Stella Maxwell
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Op-ed: 6 Lessons Learned After Eight Years at The Advocate

Op-ed: 6 Lessons Learned After Eight Years at The Advocate

Three weeks ago, I told my workmates that I was snatched up for a job in New York; March 6 would be my last day in the office. And sure, there was commiserating and shock, but I was feeling OK about it most of the day.

But by the end of the workday, something was off. I went across the street for my weekly Zumba class, just like any other Wednesday after work. As I started walking home against the glare of traffic lights on Wilshire Boulevard in my gym clothes, the sweat drying from my face, I looked up at my office building glowing in the darkness. I thought about how I was leaving some of the closest friends I had made in my adult life. I was leaving the security of a workplace that accepted me. I was leaving that night, and didn't get to say goodbye to my boss because he and our news director were in his office with the door shut, planning the future of The Advocate. And I was not part of it.

And I lost it.

I cried — no, ugly-sobbed for blocks and blocks and blocks down Wilshire Boulevard, with a wall of drivers and passengers in stopped cars and buses, probably looking at me and wondering if my husband had just died or if I had escaped from the local sanitarium.

I feel a lot better about this three weeks later. Despite my ugly-crying, I'm seriously thrilled about my new job. But here we are on my last day working at The Advocate. I've had dreams about this day. Would I walk out of this office crying and huddled with my loving, wonderful coworkers singing "It's A Long Way To Tipperary" and shutting the lights off for the last time, like Mary Tyler Moore? Would I be more like Peggy Olson leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Price, to "You Really Got Me" after launching Don Draper into an emotional spiral? But no matter which fictional woman from the olden days I'll channel tonight at 5 p.m., it's still hard to imagine how this exit is going to play out.

When you're in a job like this, it's hard to reflect. But as I clean out my desk and give away random tchotchkes I've accumulated over the better part of a decade, I can't help but think about the struggles, the successes, the heartaches, and the fun times. Here are a few things I've learned in the last eight years: 


1. Change is good.
When I started as a temp editorial assistant in October 2006, we were owned by a big old gay company called PlanetOut. Almost the entire staff was different, and The Advocate staff's goal was to put out a print magazine every two weeks.

Oh, and there was a website.

In nearly a decade, everything is different. The magazine is run from New York. The majority of our staff here in Los Angeles works primarily on our website. We have hourly deadlines. Our work isn't judged by what page in the magazine it's placed on, but rather how many page views, Facebook likes, and (angry) tweets it gets.

And while some journalists hate this, I don't mind it. In fact, I kind of like it. But it's taken multiple office moves, a buyout, layoffs, hires, shakeups, and dustups to get here. That's OK, though, because all of those things challenge us to change, and improve. Somewhere along the way, we all got better, myself included.


2. You are the worst writer ever, but don't worry, you'll be slightly better next year. 
I. Sucked. A lot. I mean, I know I'm not Chaucer, but I know I'm better than I was a decade ago. Perhaps I wasn't the absolute worst, since I somehow got hired here, and I kept getting assignments. And there are probably people reading this now saying, "This twit is the managing editor of The Advocate?" But I'm here, so there.

Even in college I knew I wasn't great, and I felt like my professors were just being nice to me by giving out A's (reviewing my old articles from college a few days ago confirmed my suspicions). But being the nerd that I am, I had the drive to improve and learn from others. And now, after eight years here and 12 years in journalism, I can safely say I am no longer the worst writer ever. Maybe the sixth-worst.

Get a mentor, and be a mentor to other writers. And exorcise the demons of bad writing by writing as much as possible. Eventually you'll run out of garbage and get to the good stuff. 
 

3. The right workplace makes all the difference.
We have an office hula-hoop and usually end up watching at least one video of a pop star or model falling once a day. There's highkicks, dance-offs, snark sessions, and puns everywhere you turn. According to our office, no human on planet earth has hair — they have wigs.

I hate to use that term beaten to death by everyone's cousin on Facebook, but here goes: I've been blessed. But really, I'm lucky I get to come to an office where I can make stupid jokes every day at our morning meeting and go to lunch with people I truly adore. From what I can tell, it's a rare thing in this world to work with real friends, and love what you do. That combination is honestly what kept me here so damn long.


4. Marry the right person
No-brainer, right? Still, I feel like as a bisexual person, this is especially important.

I get questions from straight people and gay people — even the smartest people I know — asking somewhat disturbing questions about my marriage just because I happen to be bisexual.

Do I have a husband and a girlfriend? No.

Am I still bisexual even though I'm married? Yes.

Is my husband OK with me being bisexual? Yes; if he weren't, he wouldn't be my husband.

It's almost to the point where I can tell that the people asking those questions know nothing about me or the man I married. They have no idea what incredible allies he and his family are, and were even way before I stepped into the picture. They don't know that I'm too strong of a woman to ever marry a man who wouldn't accept me. There's nothing wrong with asking questions, but those questions should be steeped in common sense.

But I digress. I was lucky enough to marry my best friend, who I met when he made me laugh at age 17. We did improv together in college, and I first flirted with him by telling him he could be the Ed McMahon to my Johnny Carson. These days, he's more Carson than I am, but our marriage is a partnership, as all marriages should be. And if anything, the freedom to love fearlessly, and truthfully, and fiercely has proven to be incredibly important, after covering marriage equality for so long.


5. Bring your whole self to work. Fearlessly.
In journalism school, you're taught that fairness and objectivity are key to our profession. Of course, those factors are important for any journalist. But the idea of making yourself invisible is also drilled into you, which I think is a grave mistake.

It took years before I felt comfortable standing up for myself. And when I say "myself," I truly mean standing up for everything I represent when I walk into this office or anywhere: women, black people, Latinos, bisexual women, and young people (well, at least when I started here; now there are people here who were born in the 1990s). I was scared to remind others to include people of color in their reporting or insert a stock photo of a female couple, this time, for a story about marriage equality. I didn't want to rock the boat, and in those first few years, I felt like more of an accomplice to this brand than a contributor. I wasn't a gay white man, so I felt a lack of ownership of this decades-old magazine.

I pitched stories that were important and newsy but didn't have a soul. I didn't fight for my work. And by being in the room and not saying anything, I was complicit in letting the people above me dictate what was supposed to be important for the entire community. It's probably part of the reason I had worked here for more than eight years, and about 125 issues, and never written a cover story.

Investor Chris Sacca likes to ask the potential companies he invests in, what their unfair advantage is. Eventually, I realized that my unfair advantage as a journalist was me, and I was holding myself back by not expressing myself. Sadly, it wasn't even that long ago — it was when I started writing columns. I had to start being reflective. I had to start thinking about myself and my place in the world and my views and experiences. I come to work as a whole person now. I own what I do. I allow myself to speak from a place of authority and not worry about whether people will like me. Fortunately, at the end of the day, they do.

6. This column is way too long.
Seriously. It's way longer than my typical guidelines by several hundred words. Most people have probably stopped reading at this point. It's cool — I do that too sometimes. 

So. Here we are, at the end of my last column for The Advocate (though our CEO keeps saying I'm going to come back eventually. Whatever makes him feel better, I guess). In addition to thanking my parents for raising me right, my husband for dealing with the endless identity crises that made up my 20s, my friends for allowing me to talk about PrEP at the dinner table, my college professors and classmates for letting me be a tyrant during my years at The Oswegonian, my boss for letting me scheme with him, and my coworkers for indulging my insanity, I have to thank you, our readers, for coming back again and again (or even just once; thanks to you, too). Thank you for challenging me, sharing your stories, and being the reason that The Advocate continues to exist.


MICHELLE GARCIA was the managing editor of Advocate.com, but starting later this month, she'll be the Identities Editor at Mic.com. To keep up with her move and anxieties about moving back home to New York City, follow her on Twitter @MzMichGarcia. 

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