Welcome to VIVO’s Diversity Series, where we take a deep-dive into what makes our team unique. For this installment, we invited Account Director, Nage Gibson-Thompson, to answer a few of our questions and see what diversity means to him.

Where are you from?

Born in NYC but raised in Atlanta, GA.

What was your childhood like?

Good for the most part…That’s not an honest answer. I had great moments. Good and bad. Not everything was amazing, and not everything was bad. It was a blend of the two. Growing up in Atlanta suburbs had its challenges. We’re largely segregated into cultural pockets and children usually break those boundaries. My friends and I sure did. I grew up during the 1996 Olympics, so I saw when the rush of people started to come to Atlanta from all over the world. I saw the massive increase in population and the shift in demographics. The Atlanta of today is significantly different than the Atlanta of twenty years ago. While all this is going on, in the background, my home life was a bit rocky. My parents were not compatible and that spread into every aspect of their lives. I’ve got some scars and baggage because of it. Who doesn’t?

What was your favorite meal growing up?

Chicken fingers and fries. Oh, and crab cakes. I’m mostly vegan now though.

When did you know you were “Diverse” or different from the norm?

When I was in 4th grade, I was living in a predominantly white county called Forsyth. That’s right. The same one where Oprah had her march to desegregate the county. It was January and MLK day was coming up. One of the students in the class had asked the teacher why we took off MLK Day as a holiday? This was 2001, not 1971. It goes to show what type of American History was being taught in those schools. Anyway, without skipping a beat, the teacher said, “So the blacks will be happy.” She must have forgotten the one “black” student in her class because back then I was very light in skin color. As the words escaped her lips, I could see the regret on her face. This was a woman who was in her sixties and had probably spent her entire life in that racist county. Now, it gets worse. Right after she said this, every student in the class turned to me. Their eyes bulging out of their heads waiting to see my reaction. The sad part is, I didn’t have a reaction. I didn’t know what to say. This was the exact moment I realized I was thought of as other. I knew about different cultures and races, but I had never thought of myself as different than the norm or diverse. I thought everyone had weird cultural things or food that their parents made them do and eat.  It was at this moment, I knew I was characterized as black, even though my ethnicity spans more from the middle east and India. It was also at this moment I realized that I had to have an opinion every time something happened that affected black people. I would become the voice of the black community in my largely white classes.

I have two diverse stories. That one was the time I realized I was “black”. It wasn’t too long later I awoke to my queerness. Middle school is never an easy time. And for a black gay teen in a once racist county, it was a little harder than usual.

Now, I believe I was in sixth grade. I couldn’t tell you how or why, but I felt different that year. Something in me was different. I summed it up to puberty. That’s what all the teachers said so it must have been that. I had a large group of friends. Always have up until high school. Everyone knew each other and talked to one another. I didn’t realize it then but looking back I definitely had more of an affinity for my male friends. When I would go over to their houses to watch a movie or hang out, I would spend a good hour or more getting ready. For a pre-teen boy, this is strange. I would shower, put on cologne, try on every piece of clothing in my closet until I thought I was presentable. The whole time, I didn’t realize it then but, my heart would be fluttering with nerves, and my hands would be clammy from anxiety. There were a couple of friends in-particular I had a “special” friendship with my mother would say. She probably knew before I did.

This one day, a few of my friends and I were planning to go to the movie theater. We all begged each of our parents to play chauffeur until one of them finally caved and said, yes. I went on my lengthy preparation routine because one of my “special” friends was also going to be there.

I was picked up in an SUV filled with kids. We were on our way to see the widely popular Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

At the theater, we bought snacks and headed to our seats. We made it just as the movie started. Now, I can’t remember when exactly this happened but maybe about halfway through the movie, I thought something that had probably crossed my mind before, but this was the first time I had acknowledged the thought and realized its depth.

One of the main characters was on screen, I had thought about how much they looked like my “special” friend and how he looked so cute. My imagination had gone even further and I thought about how great it would feel to kiss him.

At that very moment, I don’t know if it was the similarity of the main character to my friend or what, but anxiety filled every inch of my body. This wasn’t right. I turned to my friend thinking he had read my mind. Luckily, he was still watching the movie seemingly ignorant of my inner thoughts. I then felt a deeper sense of dread. If my friend could possibly know, then everyone else in the room could too. I turned and looked around the jam-packed theater. I felt exposed. Naked. I got up immediately and hurried out of the theater.

In the hall of that theater was where I had my first panic attack. My mouth was dry. It felt like cotton balls were stuffed all the way to the back of my throat. I drank water but couldn’t make it go away. I had to sit down on a bench to breath. It felt like I was about to swim in a big meet. I was a swimmer, so I did what I normally do right before I step up onto the blocks, I took a deep breath in and then out. I repeated the exercise as thoughts raced through my head. Did I really think the main character was cute? Did I think my friend was cute? Do I have feelings for my friends? Do I want to kiss him? I kept telling myself that these were just thoughts and nothing to worry about but with each question, the first answer that came into my mind was yes. It was in that hallway, that I contemplated my sexuality, my sexual orientation, even my queerness.

I eventually calmed down and went back into the theater with my friends. Though I knew no one could hear my thoughts, I still felt exposed. Even with my friends, I felt like they all knew what I had thought. Even at that young age, an irrational fear in me knew that I was different and that this urge to kiss a boy wasn’t necessarily going to be okay with society, or to my dismay, some of my friends.

How have your experiences shaped who you are?

My experiences are seen all throughout my work. A lot of my stories stem from personal experiences. This is what sets me apart from other people and what makes my otherness so unique. Ironically, this diversity is what unifies large groups of people. Finding similarities in the stories I tell and not feeling alone. That’s the whole point of the work I do. It is to connect people together under similar unheard experiences.

 

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