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Op-ed: What's Your Story?

Op-ed: What's Your Story?

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We all have a story to tell, whether we know it or not.

What's your story? That's what I asked my now-girlfriend on our first date at St. Felix, a dive bistro on Santa Monica Boulevard with a killer happy hour. Her profile on Match.com said she had kids, and I assumed they came from somewhere -- somewhere heterosexual. Just a hunch. I also assumed (read: hoped) that sitting with me at perhaps the gayest intersection in West Hollywood wasn't her first time at the lesbo rodeo.

As we fumbled with our fish tacos, I asked, "So, what's your story?" and what I meant was "Where did these kids come from?" and "Please tell me this isn't your first dip in the lady pool." What I could have just said was "What's your coming-out story?"

It's a question I ask every girl I've ever gone out with, but it's also one I ask nearly every queer-identifying person I meet. Sure, it's personal and a little invasive, but I want to know, Does your story mirror mine? Was coming out as hard for you as it was for me? Please, tell me your story.

As a poor Jew growing up in Long Island, I always felt different. I never had the Keds or the Z. Cavaricci pants or those cool Champion sweatshirts with the C on the sleeve that all the other girls had. But I also didn't have the crushes on the Hebrew school boys and would much rather play spin the bottle with Stephanie than Schlomo.

There was a feeling of "otherness;" a secret that I kept hidden from my mother, my friends, even my cool camp counselors, many of whom were the objects of my adolescent affection (if you're reading this, Lana Weisberg, I love you).

So at 17, when I finally worked up the courage to tell my mother, it was the summer before college. We were in the car eating a sack of White Castle burgers, and I blurted out, "Mom, I think I like girls." She wiped a grilled onion from her lip and barked, "Oh, no you don't! You were just really close to Grandma Levy and have a bad relationship with Daddy." And 20 years later, that's my coming-out story -- the one I tell at cocktail parties, straight ones, where I casually mention "my girlfriend" and have to explain what I mean because I'm in a low-cut dress and the person is confused since I lack Doc Martens or a wallet chain.

Coming-out stories are a rite of passage for all queers, everywhere. The details might be different, but the tropes are the same. They go something like this: I had a secret, I couldn't tell anyone, I finally did; now I'm free. Let's toast to equality while those go-go dancers mount a pole!

For most of us, the process was painful, agonizing, and scary as hell -- especially when it came to telling our parents! We were often met with rejection, anger, or abandonment -- I was! But years later, we've whittled this arduous time down to a three-minute elevator pitch and wear it as a badge of honor. It's what we swap on dates or at parties with fellow queers. I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours. And when we share it with others, we give each other a snapshot into our humanity. And that is a gift.

Twelve-step programs had it right for years. Get people together to share their truths, and magic happens. We feel less alone, and more normal.

Because we're outliers, our childhood (or adulthood) had all the trappings of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. We were called out of the ordinary world, we didn't want to go, we faced trials and tribulations, and ultimately came out the victor. We lived the hero's journey!

And for that, we are natural storytellers.

I worked as a development executive for many years in feature films. My job was to sit with writers all day and craft tales that (hopefully) made their way onto the big screen. We talked about plot and conflict and how to get a character from point A to Z with the most struggle and the greatest victory in the end. And, after all, isn't that what a coming-out story is all about?

I realized this same principle could be applied to real life.

So I started a live show called Don't Tell My Mother! where people tell true stories they'd never want their moms to know. These are the stories you don't hear at a cocktail party. The ones reserved for late-night bathroom visits after a few too many cocktails. These are the stories people hide. My belief is that when we share them with a group, we free ourselves and everybody else.

Don't Tell My Mother! is a place where it's appropriate to be inappropriate. And as LGBTQ folks with an often-innate sense of otherness, this is where we get to relish in our collective dysfunction.

The idea caught on quickly, and soon celebrities like Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live), Fortune Feimster (Chelsea Lately), Beth Grant (The Mindy Project) and even Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond) were clamoring to tell their stories and connect in a way that was funny and vulnerable and real.

And an audience, used to seeing these people in full makeup, reading scripted lines, delighted in the authenticity of unbridled honesty. If Chloe from 24 can talk about falling in love with a waitress at the Hard Rock Cafe, I don't feel so bad about falling for my eighth-grade Spanish teacher (if you're reading this, Mrs. Greenberg, I love you too).

In Los Angeles and New York, storytelling is giving stand-up comedy a run for its money, with many storytelling shows produced by queer people. Kevin Allison, formerly of The State, has the wildly popular show Risk!, Jonathan Braedley Welch and Misha Fisher have A Very Special Episode, Greg Walloch has the food-inspired Eat Your Words, and Michael Patrick Duggan is the chairman of the L.A. Storytelling Festival.

Tonight, Don't Tell My Mother! opens this festival with its flagship event, The Coming Out Show, where LGBTQ performers and allies share their hilarious stories. Amy Landecker, star of Amazon's new show Transparent, headlines this event, along with comic Jen Kober and YouTube star R.J. Aguiar. You can see Don't Tell My Mother! and many other shows tonight through October 16 at the Los Angeles Storytelling Festival.

NIKKI LEVY is the creator and host of the critically acclaimed comedy event Don't Tell My Mother! She is also a feature film producer having worked on the Academy Award-nominated Frost/Nixon and Fox Animation's Epic. She lives in Los Angeles.

Advocate Channel - HuluOut / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Nikki Levy