We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the gay community as we emerge from the pandemic because they have illustrated how to address a dilemma many of us now face for the first time, a disorienting shift in thinking about who we are. 

A wide variety of pandemic-related circumstances deposit us at such a crossroads, like the unexpected loss of a loved one, or the evaporation of a career plan once thought promising, or a newly felt mismatch between the things we did before and what matters to us now.  

The identity shifts navigated by the gay community offer a model for how to navigate such territory successfully.  

Soon-to-be PRIDE Cake

First, we need to bring voice to pandemic-related identity shifts similar to how the gay community embraced “coming out” as a seminal event. Through naming an individual gives voice to something new and important about who they are. This step alters the power dynamic; all of a sudden, the conversation is not having us, we are having the conversation. By naming something, we validate it, we honor it, we recognize whatever is occurring as worthy of space and time.  

Many shy away from bringing voice to shifts in their thinking about who they are. They cite shame or indecision, as in, “I know I am no longer a school teacher, but I don’t know what I want to do next.”  

Jason, a married gay lawyer who participated in my research on adult identity transitions, credited naming as an important beginning as he reconstituted his identity. He said, “I’m not going to deny this anymore. The identity I was living, a straight man, it was not who I was.” 

Second, the gay community illustrated the importance of appreciative communities. Whether through PRIDE parades, ACTUp chapters, or countless other groups, the community learned something powerful that Rotary Clubs, Twelve Step programs, and many others have known for decades. At times of disruption in our sense of self, appreciative communities affirm our new thinking and help us process the very real – often negative – emotions that mobilize to keep us in place.  

Many people look askance at these communities. Those who do miss something extraordinary. Appreciative communities create a holding environment within which we play with updating our own expectations.  

Said Jason, “Others help so you are not looking backwards to the world you just left for that validation. You are looking to this new unfamiliar world, in my case, the big queer world that you just stepped into. It requires testing within the community in order to set a new expectation for me.”  

By resetting expectations, we reposition identity shifts as opportunities for expansion. Said Jason, “There’s many more layers because you’ve opened up a whole new world of identity that you never even knew once you step away from, in my case, the expectations tied to being straight.”  

Third, identity shifts are processes, not events. For example, I am not a firefighter one day and an artist the next. These shifts are iterative and tied to an ongoing opening of the expectations and definitions we hold for ourselves. This underscores a truism that is often missed by those outside the gay community; coming out is the beginning. 

Finally, we have choices hidden in these disorienting shifts, choices related to our willingness to be seen. Never was this better illustrated than recently when Emmy-award winning actor and star of the FX series, “Pose,” Billy Porter, revealed his HIV diagnosis even though he was “out” about his sexuality more than a decade ago. As Mr. Porter and the gay community have illustrated so perfectly, this willingness to be seen evolves as we grow into our own voices, our own truth. 

Potential identity shifts represent a tragic foil in our society today because we are conditioned to interpret such shifts as a failure or some newly emergent character flaw. The gay community’s courageous and empowering acts along these lines help to reposition identity shifts forever as invaluable invitations for growth and expansion.   

The pandemic created a high-water mark for the number of Americans aware of dissonance in their thinking about who they are. Thankfully, the gay community has not only normalized such shifts but also illustrated the key success factors that serve as on-ramps to these enlivening and expansive possibilities.  

Are you ready to lean in to the disorienting thoughts about who you are? 

Ms. Rossetti is an author and expert on individual and organizational transformation.

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