Have you ever felt like your life did not matter, your feelings not heard, seen, or considered? How about feeling isolated without feeling like you could talk to anyone?
Twenty-year-old Emerald Gwinner knows that feeling. She had a secret but no one to confide in. Her story never would have been shared had Emerald put her fatal plans into action.
Emerald, who identifies as bisexual, is a shy fourth-year Wayne State student. She says that during high school she was teased and taunted relentlessly. The constant pecking led to plans of suicide. "I had a few plans... to end it."
"There would be whispers. In between class, I would have to duck into the counselor's office and wait until the bell rang just so I could make it to my next class," Emerald recalls in a somber voice.
The whispers quickly escalated into shouting. "A kid in high school yelled across the hall and said if I slept with any guy, everyone would still know that I'm a lesbian."
Thankfully, her plans didn't go as she designed. Music was not only an escape but her saving grace that, for the first time, gave her a sense of freedom. But what liberated her spirit to truthful heights was a complete stranger, Dr. Ron Holt.
Dr. Holt is an psychiatrist in San Francisco whose true passion lies in spreading his message of compassion by helping others better understand lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) sexuality through education. For the last 12 years, he's traveled around the world, talking to more than 6,000 students and 1,000 physicians and psychologists.
"I firmly believe that education about sexuality can lead to better emotional and physical health," Dr. Holt says adamantly. His talks cover a wide range of LGBT topics: religion, tips on how to come out, ways to react and support when someone comes out to you, and the science behind sexuality. He closes by peppering in his heartfelt personal story -- a story that led him to his passion of educating others.
"My dad would say, "Look at the way you walk,' and would call me names like, 'Fag,' 'Queer,' 'You're never going to amount to anything in life,' just horrible things," Holt sadly remembers. He even went into hiding with his partner because of death threats from his father when Ron came out to him.
His courageous personal story resonated with Emerald. "The story about his dad made me realize that I was lying to myself and I realized it was ok to be bi," she explains.
Dr. Holt admits when he first started presenting 12 years ago, he was afraid. Wayne is a conservative town of about 5,000 people. "I didn't know if anyone would listen," he says. Twelve years ago he would have about eight people attend his presentations. Last year most classes were standing-room only.
Dr. Holt now only works part-time so he can devote more hours to his passion project. Aside from spending his own money (to cover travel accommodations) and vacation time sharing his message, his inspiration goes beyond the audiences he enlightens. His community service work includes mentoring members of the LGBT PRIDE group at Wayne State College, working to endow scholarships for the Wayne State's PRIDE group, and donating money annually to help the group's educational programs to raise awareness of homophobia's impact on LGBT youth and beyond.
The impact -- or ripple -- can't always be measured in time, money, or any other metrics. However, you can witness change by meeting people he's impacted -- like the noticeable confidence you can see in Emerald, who is now a part of the Wayne State Pride group.
Although Emerald's parents didn't know about her sexual orientation, she volunteered to speak after I spent some time with the PRIDE group at the bowling alley during this shoot. She had only exchanged emails with Dr. Holt, who told her about my interest in covering this story. "If I can save one life, it will be worth it," she said as she shook my hand and smiled.
I wonder how many Emeralds are out there -- with so much life and such a valuable story to tell. I also wonder how many people are out there who have been bullied and don't ever get to share their stories.
I hope this story inspires people not to judge and to think before you act. If you or someone you know would like to support or collaborate with Dr. Holt's mission, visit his website at www.audacityofpride.com.
1. We judge because we don't know. Your actions can help or harm others.
2. If you're being bullied or have thoughts of suicide, there is hope: talk to The Trevor Project.
3. If you're an educator and want information and inspiration about bringing compassion to your school, check out the national educator conference focused on LGBT youth: Cescal.