How Vulnerability Creates Change
Sharing a deeply personal story with the world helped me realize that vulnerability is a powerful tool to create change and inspire others to follow along.
When I was 23 years old, I found myself standing on stage in an array of some 50-plus Boy Scouts, all dressed identically in olive slacks, khaki shirts, and white sashes. In front of us was an audience of 8,000, many springing from their seats to cheer and applaud.
From that vantage point, all 50 of us must have looked utterly indistinguishable, united as we received a national volunteer service award that evening in 2018. But for those in the audience who were looking closely, my uniform was broadcasting something different. Sitting atop my shirt pocket, next to my red, white, and blue Eagle Scout patch, was a symbol even more colorful: a rainbow square knot. A small but clear display of gay pride.
I wore the rainbow patch on stage that night as an act of visibility, yes, but also of commemoration. The year prior, I had done something that was long unthinkable for me—an act of extreme vulnerability in the historically White, traditionally masculine Boy Scout culture that rarely rewarded such efforts: I came out as queer in an essay published in HuffPost.
I had only come to understand and accept my own queerness fairly recently, the very same year that the Boy Scouts of America ended its long-standing ban on gay leaders, after ending its ban on openly gay scouts two years prior. It was 2015, I was in college, and even after the gay ban ended, I felt utterly terrified of coming out to my large community of Scouting friends and volunteers. After all, the organization had only just stopped debating whether my sexuality rendered me immoral, despite the fact that I had earned its highest rank.
By the time I wrote the HuffPost essay in 2017, I had slowly come out to people in every other aspect of life, and I decided I needed to rip that bandage off in Scouting too. I felt that a very public coming-out might even have the power to shift Scouting culture in a way that would make it easier for others to come out too.
Indeed, the day my essay was published (along with those of three other queer Scouts my age), messages of support poured in from all corners of the country. I heard from volunteers, parents, even staff at the Boy Scouts national headquarters in Texas, all of whom thanked me for sharing my story.
The entire organization, it seemed, had been put on notice that its culture of homophobia would not stand.
But the most powerful change we made with that essay was among my fellow queer Scouts: teenagers and young adults who told us that they had never fathomed coming out in Scouting, but now felt empowered to do so. Scouts who told me they had felt totally alone until they realized they had something in common with my story. And ultimately, people who shared with me truths about themselves that they had never told anyone else.
At first, I didn’t understand why my story had such an impact. Maybe the timing was right, or maybe I was just lucky? As time passed, however, I realized the power of my story was in its vulnerability. So I crystallized my thesis and shared it on yet another stage. This time, it was a local TEDx event in Albany, New York, where I doubled down on the idea that in order to create change, vulnerability is not just an added bonus—it’s absolutely essential.
Mere months after I gave the TEDx Talk, the focus of my life shifted dramatically with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many people in the U.S., the majority of my mental space was consumed by disinfecting groceries, adjusting to remote work, and simply making it through each day.
But as quarantine gave way to international protests against White supremacy and police violence, I began to realize this power of vulnerability had increasing relevance in tackling resurgent social justice issues. And I wasn’t alone.
During the summer of 2020, a multiracial group of Scouting volunteers took a vulnerable stance as they called on the Boy Scouts of America to throw its support behind Black Lives Matter and root out racism in the organization. The result was a very public declaration of support for BLM by the Boy Scouts and a promise to create a diversity merit badge requirement for Eagle Scouts. Progress since then has come in fits and starts, but the organization is opening up conversations around racial equity and starting initiatives intended to better support and welcome Scouts from historically excluded communities.
That same summer, I also expressed my own vulnerability at work. As a journalist at a small business newspaper in upstate New York, I looked at the Black Lives Matter protests happening in my city (something our publication normally wouldn’t cover) and wondered what we could do differently. When I first called my editor to express that desire, I worried she would scold me for confusing my role as a journalist with that of an activist. But she didn’t; she agreed that our publication needed to pass the mic to women and people of color, to highlight their stories just as much as we did those of White men. In the weeks that followed, I would unmute myself in Zoom meetings to share these same concerns, and my anxiety began to ease as I realized I was not alone. My colleagues agreed—we needed to challenge our basic assumptions about whose stories we were telling.
From that point forward, we made a concerted effort to express our vulnerability by admitting our blind spots. When we called up new sources from historically excluded communities, we acknowledged and apologized for our lack of attention to their communities in the past and promised to do better. That helped us build trust and led to a measurable increase in coverage of those mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. With time, we found that we had the trust and credibility to investigate difficult topics, like the glaring lack of diversity in the executive ranks of local organizations, and we were surprised to see how much our readers engaged in these conversations.
After months of building that muscle, I went out on a limb once again: As the only openly queer journalist on staff, I wanted to do a cover story about how our city’s employers were failing the LGBTQ community. And I wanted to approach it not with the “neutral” point of view of a newspaper reporter, but with the heart and vulnerability of a queer person reporting on their own community.
The result was a package of stories the likes of which our newspaper had never published, highlighting prominent queer business leaders who were hiding in plain sight and laying out the path to empowerment. The package included a column that I wrote about my own experience of learning and making mistakes while reporting the story; I urged readers to start this work before they felt fully “ready,” a day that likely would never come. I urged them to embrace vulnerability.
The week after the story was published, I received an email from a notable local business leader, someone we often quoted in our newspaper. He thanked me for doing the story and shared that he still struggled with being out in the workplace, but that my article inspired him to overcome his fears.
This experience reinforced for me again that the combination of vulnerability and story was a potent force for cultural change. To be sure, there’s proof for that beyond my own anecdotes.
Paula Niedenthal, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shown through her research that humans are experts at detecting authenticity in others. We don’t like it when people are pretentious; we respond much better to vulnerability. That means people are much more likely to forge a positive connection with a leader if they can recall resonating with them on an emotional level, according to research by Richard Boyatzis at Case Western Reserve University.
We also know that storytelling engages our brains in a way that other forms of information do not. Research by Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, has proven this on a neurological level. When we are exposed to a story, a cocktail of chemicals emerges in our brains: Cortisol arouses our attention, oxytocin leads us to empathize, and dopamine gives us pleasure. That can often motivate us to act, because we see ourselves in the story and want to be part of it.
This power of vulnerable storytelling, however, is not available to everyone. While my Whiteness gave me the safety to take many risks, I still had to overcome the strong cultural stigma against “weakness” imposed by traditional masculinity. Scouting taught me to be brave, sure, but it also taught me to be obedient, to conform (we wear uniforms for a reason), and to be “tough.” Declaring my homosexuality in a national publication, at a time when gay people were just starting to be tolerated in the Boy Scouts, didn’t comport with this traditional ideal of masculinity.
Even so, I have it relatively easy, being a cisgender White male. For those who live at the intersection of multiple identities that have been historically oppressed, vulnerability can take on a more literal meaning.
In Scouting, where the policy barriers for the LGBTQ community are largely gone, not all members of the acronym have been embraced or celebrated. For transgender and nonbinary folks in particular, visibility and vulnerability can often translate to an icy reception from co-workers or spell the end of a youth’s involvement in a troop, sending them hunting for a new one that’s more accepting.
From my perch of relative safety, I’ve learned to continue leveraging my own story in service of social progress, which can create space for less privileged people to do the same. This is an exercise I now conduct on a weekly basis, through my newsletter Morally Straight, which chronicles the story of LGBTQ folks fighting for justice in the Boy Scouts of America.
Some weeks, I share bits of my own story navigating the Scouts as a queer person. Other weeks, I pass the mic to trans and gender-nonconforming youth who are struggling to find their place in the organization. And in May 2021, I brought many of these voices together in a virtual event to imagine a more inclusive future in the Scouting world.
The stories that flow through spaces like that event and my newsletter are a stark reminder: While we’ve made much progress, we still have a long way to go. But as some troop leaders share their worries and others share their hopes, I can feel a new story coming together. One where vulnerability can inspire, elevate, and spark change for the (queer, trans, and non-White) youth who need it most.
My story may have been what brought those event attendees together, but it’s their stories that will reverberate in communities all over the country. Their vulnerability will captivate local council meetings; their vulnerability will engage resistant parents; their vulnerability will build bridges that can lead to positive change. Their vulnerability will be what ultimately creates a better, kinder, more inclusive Boy Scouts of America—a place where young people can learn, hike, laugh, and grow in the ways I did, but without the fear that their identity will put it all in jeopardy.