David Dahlin’s Creating Community Breakfast Speech
David Dahlin was one of our featured speakers at our Creating Community Breakfast 2016. He has given us permission to display his inspirational speech which follows below:
Good morning. Thanks for being here. Thanks for supporting equal rights, justice and a respect for diversity. I have benefited from white male privilege my whole life. I have also suffered from homophobia and discrimination against gay people my whole life—although most of that time secretly and quietly. Painfully quietly. But I am quiet no longer.
I grew up in Wisconsin in a wonderful family. My dad was the pastor of the Lutheran church. We took faith seriously but we were far from fundamentalists. We applied our faith to social as well as spiritual problems. My dad preached about civil rights and against the Vietnam war. I don’t think he ever preached a sermon about homosexuality. I don’t even remember it being talked about at home. Yet somehow I knew that society thought that it was something really really bad. I knew that it was not something for normal people and normal families. I also knew that I was different from the other boys. I knew it when I was only 5 years old. I didn’t know how I was different, I just knew that I had to be careful and I had to act more like them and, frankly, less like myself. As I grew up and realized my natural attractions and interests, I refused to accept them. People ask me why I didn’t come out in college. Truthfully, I never considered coming out. I would have rather died. You see, I was a good boy. I was a Christian kid. I wanted to please my parents. I wanted to get married and have children and do something important with my life. And none of those were options for gay people in the 1980s.
Fast forward. My wife and I moved to Colorado Springs with our two young children to live close to her family. We landed here…just before Focus on the Family did. I had no idea what a conservative community Colorado Springs was before getting here. Even the Lutheran churches here were flag-waving bastions of conservatism. But I loved the Colorado lifestyle and the family support was really important. And I found Compassion International where I would commit 19 years of my life.
Compassion International is a great organization that has helped millions of children living in desperately poor communities around the world. I had what I consider a calling on my life to help the poor and dispossessed. And so, I worked really hard to advance that mission while raising my own children and living life….and ignoring the fact that I was gay. Busyness is a great cover. Responsibility is a great motivator. And fear and shame and denial are amazingly powerful forces. These worked together to help me “hold it together”. But as I got older, I got worse at “holding it together”.
As the Culture Wars got uglier and as Colorado Springs became Ground Zero, I became surrounded with anti-gay vitriol and constant negativity towards what I knew were “my people.” Folks that I hung around with weren’t particularly careful with what they said because they didn’t know I was gay so they would just say whatever they felt like—kind of like a certain presidential candidate today! And the pain I had been holding at bay for more than 40 years by pretending to be something that I was not, was getting the better of me.
At the risk of sounding like an adolescent girl (no offense) or gay boy (I can say that), I want to share a bit from my journal from this period.
The pain I feel is immeasurable. I can’t think. I can’t work. I can’t sleep. I am wrecked on the inside. It rips at me. It overwhelms me.
My breath is snuffed out of me. And I don’t even care. I want to stop breathing. That would stop the pain. I don’t know how to live even this next day. My coping is falling apart. I am so tired of having to act. Having to play it cool. Acting, always acting. Not being who I really am. I’m sick of it. I’m weak with it. I’m not sure how long I can keep doing this.
I have pretended that I am ok. But I am not ok…I am desperately not ok.
At some point, what I had intended for good—being responsible, getting married, raising my children, working for a Christian cause—had turned into something very bad—pretending, lying, deceiving on a daily basis. I was withholding my true self. I was being inauthentic to protect my status, my job, my possessions, and my family. And I couldn’t take it any longer. I knew that I could not come out and keep my job. I had always known that. Coming out would mean leaving a job that I loved and was good at, it would mean losing my marriage, my house, my status and most of my friends.
With my wife’s amazing support, we made a plan. It took us more than 2 years to pull it off but we did it. I resigned from my job, we filed for divorce, I came out. It was the worst year of my life. I frequently thought about stepping in front of a truck to end it all quickly. Fortunately, we lived in the suburbs with few trucks.
I needed to get away from Colorado Springs. I didn’t feel comfortable here. So I moved to Denver and started to build a life there. It was great to be in a big open city where gay men walk hand in hand downtown. I made new friends. I found acceptance. I realized that for most people it didn’t matter. It was no big deal. Who knew??
And then I had this opportunity to return to Colorado Springs to lead the Fine Arts Center. The job was appealing. The scenery was appealing. Being near family again was appealing. But coming back to the Springs as an openly gay man? In a public leadership role? I thought, is this crazy? Am I nuts? Will they accept me? Or…might I play a role in helping Colorado Springs enter a new era of tolerance and justice?
Well, thanks to the work of Citizens Project, the Gil Foundation, First Congregational Church and many other justice-oriented causes here in town, I have experienced a surprising level of acceptance coming back. When I was interviewed by both local papers in my new role 2 summers ago I was so fearful they would sensationalize this aspect of who I am. To their credit, they both buried it. It was mentioned without hype many paragraphs into the articles. I’ve had to deal with only 2 unpleasant comments to my face about me being gay in my role. People have embraced me and welcomed me.
People, the world has changed. Colorado Springs has changed. Thanks to you. Thanks for making that happen. And let’s keep up the good work.