Talk about TED talks

I’ve been having low-key PTSD mixed with nostalgia over the past week.

Friday was the annual spring TEDxUGA event, during which students and community members congregated in the University of Georgia Tate Student Center to give talks on everything from cystic fibrosis and healthier eating, to neogeography and Tumblr. It’s one of the biggest events on campus all year, attracting people from beyond the university and Athens, and regularly sells out — including this year. For any other student, it was a day to sit back, relax and reflect on the ideas worth spreading that each speaker shared. For me, it was so much more.

In November, I gave a TED talk and it was the scariest experience of my life.

It’s not that I’m scared of public speaking, at least I wasn’t before I gave my talk. It wasn’t the fact that the TEDxUGA Student Idea Showcase came during one of the busiest weeks of the fall semester, even though I did have a handful of inconveniently timed panic attacks. It wasn’t even because I was nervous that I wouldn’t do well. I wasn’t scared by any of that.

I was anxious because I opened up to hundreds of people onstage while giving a talk about how the way we talk about gay people creates unnecessary divisions between us. I was emotional because a big photo of my sister flashed behind me as I described my coming out experience. I was shaky because I talked about what it was like to cover the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. And I was touched because the power of my words moved some people to cry.

That all sounds pretty dramatic. It was dramatic. But so is a TED talk.

Me on the TEDxUGA stage at the Student Idea Showcase in November.

Being a part of TEDxUGA during the fall was one of the most important and rewarding experiences of my life. I had never felt felt more vulnerable than when I got up on that stage, speaking straight from my heart, with each detail of my life over the past year laid bare for the audience to see. It was like being under a magnifying glass that I had put there myself, hoping that someone, somewhere in the audience would give credence to what I said.

I didn’t think about any of this during my actual talk. I kind of blacked out to be honest; I was just focused on getting words out of my mouth and not looking too sweaty. But in the months since the Student Idea Showcase, I’ve come to realize that I’m stronger because of that night. I faced my fears in a way that I had never done before and, by doing so, proved to myself that I could do anything I set my mind to — that I could tell my story in the truest possible form.

And people listened.

After my talk, I immediately laid down on the floor behind the black curtain that separated speakers from the audience. I had frozen halfway through my speech — 5–7 seconds where I just stood there like a complete idiot, during which I stared into the black abyss of not knowing and failure. But disappointment quickly gave way to pride when, after the show concluded, a swarm of people — some of them friends, some of them not — came up to hug and congratulate me.

One of them, a deaf sign language teacher at UGA, used his translator to tell me that he personally identified with my talk and was happy that someone addressed an issue he had always felt was important. An old married couple shattered my preconceived notions of Southerners by telling me that they admired my courage and thanked me for speaking out against something they had never thought about before. Several friends and other students admitted that they had teared up when I started talking about my life and family.

I had never been more humbled. And looking back always makes me smile.

There’s something special about TED talks. They reveal the humanity in you, showing you the innermost parts of your soul that you hadn’t dared to tread on before. Sure, they can be overly idealistic, formulaic and somewhat cliché — but they also have this amazing power to keep you captivated. They hold your attention and make you care about subjects that you know nothing about. Prior to taking the stage Nov. 11, I had never before felt like I was interesting or inspirational enough to give a speech in front of hundreds of people. It wasn’t until Emily Dardaman nominated me to speak in late September that I realized that I too could make a small change here on campus. Everyone has a voice — even me.

For that, I’m eternally grateful.

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