"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive," wrote Audre Lorde, the famous American poet, feminist, and civil rights activist in her book The Black Unicorn. Interior designer Jeremiah Brent first introduced me to her work, and these powerful words seem the most fitting starting point for my "coming into" conversation with Brady Tolbert. The creative director of Emily Henderson is very familiar with the inner turmoil LGBTQ youth face when they have to explain who they are to the world at large during an already confusing period of their lives. He endured it too.
Despite working on several projects together and running into each other at events, it was only until recently that Tolbert and I decided to get drinks as friends. There was a moment in between the clink of wine glasses and talking shop where he spoke of his mission to Madagascar as a young Mormon. At that point, the course of our chat changed direction, and Tolbert spoke intimately about being raised in a religious household while identifying as homosexual, and how, despite the challenges, he learned so much about himself and gained an even closer connection with his family through the process.
"Life is too short not to love honestly and more importantly not to love yourself in the purest way," he tells me. "The realization that I am best when I am me was not one that happened overnight, but whether it was a coming out, a coming into, or coming clean, finding the truth and the core of who I am was one of the most bittersweet journeys."
We took the conversation back to Tolbert's L.A. home where he spoke in more detail about his Mormon upbringing in Salt Lake City, his "coming into" story, and how we can raise the next generation with love, understanding, and an open heart.
On growing up in Salt Lake City:
The locals often refer to Salt Lake City as "Small" Lake City because it is just that. Although it is a large metropolitan city, the residents pride themselves on being friendly, outgoing, knowing and caring for those around them.
My childhood is what many would consider quite idyllic. I lived my entire life (up until college when I finally moved out) in a house my father built in Salt Lake City. The Harvard-Yale neighborhood in which we lived felt like an extended family of plot lines and property. You not only knew every single person on your street, but had a relationship with them.
It felt like a family, and all of my very best friends (whether that was due to location or our interests) lived within walking distance. I had eight guy friends all my age and in my grade in a one block perimeter from me. You could leave your doors unlocked all day and night, and your car parked in the driveway with the keys in it. It wasn’t Stepford, but it was something, and it was home.
I grew up with incredible parents who encouraged me to express myself and pursue my passions. I would show them what I loved and what I wanted to do, and they would help to guide me with love and acceptance until that passion formed persistence and that persistence formed a habit.
On being raised Mormon:
People always have something to say about Mormons. It's either they are the sweetest and most outgoing, hard-working people, or they’re a crazy cult that restricts how members live their lives. I am proud of how I was raised, and although I may not agree with everything that the religion says or does, I do agree with the core values of the church, which are rooted in family, service, and living your life to the very best of your ability.
I'm often told that I am way too optimistic, and I'm unsure whether that perpetual idealism comes from something I was born with or the way that I was raised, but I'll take it. Mormons are the type of people who work hard, give back, and love their neighbor, so even if the religion does have its flaws, insanities, and missteps, the things that I learned growing up in that religion are something that still better my life every day.
On his "coming into" story:
My "coming out" story was not a coming out story but a "coming into" story. When it finally happened (at the age of 23), and I let those closest to me know my truth, it wasn't an acknowledgment of acceptance by those around me, but an acceptance for myself. My friends and family loved me for who I was, but I was unwilling to love and accept myself due to my own guilt, the religious upbringing in which I was raised, and a society and culture that didn't support it.
I remember first discovering and questioning my sexuality in my teens. Although it wasn’t really about questioning it; it was more about self-discovery. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know why. As is the path for many gay men and women, my perception of who I was was skewed through the lens of society. The view I had of myself was influenced by those around me and the world in which I grew up in rather than my internal truth.
Having to "come out" as yourself might be one of the cruelest forms of punishment that society has. Add the fact that it's typically done at a time of immaturity, uncertainty, and adolescence, and you might begin to understand why coming out for many of us is one of the hardest things we ever have to do.
On his family's reaction:
My family is one of the most loving and accepting groups of people. I am lucky. Not everyone is. My coming out experience is one that many other LGTBQ youths do not get, and I'll never take that for granted. To be completely transparent, I was petrified and terrified to come out. Although my parents always lead with love (and acceptance of others is a paramount virtue in our house), I had heard the horror stories. Many of my friends were met with hostility, judgment, and disapproval from their families, and in my head, I thought it would be the same.
It was Thanksgiving, and I knew that this was my time. I didn't want to wait until Christmas because, in my head, I was thinking I’m going to ruin Christmas with my big gay announcement, so Thanksgiving became my time for truth. I told every one of my siblings first, one at a time with their significant others at their different homes. I wanted to let everyone have their own time with me so we could talk, process, answer questions face-to-face. I wanted to show them that nothing about me had changed and that I was more me than ever. I also secretly knew that if I told my siblings first I could probe them to find out if my parents already knew or if it had never been spoken of.
Much to my dismay, it wasn't something they'd ever spoken of before, so telling my parents would be a shot in the dark. I will never forget uttering the words—through so many tears—to my parents one night when I was in town from Los Angeles, "I am gay." My dad immediately smiled and without a moment of hesitation, looked me in the eyes as his own welled with tears and said, "I have never been more proud of you." My mom immediately sat next to me, held me, and expressed how much she loved me. It was the purest love I've ever felt from my parents. It was instantaneous, unplanned, and raw.
On moving to L.A. and working with Emily Henderson:
Near the end of school, I moved to Washington, D.C., to accept an internship working on a Presidential Memorial that Frank Gehry was designing. I interned for that project for a year, and when it was finishing up,I met an interior designer out there. He offered me a job working under him in Los Angeles.
I had never been to Los Angeles before, but I took the risk, made the move,and seven years later L.A. finally feels like home. I started working for Emily about two years into my L.A. move. The firm I had initially moved for made some internal changes and shut down "indefinitely." At that same time, I happened to see a "we're hiring" post on Emily's Instagram. I had seen her from HGTV, and I honestly never thought I would get the job as she was such a big name in my eyes. However, I took the risk and applied, went through a few interviews, and five years later I am now working as her creative director.
On meeting his life partner:
I met Jason about two years ago—(June 26) to be exact. Unlike many modern relationships, we met in person rather than online (although at the time I was on a date with someone else, but that is a whole different story).
The connection with him was pretty instantaneous. I felt safe with him, I felt I could be myself with him, I felt stronger with him, and I felt something that I had never felt before. We started hanging out that day at the pool and never stopped. Two years later, he is my best friend, my partner, and the person I love wholeheartedly.
On raising the next generation of LGBTQ children:
Lead with love, lead with an open heart, and lead by example. Create an environment of trust and acceptance for your children. Coming into your own truth as a young gay man or woman can be one of the most trying, confusing, and emotionally and mentally exhausting times in your son's or daughter's life.
All we want is love and acceptance in the most simple and pure way. We don't need to you be the leader of the LGBTQ pack or the trumpeter for truth; we just want your love. I want parents to support their children and to love them honestly and unconditionally for whoever they are or whoever they become. They need you. We need you.
Acceptance is brought on by love, and if you can't love and accept your child, then they won't be able to love or accept themselves either.
On his hope for the future:
I dream of a future where we no longer have to choose between our truths and the norms that society, religion, faith, and culture tell us are the truth. The world needs more love, more acceptance, and more variance. The world needs you, just as you are, without filtration and reservation.
Society is strongest when we as a whole are not one background, one accord, or one opinion but composed and knit together from all different backgrounds, dispositions, and cultures.