Last spring I attended a presentation where the presenter said something that has stuck in my mind since then.  The presenter said that fear may be the most powerful and motivating emotion that humans experience.   I have seen fear of the unknown, fear of change, and fear of those different than ourselves motivate us as humans to behave in ways we would not normally.  This year, more than any other I have lived, there seems to be an atmosphere of fear of the “other” throughout our nation and communities.  People have been pushed by circumstance and propaganda to opposing sides, with both sides misunderstanding the other.

Last week I was at work at here at the Denver LGBT community center when news broke of shots being fired into the windows of the LGBT community center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  More news quickly surfaced of other recent attacks on LGBT community centers in Washington DC, Asbury Park NJ, Orlando FL, and Los Angeles CA.  Although no one was killed in Tulsa and the shots were from a pellet gun, it instantly reminded me of the fear and pain I felt when I heard about the Orlando nightclub shootings.  I had to fight the urge to go check the front windows for active shooters throughout the rest of the day and missed work the next day because I couldn’t stop crying.

As I have worked here in the Denver community to educate and consult with organizations wishing to create more welcoming environments for their LGBT employees, patients, and customers I have struggled to wrap my head around the anger and intolerance directed at LGBT people by traditionalists across the country.  I recently watched the incredible 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, and was struck by something that Professor Sally Miller Gearhart said in the film.  She was discussing working with Harvey Milk in 1978 to oppose the proposed California Proposition 6 which would, had it passed, have resulted in the immediate terminations of all gay teachers in California when she said:

“Sometimes I think what we were faced with in Proposition 6 was not so much a conflict of values as two sets of fears.  The incredible fears that the gay community had, all of us, that here we were, being stomped on by what was turning out to be the Moral Majority.  I mean, our very lives were being threatened – the ways that we live, what our lifestyle is – and our reaction was extreme, and it should have been extreme. 

But then when you get into the other person’s shoes, you figure that there was a lot of fear on the part of the fundamentalists as well.  I mean, when you’ve lived your entire life believing in a certain social structure, believing in certain sex roles, believing in the ways that men and women should relate to each other… believing in the family… you know, believing what God – what you believe God says should be the way human beings should relate within the family structure.  And all of a sudden, there are these ‘perverts’ out here, saying there are ways to live that are different from that and that furthermore it is great and beautiful and true and good. 

Then you are threatened.  And the very fabric of what this nation is supposed to be made up of, in the eyes of the fundamentalists, was actually being attacked, or is actually being attacked, by gay people.”

Because LGBT people make up only four to seven percent of the population, and only some of us are “out”, it is understandable that people misunderstand and fear something different than their experience.  I have family and friends on both sides of the aisle, and across the country.  My heart hurts for my friends and family in Texas, where Senate Bill 6, a similar version of North Carolina’s infamous HB2, is working its way through the legislature.  If passed, it will most likely result in serious economic damage to the state, to say nothing of the dangers it will create for transgender people and those who don’t happen to look clearly masculine or feminine.  I feel grief for the one in every one hundred thirty-seven children who identify as transgender in the United States and how they must feel after the current administration withdrew federal guidance that stated they should be able to safely use restrooms in their school that match their gender identity.  And I ache for those here in Denver who look different enough to be harassed on the buses and in the streets.

I believe that when Franklin D. Roosevelt, faced with the mounting crisis of the Great Depression, said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” that he truly understood fear’s divisive and paralyzing power.  I believe that peace and equality are worth fighting for, but that it takes true courage to reach past our fears to show compassion and kindness and love to those who we see as so different from ourselves.   Taking time to educate ourselves and ask questions can be like turning on a light to dispel the darkness of fear.

To have a conversation about LGBT cultural competency training for your organization email Kelly Nichols at