Thursday, March 18, 2021

39. Life Is Better As A Purple Turkey

“You can run with the crowd — which is fine; lots of people do — but if you’re someone who thinks outside of where other people want you to think, you might have some trouble. Because not everybody is going to get it. Not everybody is going to like it. And you have to be prepared to be alone. If you’re okay with all of that, then you can have the life that you want.” — Whoopi Goldberg

In 1979, my third grade teacher Diane Gerwin assigned her students the task of decorating a paper turkey at Thanksgiving so she could display them on the wall. As other kids used crayons to color their turkey the standard brown and white colors, I remember demanding marking pens, so I could celebrate my turkey in bright purples and some blues. Fortunately she appreciated a frustrated eight- year-old diva, gave me some pens, and remarked, "You really have to do things in your own special way, don't you?"

The truth is, I have never fit in with the crowd. As a boy I would have much rather stayed home alone watching soap operas than play a sport outside. As a teen I would have much rather gone off to see Rocky Horror or scrubbed toilets at my job at Denny's than have anything to do with a high school function. I am still not sure if my tendency to do things my own way was an innate instinct, or a defensive reaction to sensing I was “different” and couldn't fit in, even when I tried.    
Nevertheless I thought all that would change when I went to college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I perceived the campus as a utopia where I could be out as gay, expressive, and finally be an insider in a community of outsiders. Not so much. I entered in the Fall of 1989 to find that the gay community was an established clique who were shut down, unkind to strangers, and had very poor communication skills. Once again, my status as the odd-one-out was maintained.

However, this time I learned a different way of navigating the role of outcast. My friend Michael Santos was also dissatisfied and frustrated by the lack of support and community of the UCSC campus. He suggested that instead of complaining about it that we change things by starting our own group. It was through his guidance and organization that I learned how to come up with a mission statement, a budget proposal, and a plan of action. Soon enough, Michael and I were producing campus events for the "Porter Lavender Network" that were not only welcoming, social, and empowering, but were also drawing larger numbers than the other organizations. In other words, I learned in my early 20s that I could make doing things my own way a strength, not a liability.    
Having a different opinion, or a unique perspective, has not always worked in my favor.  It definitely led to a clash in 2009 while working at an outpatient clinic at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City.  Although I loved working with the clients, I also happened to prioritize other things like taking breaks, eating lunch, not taking work home, typing my notes, and generally working within a "smarter-not-harder" framework.  These perks were perceived as defiant and resistant by The Powers That Be.  After several years of trying to fit in to this deleterious culture, I was pulled into a supervisor’s office and told I was not being a "team player.” 

Hearing that at 38-years-old felt like pouring salt on an old emotional wound.  I had spent so much of my childhood trying to be a “team player” and never seemed to be able to conform enough or give up enough of who I was to fit in with the group.  When I heard her tell me I wasn’t fitting in, after years of trying, I felt embarrassment and shame, and an early triggered chorus of "You don't belong here.”  

And then I went back to that third grade memory and reminded myself, “You have NEVER been a team player.  You have never conformed or compromised who you are to fit in to a group.  Why start now?  Instead of fighting it, just embrace it.”  And with that insight I gathered my metaphoric purple turkeys, made an exit plan, and figured out a way to open my own independent therapy business. 

When I started using PrEP in 2011 there were no groups around, no support, no one to talk about it with.  So I used my outside status again to create a group - this time the PrEP Facts Group on Facebook.  And it worked out well -- it was ultimately these efforts that led to the opportunity to attend President Obama’s LGBT celebration on June 9, 2016.  After shaking President Barack Obama's hand I understood very clearly: "This wouldn’t be happening if I had followed the rules like everyone else.  I wouldn’t be here now if I had conformed to societal norms, kept my mouth shut, was a good “team player,” and did things the way I “should"." 

Today I look at my life and see I still don't belong to a Group. I am not exactly your typical Marriage Family Therapist in New York City, as most of them opt to not be so public about their life experiences and struggles.  I don't fit in with the "mainstream" gay sector as I despise smalltalk and still have never been to Fire Island. I don't fit in with a lot of “activists” since I prioritize respectful communication and civil conversations. I don’t really fit in with “spiritual” people because I’m far too focused on indulgence and pleasures of the flesh.                     

What is different now is the meaning I place on being “different.”  When I was young I believed that not fitting in was a limitation. At fifty I can see how coloring outside the lines has given me more freedom than I ever would have experienced otherwise. It is because I don't fit in that I was inspired to move to New York, to write my books, and to create this 50 Lessons of 50 series. It is because I already don't "belong" that I'm not concerned about the affects of ageism.  I have no pressures to conform or change who I am to become a member of anything, and that continues to make getting older much easier, fun, and joyful.   

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707.

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