05/11/2012 10:32 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Claim Your Power and Climb Out of the Crab Bucket

There's an old saw in my hometown, the place I fled at 18 and returned to at 48, that perfectly illustrates the way too many people I see around me here view themselves as powerless victims: As a crab tries to claw its way out of a bucket of crabs, one crabber says to another, "Better put a lid on those crabs or they'll get out." The other crabber replies, "Naw, those are Norwich crabs. If one tries to climb out, the others will pull it back." It's odd and sad to see people who have raised children, survived marriages and divorces, lost and found jobs, and managed to pull through the recession -- and who still have no sense whatsoever of their own power.

I know it takes courage to embrace your sexuality as a natural part of your experience of being a unique individual. Even in 2012 it's a brave thing to publicly say, "I have HIV." Being open and saying such things in a place where you aren't surrounded by other gay or HIV-positive people adds to the challenge. It can take tremendous willpower to haul ourselves up and out of the crab buckets others want to keep us in -- and that we create in our own minds. It may require us to leave an insular hometown for a big, accepting city. It might also mean shedding the protective skin of the gay ghetto to live as an empowered person in a place where we are most definitely in the minority.

Whatever our crab bucket happens to be, there are pincers snapping at us -- the put-downs, the predictions of failure, and the myriad other ways disempowered victims try to shame others into becoming like themselves, stuck in self-fulfilling prophecies. So how do we finally break free of the crab buckets, real and imagined? LGBT people can start by claiming our awesome history, finding strength in our connection to the men and women before us who refused to be held back by or reduced to their sexual orientation or HIV status.

One example of our brave forebears that I like to cite, maybe because I am of Greek ancestry, is the Sacred Band of Thebes. This elite fighting force in third-century B.C. Greece comprised 300 men, 150 pairs, selected for the Band because they were homosexual couples. The military leaders rightly believed that lovers would fight valiantly to defend and protect their manly pride in front of each other. The Sacred Band were undefeated in battle for decades, until the armies of Alexander the Great and his father, King Philip of Macedon, killed them in the great battle at Cheronia. Philip erected an enormous stone lion to serve as the dead soldiers' mausoleum and honor their bravery. In the early 1970s, just after the Stonewall riot of 1969, gay activists in New York sometimes referred to themselves as an "army of lovers." The Sacred Band of Thebes were often referred to as an army of lovers. There's power in flipping shame on its head, in claiming your part in a long, proud lineage that includes the Sacred Band of Thebes.

People who don't approach life from the standpoint of victims tend to take good care of their health. They know they have a choice in what they eat and whether they exercise, that no one can force them to eat poorly or not exercise if they don't allow it. They nurture their bodies and their minds, surround themselves with others who bring out the best in them, practice safer sex because it's a natural way to respect and protect themselves and their partners and to take the fear out of intimacy and pleasure.

When we claim the power of our heritage, behave like people who know our own resilience and strength because we have had to exercise it simply to survive, nothing in the world can pull us back down into anyone's crab bucket.