Ash Beckham: When to take a stand -- and when to let it go
September 27, 2014
Ash Beckham recently found herself in a situation that made her ask: who am I? She felt pulled between two roles — as an aunt and as an advocate. Each of us feels this struggle sometimes, she says -- and offers bold suggestions for how to stand up for your moral integrity when it isn’t convenient.Ash Beckham
- Equality advocate
Ash Beckham approaches hard conversations from a place of compassion and empathy. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This summer I was back
in Ohio for a family wedding,
and when I was there,
there was a meet and greet
with Anna and Elsa from "Frozen."
Not the Anna and Elsa from "Frozen,"
as this was not a Disney-sanctioned event.
These two entrepreneurs had
a business of running princess parties.
Your kid is turning five?
They'll come sing some songs,
sprinkle some fairy dust, it's great.
And they were not about
to miss out on the opportunity
that was the phenomenon
and that was "Frozen."
So they get hired by a local toy store,
kids come in on a Saturday morning,
buy some Disney swag, get their
picture taken with the princesses,
call it a day.
It's like Santa Claus
without the seasonal restrictions.
And my three-and-a-half-year-old niece
Samantha was in the thick of it.
She could care less that these two women
were signing posters and coloring books
as Snow Queen and Princess Ana
with one N to avoid copyright lawsuits.
According to my niece and the 200-plus
kids in the parking lot that day,
this was the Anna and Elsa from "Frozen."
It is a blazing hot Saturday morning
in August in Ohio.
We get there at 10 o'clock,
the scheduled start time,
and we are handed number 59.
By 11 o'clock they had called
numbers 21 through 25;
this was going to be a while,
and there is no amount
of free face painting or temporary tattoos
that could prevent the meltdowns
that were occurring outside of the store.
So, by 12:30 we get called:
"56 to 63, please."
And as we walk in, it is a scene
I can only describe you
as saying it looked like Norway threw up.
There were cardboard
cut-out snowflakes covering the floor,
glitter on every flat surface,
and icicles all over the walls.
And as we stood in line
in an attempt to give
my niece a better vantage point
than the backside
of the mother of number 58,
I put her up on my shoulders,
and she was instantly riveted
by the sight of the princesses.
And as we moved forward,
her excitement only grew,
and as we finally got
to the front of the line,
and number 58 unfurled her poster
to be signed by the princesses,
I could literally feel the excitement
running through her body.
And let's be honest,
at that point, I was pretty excited too.
I mean, the Scandinavian decadence
So we get to the front of the line,
and the haggard clerk
turns to my niece and says,
"Hi, honey. You're next!
Do you want to get down,
or you're going to stay
on your dad's shoulders for the picture?'
And I was, for a lack
of a better word, frozen.
It's amazing that in an unexpected instant
we are faced with the question,
who am I?
Am I an aunt? Or am I an advocate?
Millions of people have seen my video
about how to have a hard conversation,
and there one was, right in front of me.
At the same time,
there's nothing more important
to me than the kids in my life,
so I found myself in a situation
that we so often find ourselves in,
torn between two things,
two impossible choices.
Would I be an advocate?
Would I take my niece off my shoulders
and turn to the clerk and explain to her
that I was in fact
her aunt, not her father,
and that she should be more careful
and not to jump to gender conclusions
based on haircuts and shoulder rides --
and while doing that,
miss out on what was, to this point,
the greatest moment of my niece's life.
Or would I be an aunt?
Would I brush off that comment,
take a million pictures,
and not be distracted for an instant
from the pure joy of that moment,
and by doing that,
walk out with the shame that comes up
for not standing up for myself,
especially in front of my niece.
Who was I?
Which one was more important?
Which role was more worth it?
Was I an aunt? Or was I an advocate?
And I had a split second to decide.
We are taught right now
that we are living in a world
of constant and increasing polarity.
It's so black and white,
so us and them, so right and wrong.
There is no middle,
there is no gray, just polarity.
Polarity is a state in which
two ideas or opinions
are completely opposite from each other;
a diametrical opposition.
Which side are you on?
Are you unequivocally and without question
antiwar, pro-choice, anti-death penalty,
pro-gun regulation, proponent
of open borders and pro-union?
Or, are you absolutely
pro-war, pro-life, pro-death penalty,
a believer that the Second
Amendment is absolute,
anti-immigrant and pro-business?
It's all or none, you're with us
or against us.
That is polarity.
The problem with polarity
and absolutes is that
it eliminates the individuality
of our human experience
and that makes it contradictory
to our human nature.
But if we are pulled
in these two directions,
but it's not really where we exist --
polarity is not our actual reality --
where do we go from there?
What's at the other end of that spectrum?
I don't think it's an unattainable,
I think the opposite
of polarity is duality.
Duality is a state of having two parts,
but not in diametrical opposition,
in simultaneous existence.
Don't think it's possible?
Here are the people I know:
I know Catholics who are pro-choice,
and feminists who wear hijabs,
and veterans who are antiwar,
and NRA members who think
I should be able to get married.
Those are the people I know,
those are my friends and family,
that is the majority of our society,
that is you, that is me.
Duality is the ability
to hold both things.
But the question is:
Can we own our duality?
Can we have the courage
to hold both things?
I work at a restaurant in town,
I became really good friends
with the busser.
I was a server and we had
a great relationship,
we had a really great time together.
Her Spanish was great
because she was from Mexico.
That line actually went the other way.
Her English was limited,
but significantly better than my Spanish.
But we were united by our similarities,
not separated by our differences.
And we were close, even though
we came from very different worlds.
She was from Mexico,
she left her family behind
so she could come here
and afford them a better life back home.
She was a devout conservative Catholic,
a believer in traditional family values,
stereotypical roles of men and women,
and I was, well, me.
But the things that bonded us
were when she asked about my girlfriend,
or she shared pictures that she had
from her family back home.
Those were the things
that brought us together.
So one day, we were in the back,
scarfing down food as quickly as we could,
gathered around a small table,
during a very rare lull,
and a new guy
from the kitchen came over --
who happened to be her cousin --
and sat down with all
the bravado and machismo
that his 20-year-old body could hold.
And he said to her,
[in Spanish] "Does Ash have a boyfriend?"
And she said,
[in Spanish] "No, she has a girlfriend."
And he said,
[in Spanish] "A girlfriend?!?"
And she set down her fork,
and locked eyes with him,
and said, [in Spanish] "Yes,
a girlfriend. That is all."
And his smug smile quickly dropped
to one of maternal respect,
grabbed his plate, walked off,
went back to work.
She never made eye contact with me.
She left, did the same thing --
it was a 10-second conversation,
such a short interaction.
And on paper, she had
so much more in common with him:
language, culture, history, family,
her community was her lifeline here,
but her moral compass trumped all of that.
And a little bit later, they were joking
around in the kitchen in Spanish,
that had nothing to do with me,
and that is duality.
She didn't have to choose some P.C. stance
on gayness over her heritage.
She didn't have to choose
her family over our friendship.
It wasn't Jesus or Ash.
Her individual morality
was so strongly rooted
that she had the courage
to hold both things.
Our moral integrity is our responsibility
and we must be prepared to defend it
even when it's not convenient.
That's what it means to be an ally,
and if you're going to be an ally,
you have to be an active ally:
Ask questions, act when you hear
I had a family friend who for years
used to call my girlfriend my lover.
So overly sexual,
so '70s gay porn.
But she was trying, and she asked.
She could have called her my friend,
or my "friend," or my "special friend" --
or even worse, just not asked at all.
Believe me, we would rather have you ask.
I would rather have her say lover,
than say nothing at all.
People often say to me,
"Well, Ash, I don't care.
I don't see race
or religion or sexuality.
It doesn't matter to me. I don't see it."
But I think the opposite of homophobia
and racism and xenophobia is not love,
If you don't see my gayness,
then you don't see me.
If it doesn't matter to you
who I sleep with,
then you cannot imagine what it feels like
when I walk down the street
late at night holding her hand,
and approach a group of people
and have to make the decision
if I should hang on to it
or if I should I drop it
when all I want to do
is squeeze it tighter.
And the small victory I feel
when I make it by
and don't have to let go.
And the incredible cowardice
and disappointment I feel when I drop it.
If you do not see that struggle
that is unique to my human experience
because I am gay, then you don't see me.
If you are going to be an ally,
I need you to see me.
As individuals, as allies, as humans,
we need to be able to hold both things:
both the good and the bad,
the easy and the hard.
You don't learn how to hold
two things just from the fluff,
you learn it from the grit.
And what if duality
is just the first step?
What if through compassion
and empathy and human interaction
we are able to learn to hold two things?
And if we can hold
two things, we can hold four,
and if we can hold four,
we can hold eight,
and if we can hold eight,
we can hold hundreds.
We are complex individuals,
swirls of contradiction.
You are all holding
so many things right now.
What can you do to hold just a few more?
So, back to Toledo, Ohio.
I'm at the front of the line,
niece on my shoulders,
the frazzled clerk calls me Dad.
Have you ever been mistaken
for the wrong gender?
Not even that.
Have you ever been called
something you are not?
Here's what it feels like for me:
I am instantly an internal storm
of contrasting emotions.
I break out into a sweat that is
a combination of rage and humiliation,
I feel like the entire store
is staring at me,
and I simultaneously feel invisible.
I want to explode in a tirade of fury,
and I want to crawl under a rock.
And top all of that off
with the frustration that I'm wearing
tight-fitting purple t-shirt,
so this whole store can see my boobs,
to make sure this exact
same thing doesn't happen.
But, despite my best efforts
to be seen as the gender I am,
it still happens.
And I hope with every ounce
of my body that no one heard --
not my sister, not my girlfriend,
and certainly not my niece.
I am accustomed to this familiar hurt,
but I will do whatever I need to do
to protect the people I love from it.
But then I take my niece off my shoulders,
and she runs to Elsa and Anna --
the thing she's been
waiting so long for --
and all that stuff goes away.
All that matters is the smile on her face.
And as the 30 seconds we waited
two and a half hours for comes to a close
we gather up our things,
and I lock eyes with the clerk again;
and she gives me
an apologetic smile and mouths,
"I am so sorry!"
And her humanity, her willingness to admit
her mistake disarms me immediately,
then I give her a: "It's okay,
it happens. But thanks."
And I realize in that moment
that I don't have to be
either an aunt
or an advocate, I can be both.
I can live in duality,
and I can hold two things.
And if I can hold two things
in that environment,
I can hold so many more things.
As my girlfriend and my niece hold hands
and skip out the front of the door,
I turn to my sister and say,
"Was it worth it?"
And she said, "Are you kidding me?
Did you see the look on her face?
This was the greatest day of her life!"
"It was worth the two
and a half hours in the heat,
it was worth the overpriced coloring book
that we already had a copy of."
"It was even worth you
getting called Dad."
And for the first time ever
in my life, it actually was.
Thank you, Boulder. Have a good night.
- Equality advocate
Ash Beckham approaches hard conversations from a place of compassion and empathy. Why you should listen
Ash Beckham is no stranger to hard conversations. In her work, she shares how coming out as a lesbian helped her appreciate our common humanity and better understand the hardships that we all face. This equality advocate mixes personal experience and wisdom to help everyone bravely face their demons.
The original video is available on TED.com