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  • [This talk contains mature content]

  • My mother called this summer to stage an intervention.

  • She'd come across a few snippets of my memoir,

  • which wasn't even out yet,

  • and she was concerned.

  • It wasn't the sex.

  • (Laughter)

  • It was the language that disturbed her.

  • For example:

  • "I have been so many things

  • along my curious journey:

  • a poor boy, a nigger,

  • a Yale man, a Harvard man,

  • a faggot, a Christian,

  • a crack baby, alleged,

  • the spawn of Satan, the Second Coming,

  • Casey."

  • That's just page six.

  • (Laughter)

  • So you may understand my mother's worry.

  • But she wanted only to make one small change.

  • So she called, and she began,

  • "Hey, you are a man.

  • You're not a faggot, you're not a punk,

  • and let me tell you the difference.

  • You are prominent. You are intelligent.

  • You dress well. You know how to speak.

  • People like you.

  • You don't walk around doing your hand like a punk.

  • You're not a vagabond on the street.

  • You are an upstanding person

  • who just happens to be gay.

  • Don't put yourself over there

  • when you are over here."

  • She thought she'd done me a favor,

  • and in a way, she had.

  • Her call clarified what I am trying to do with my life

  • and in my work as a writer,

  • which is to send one simple message:

  • the way we're taught to live has got to change.

  • I learned this the hard way.

  • I was born not on the wrong side of the tracks,

  • but on the wrong side of a whole river,

  • the Trinity, down in Oak Cliff, Texas.

  • I was raised there in part by my grandmother

  • who worked as a domestic,

  • and by my sister,

  • who adopted me a few years after our mother,

  • who struggled with mental illness,

  • disappeared.

  • And it was that disappearance,

  • that began when I was 13 and lasted for five years,

  • that shaped the person I became,

  • the person I later had to unbecome.

  • Before she left, my mother had been my human hiding place.

  • She was the only other person who seemed as strange as me,

  • beautifully strange,

  • some mix of Blanche DuBois from "A Streetcar Named Desire"

  • and a 1980s Whitney Houston.

  • (Laughter)

  • I'm not saying she was perfect,

  • just that I sure benefited from her imperfections.

  • And maybe that's what magic is, after all:

  • a useful mistake.

  • So when she began to disappear for days at a time,

  • I turned to some magic of my own.

  • It struck me, as from above,

  • that I could conjure up my mother just by walking perfectly

  • from my elementary school at the top of a steep hill

  • all the way down to my grandmother's house,

  • placing one foot, and one foot only, in each sidewalk square.

  • I couldn't let any part of any foot touch the line between the square,

  • I couldn't skip a square,

  • all the way to the last square at the last blade of grass

  • that separated our lawn from our driveway.

  • And I bullshit you not, it worked --

  • just once though.

  • But if my perfect walk could not bring my mother back,

  • I found that this approach had other uses.

  • I found that everyone else in charge around me

  • loved nothing more than perfection,

  • obedience, submission.

  • Or at least if I submitted, they wouldn't bother me too much.

  • So I took a bargain

  • that I'd later see in a prison, a Stasi prison in Berlin,

  • on a sign that read,

  • "He who adapts can live tolerably."

  • It was a bargain that helped ensure

  • I had a place to stay and food to eat;

  • a bargain that won me praise of teachers and kin, strangers;

  • a bargain that paid off big time, it seemed,

  • when one day at 17, a man from Yale showed up at my high school to recruit me

  • for Yale's football team.

  • It felt as out of the blue to me then as it may to you now.

  • The Yale man said -- everybody said --

  • that this was the best thing that could ever happen to me,

  • the best thing that could happen to the whole community.

  • "Take this ticket, boy," they told me.

  • I was not so sure.

  • Yale seemed another world entire:

  • a cold, foreign, hostile place.

  • On the first day of my recruiting visit,

  • I texted my sister an excuse for not going.

  • "These people are so weird."

  • She replied, "You'll fit right in."

  • (Laughter)

  • I took the ticket

  • and worked damn hard to fit right in.

  • When my freshman advisor warned me not to wear my fitted hats on campus ...

  • "You're at Yale now. You don't have to do that anymore," she said.

  • I figured, this was just one of the small prices

  • that must be paid to make it.

  • I paid them all, or tried,

  • and sure enough they seemed to pay me back:

  • made me a leader on the varsity football team;

  • got me into a not-so-secret society

  • and a job on Wall Street, and later in Washington.

  • Things were going so well that I figured naturally

  • I should be President of the United States.

  • (Laughter)

  • But since I was only 24

  • and since even presidents have to start somewhere,

  • I settled instead on a run for Congress.

  • Now, this was in the afterglow of that great 2008 election:

  • the election during which a serious, moderate senator stressed,

  • "The message you've got to send more than any other message

  • is that Barack Obama is just like us."

  • They sent that message so well

  • that their campaign became the gold standard of modern politics,

  • if not modern life, which also seems to demand

  • that we each do whatever it takes to be able to say at the end of our days

  • with peace and satisfaction, "I was just like everybody else."

  • And this would be my message, too.

  • So one night, I made one final call to my prospective campaign manager.

  • We'd do the things it'd take to win, but first he had one question:

  • "Is there anything I need to know?"

  • I held the phone and finally said,

  • "Well, you should probably know I'm gay."

  • Silence.

  • "Hmm. I see," he nearly whispered,

  • as if he'd found a shiny penny or a dead baby bird.

  • (Laughter)

  • "I'm glad you told me," he continued.

  • "You definitely didn't make my job any easier.

  • I mean, you are in Texas.

  • But it's not impossible, not impossible.

  • But Casey, let me ask you something:

  • How are you going to feel when somebody, say, at a rally, calls you a faggot?

  • And let's be real, OK?

  • You do understand that somebody might want to physically harm you.

  • I just want to know:

  • Are you really ready for this?"

  • I wasn't.

  • And I could not understand --

  • could hardly breathe

  • or think, or say a word.

  • But to be clear: the boy that I was at that time

  • would have leapt at the chance to be harmed,

  • to sacrifice everything, even life, for a cause.

  • There was something shocking, though --

  • not that there should have been, but there was --

  • in the notion that he might be harmed for nothing more than being himself,

  • which he had not even tried to do in the first place.

  • All that he -- all that I --

  • had tried to do and be was what I thought was asked of me.

  • I was prominent for a 24-year-old:

  • intelligent, I spoke well, dressed decent; I was an upstanding citizen.

  • But the bargain I had accepted could not save me after all,

  • nor can it save you.

  • You may have already learned this lesson,

  • or you will, regardless of your sexuality.

  • The queer receives a concentrated dose, no doubt,

  • but repression is a bitter pill that's offered to us all.

  • We're taught to hide so many parts of who we are and what we've been through:

  • our love, our pain, for some, our faith.

  • So while coming out to the world can be hard,

  • coming in to all the raw, strange magic of ourselves can be much harder.

  • As Miles Davis said, "It takes a long time to sound like yourself."

  • That surely was the case for me.

  • I had my private revelation that night at 24,

  • but mostly went on with my life.

  • I went on to Harvard Business School, started a successful nonprofit,

  • wound up on the cover of a magazine, on the stage at TED.

  • (Laughter)

  • I had achieved, by my late 20s,

  • about everything a kid is supposed to achieve.

  • But I was real cracked up:

  • not exactly having a nervous breakdown, but not too far off,

  • and awful sad either way.

  • I had never thought of being a writer,

  • didn't even read, in earnest, until I was nearly 23.

  • But the book business is about the only industry

  • that will pay you to investigate your own problems, so --

  • (Laughter)

  • So I decided to give it a try,

  • to trace those cracks with words.

  • Now, what came out on the page was about as strange as I felt at that time,

  • which alarmed some people at first.

  • A respected writer called to stage his own intervention

  • after reading a few early chapters,

  • and he began, much like my mother,

  • "Hey, listen.

  • You've been hired to write an autobiography.

  • It's a straightforward exercise.

  • It's got a beginning, middle and end,

  • and is grounded in the facts of your life.

  • And by the way, there's a great tradition of autobiography in this country,

  • led by people on the margins of society who write to assert their existence.

  • Go buy some of those books and learn from them.

  • You're going in the wrong direction."

  • But I no longer believed what we are taught --

  • that the right direction is the safe direction.

  • I no longer believed what we are taught --

  • that queer lives or black lives or poor lives are marginal lives.

  • I believed what Kendrick Lamar says on "Section.80.":

  • "I'm not on the outside looking in.

  • I'm not on the inside looking out.

  • I'm in the dead fucking center looking around."

  • (Laughter)

  • That was the place

  • from which I hoped to work,

  • headed in the only direction worth going, the direction of myself,

  • trying to help us all refuse the awful bargains

  • we've been taught to take.

  • We're taught to turn ourselves

  • and our work into little nuggets that are easily digestible;

  • taught to mutilate ourselves so that we make sense to others,

  • to be a stranger to ourselves so the right people might befriend us

  • and the right schools might accept us, and the right jobs might hire us,

  • and the right parties might invite us,

  • and, someday, the right God might invite us to the right heaven

  • and close his pearly gates behind us,

  • so we can bow down to Him forever and ever.

  • These are the rewards, they say,

  • for our obedience:

  • to be a well-liked holy nugget,

  • to be dead.

  • And I say in return, "No, thank you."

  • To the world and to my mother.

  • Well, to tell you the truth,

  • all I said was, "OK, Mom, I'll talk to you later."

  • (Laughter)

  • But in my mind, I said, "No, thank you."

  • I cannot accept her bargain either.

  • Nor should you.

  • It would be easy for many of us in rooms like this

  • to see ourselves as safe,

  • to keep ourselves over here.

  • We speak well, we dress decent,