein strict religious dogmas have isolated and oppressed groups of people. In my work, I see this as an opportunity to attract these people to more liberal religious faiths, like Unitarian Universalism, which allows people to develop – and continue to develop – their own sense of spirituality and meaning. I also think that UUism and other faiths have an opportunity here, too, to expand their definitions of membership, worship, etc. and open up their doors, ideas, and resources to folks who may or may not wholly identify with their religion or feel comfortable being at an actual “church.” I think that faith and spirituality have the power to unify, help, and join individuals on the greater path to love, but our nation’s history of religious intolerance has inculcated younger generations with disillusionment about its value.
Overall, it’s wonderful to be and do whatever I can to fill in any gaps in what LGBTQ youth are otherwise not getting from their home, school, community, etc. I will elaborate on what I see those as here in the next question. There is value in youth having mentors, leaders, and teachers who are “like them” and who can listen, support, and guide them in various ways that people without similar experiences simply cannot do. I love getting to do what I do for all of the youth that I work with, but it is especially satisfying to be able to provide something for LGBTQ youth who all too often do not have helpful adult role models or leaders to go to when they need them. It is nice to be able to provide for them something that I did not necessarily feel like I had when I was growing up, and which so many young folks from marginalized communities often have difficulty accessing. Sharing my own stories, struggles, losses, wins, and experiences that I have learned and grown from are all powerful ways in which I can develop nurturing relationships with these teens, and give them the kind of empathetic response and shoulder to cry on that they may need in that moment. I am grateful that I have many experiences, even the bad ones, to share with them if it’s helpful. It’s hard to hear their own stories and struggles, and sometimes difficult to recall my own, but it can be a powerful and healing experience for both of us when we see that we are not alone.
It’s also just fun to have an excuse to always go to things like Pride, and a group to march in Pride with! Working with LGBTQ gives me a reason to more adamantly stay connected to community leaders who work for those issues, and it also forces me to stay more up to date on my own knowledge of issues that affect the community. Also, not gonna lie, it definitely helps me to stay up-to-speed on my own vocab in this world, and helps me pretend like I’m doing something work-related or otherwise useful when I’m car-dancing to the latest trashy pop song or staying up late watching reruns of Glee.
First and foremost, I think that Winchester public schools need to have much more comprehensive and inclusive sex education that recognizes and validates non-heterosexual relationships and sexuality. I think that there are remnants of Puritanical culture that pervade New England society in a lot of stifling and hurtful ways, and people need to better at opening up their minds and expanding their limited concepts of what is appropriate. I think that youth and children need to have more out and open adult role models in their classrooms, and more teachers who are actively working as allies for LGBTQ-identified youth, who do not tolerate hateful language in their classrooms and also work to deepen all students’ understanding and compassion in these issues. It’s become quite clear to me that WHS has a long way to go in terms of this issue, and in fact, I’ve observed that it also has a long way to go in terms of dismantling sexism as well, and taking more concrete steps toward making its hallways safer for girls, let alone non-binary students and any students who do not fit traditional roles of masculinity and femininity. This means not just penalizing the perpetrators, but also lifting up the gifts and talents of these people, and instilling pride in kids who are different by intentionally creating spaces to highlight them. I think that its important when we talk about LGBTQ issues and heterosexism, to not just focus on the ways in which these people are oppressed and victimized, but to also focus on the strengths and attributes that gays and lesbians can and do bring to the table. There are an innumerable number of gifts and talents that queer people have brought to this world, and we need to remember and reiterate this just as strongly as we need to continue admonishing those who put them down.
Youth who call out their friends and stand up for others that are being made fun of, even if it means losing those friendships or getting made fun of themselves. And doing so even if someone from that group that’s being made fun of is not in the room.
Straight, masculine young guys who aren’t afraid of doing something that is otherwise perceived as feminine or gay, because they don’t discriminate against gay people and don’t see it as a bad thing. These young guys inspire me and give me hope for our future. Plus it’s hilarious when you get that super straight dude to try and do something like wear heels, for example, and then have him epically fail and suddenly gain a greater appreciation for women and drag queens who can not only walk but can WORK those heels on stage when they need to.
I am also really inspired by an increasingly large number of young adult leaders in Unitarian Universalism, who are younger than me and already doing so many amazing things with their lives. They remind me to continue working hard and doing my best to keep affecting change in this world; it is hard work sometimes, but boldness and effort together truly can make a difference in the outcome of our world.
I was born in England (but moved here when I was 3), so have dual US/EU citizenship (which I think has helped in my own thinking of myself as a citizen of our world!)
I love to travel and worked for a tour operating company for a few years that offered more tours than any other US operator, then went onto found and run my own travel company for a few years, Create It Travel. I specialized in creating unique and memorable experiences and customized packages for people with different needs and desires (like LGBTQ travelers, for example). My favorite part of that work was getting to do a trip for a young girl through the Make a Wish Foundation, who wanted to go skiing somewhere in July! Their pictures and letters of thanks (from Zermatt, Switzerland) afterward were incredibly touching.
I LOVE to travel, I’ve traveled to 31 different countries, and through the Tour Co. I used to work for I had the unique experience of going on a safari in Botswana, which also included some time in Zambia (and 20 min. Where we were technically in Zimbabwe!) We stayed in tents that were otherwise completely out in the open, and I’ll never forget coming out of my tent one morning to see elephant tracks everywhere. Apparently a herd had quietly, and carefully, trekked through our camp the night before, without waking (or trampling!) any of us (and this is not uncommon, we were told). It was also pretty fun to eat gazelle-flavored potato chips.
I have a horrible fear of sharks, so when I went to Cape Town, South Africa, with my Dad and Grandpa (for the latter’s choice of final international trip with us before he got rid of his passport), I decided to go Shark Cage Diving in an attempt to face and thus erase my fear! I’m not sure it completely worked, they still scare me silly, but there was something pretty powerful about getting into a tank that is then rammed into by a living and breathing creature that completely terrifies you (the way it works is that they throw out buckets of chum to attract the great whites, then reel fish carcasses literally right back into the cage so that the massive sharks do, indeed, ram right into the cage where you are!)
Sam Wilson currently serves the Winchester Unitarian Society as their Director of Youth Ministries. He is also a Leader of Youth Justice Trainings for the UU College of Social Justice, consultant in Development for the UU Service Committee, and private tutor of SATs and other college prep. He holds a BA in History from Temple University, where he concentrated on recent American History and wrote his Senior Thesis on Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood.” He also studied Peace and Justice at Villanova University, and Human Rights and African History at Columbia University as part of his 9-year undergrad journey. He is particularly passionate about Reproductive Justice, having escorted and served on the Board of Directors at Planned Parenthood in PA.