THE BLOG

Life Coach Zachary Koval Discusses Finding Personal Acceptance Through His Queerness

02/27/2015 11:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

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Portrait by Daniel Jack Lyons

I've been conducting this series of interviews for over a year, primarily focusing on queer artists, but I realized that artists aren't the only people whose work may be influenced or inspired by their queer identity. So I decided to open up my interviews and start talking to people with all kinds of jobs. With this in mind, I contacted Zachary Koval. He's a busy man: He's a personal trainer and life coach, primarily helping people with coming out or switching to a plant-based diet. We sat down to chat on a cold New York afternoon.

Phillip M. Miner: How long have you been out?

Zachary Koval: I came out to my parents in the eighth grade. After that it was a gradual process, from slowly telling friends to kissing a boy in the cafeteria my junior year. Both of my parents were very supportive. Personally becoming OK with my sexuality and not caring what other people thought was the biggest challenge. When I came out to my parents, I told them that I never wanted to talk about it again. I told friends and then ended up recanting the next day and jumping back in the closet. I think there's a perception that coming out is a onetime event, but it's definitely a continuum and process.

PM: Through some online research (aka Instagram stalking) I learned that you're involved with the radical faeries. How did that influence your coming-out process?

ZK: I learned about the radical faeries from a high-school friend who connected with them after we graduated. They were something that really intrigued me -- the freedom of expression, the connection to the spirit, the Earth, and to generations beyond my own. Exploring those things also completely terrified me. At that time, all that expression and sexuality wasn't something I was comfortable with, but I still was attracted to the alternative way of being, outside the ever-present bar scene. It wasn't until I moved to New York and met some friends who invited me to a large gathering in Tennessee for May Day that I finally got courage enough to go. Ever since, it's been an amazing experience of learning about -- and creating -- myself. I'm seeing where I am and where I'm comfortable pushing past and growing. It's not about conforming to what the mainstream says I should be or what I think that guy over there wants me to be. It's been about finding, creating, and defining myself from the inside.

PM: I understand that. I naïvely thought that after I came out, that would be that and everything would be sorted. It's been over a decade now, and I'm still figuring stuff out.

ZK: It's definitely an interesting realization that we're not done yet and probably will never be, but that's the fun of it, I think. I went to a gay social boxing club called Velvet Gloves here in the city and found myself automatically self-correcting my stance and movements. The voice in my head was saying, "You're standing very gay right now," even as I was standing in a room full of gay men! I didn't even realize I still had that kind of deep internalized self-shame! I like to think I'm completely comfortable with being gay, but there are still these pieces that have yet to be reconciled.

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Portrait by Daniel Jack Lyons

PM: Does this sort of reconciliation happen in your life coaching?

ZK: Definitely. What's really important to me is helping my clients find integrity in their lives and work to integrate all the different pieces of themselves. I think we have so many parts of ourselves: who we are at work, who we are with friends, and who we are at home. For many, those can be completely different people. This separation is what most of us do to survive day to day, being gay and/or other; we are no exception. Sometimes the different sides of us separate more and more, and we lose the sense of who we are. What I do is support clients in starting to bring those pieces back together to create a whole person.

PM: How do you go about doing that?

ZK: Through reflection, awareness, and action. While I work with clients on specific projects, we focus just as much on what's happening on the inside and who they're being about it. Many people concentrate on doing something in order to be something, trying to fix something they think is wrong or broken within them. In coaching I come at it in the other direction. It's about being first. By recognizing you are whole, the doing comes naturally.

PM: I think I get it, but can you give me an example of how you've done this for yourself?

ZK: I grew up with a body image of myself being entirely too skinny, so I was always going to the gym, trying to put on weight and put on muscle to fix what I saw as wrong with me, chasing the proverbial unattainable carrot always held out in front of me. It drove me on but also [kept] me unhappy and unfulfilled. As long as I believed myself broken, it didn't matter how many reps at the gym I lifted; they'd never be enough. It wasn't until I began to address my own thoughts around my self-worth that I began to see changes. I connected my physical fitness goals with my overall health, ethics, and values. I've seen my dad deal with some serious health problems, and I didn't want to go through that myself. Being vegan and my fitness journey are both a part of that.

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Portrait by Daniel Jack Lyons

PM: I know it's important to you, so could you talk more about your veganism?

ZK: It connects to so many things that are bigger than myself: the environment and climate change, world hunger, and animal suffering. I very much see veganism as an exercise in my personal integrity, connecting and bringing my intentions, words, and actions into alignment. I want to set an example that you can be healthy, fit, and even thrive on a vegan diet. Our diets are often just another example of our dissociation. We are disconnected from where our food comes from and the violence involved in producing it. Being vegan is more than just the action and choice of not consuming animals. It is also a synthesis of personal values and beliefs, which lead to those actions. On the other side, eating meat is also a choice, and one that is backed also by a certain set of values and beliefs, a belief system and ideology called "carnism." By recognizing this, we can see that it's not just "the way things are." We can also begin to examine our actions and make empowered choices and changes rather than just being at the effect of the existing paradigm.

PM: That is important, like how "straight" didn't exist until we defined "gay." Final question: You're goal-driven, so what's next?

ZK: I have my life coaching. I have my personal training. I have my vegan lifestyle, and my acting as well. I want to bring them all together. Like I've been saying, it's all about integration. I'm interested in traveling and giving talks as well as creating a plant-based, vegan fitness center, complete with workshops, classes, coaching, and training. I'm also currently working on an ensemble theatrical piece and a one-man show -- a lot of exciting things coming up!

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Portrait by Daniel Jack Lyons

You can keep track of Zachary's projects through his Instagram account @ZacharyKoval.