#parent | #kids | Ash Beckham: What Can We Learn From Uncomfortable Moments?

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode School of Life

When Ash Beckham was misgendered in front of her niece, she wasn’t sure how to respond. Her eventual choice taught her a lesson about handling uncomfortable moments — and finding a middle ground.

About Ash Beckham

Ash Beckham is an LGBTQ advocate, author, and diversity and leadership educator. Her speaking focuses on empathy, respect and the power of having real conversations.

Beckham’s advocacy began when videos of her TEDx talks “Coming Out of Your Closet” and “Owning Your Duality,” and her Boulder Ignite speech “I am SO GAY” went viral online. Since then, she has spoken at LGBTQ community centers, Fortune 100 sales meetings, classrooms, ballrooms and boardrooms around the world. She is the author of Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader.

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On the show today, the School of Life…


ZOMORODI: …How sometimes the biggest lessons happen in unexpected places.


ASH BECKHAM: I was back in Ohio for a family wedding. And when I was there, there was a meet and greet with Anna and Elsa from “Frozen.” And my 3 1/2-year-old niece, Samantha, was in the thick of it. She could care less that these two women were signing posters and coloring books as Snow Queen and Princess Ana with one N to avoid copyright lawsuits.


BECKHAM: According to my niece and the 200-plus kids in the parking lot that day, this was the Anna and Elsa from “Frozen.”

ZOMORODI: This is Ash Beckham on the TED stage. She’s the aunt of a young girl who loves the movie “Frozen” and also an LGBTQ rights advocate. And so part of Ash’s job is teaching people how to talk about gender and sexual orientation, which brings us back to that hot summer day in Ohio…


ZOMORODI: …When Ash and her niece were waiting to meet Anna and Elsa.


BECKHAM: We get there at 10 o’clock, the scheduled start time, and we are handed number 59. By 11 o’clock, they had called numbers 21 through 25. This was going to be a while. And there is no amount of free face painting or temporary tattoos that could prevent the meltdowns that were occurring outside of this store.


BECKHAM: So as we stood in line, in an attempt to give my niece a better vantage point than the backside of the mother of No. 58, I put her up on my shoulders. And she was instantly riveted by the sight of the princesses. And as we moved forward, her excitement only grew. And as we finally got to the front of the line and No. 58 unfurled her poster to be signed by the princesses, I could literally feel the excitement running through her body. And let’s be honest – at that point, I was pretty excited, too.


BECKHAM: I mean, the Scandinavian decadence was mesmerizing.


BECKHAM: So we get to the front of the line, and the haggard clerk turns to my niece and says, hi, honey. You’re next. Do you want to get down, or are you going to stay on your dad’s shoulders for the picture?


BECKHAM: And I was, for lack of a better word, frozen.

ZOMORODI: Oh, Ash, I mean, what was going through your mind in that moment? You’d been standing in line forever. It’s so hot. You finally get to the front, and then you’re referred to as your niece’s dad.

BECKHAM: Well, I think everybody has been mistaken for something they’re not. Right? We’ve all been miscategorized in some way, especially when it’s in a way that either feels accusatory or kind of contrary to how you see yourself and how you choose to be presented. And so for me, it was really challenging because that is, like, my Achilles’ heel, I think, is been – being mistaken for the wrong gender.

You know, the way I see myself, I’ve always identified as a woman. I think my gender identity is – has always been a woman. But my gender expression, the way that I dress, is androgynous. And I don’t deny that at a glance, I look like a man. But in that context, I was wearing, you know, a tighter shirt than I would usually wear, kind of displaying my – as feminine as I get, you know…

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BECKHAM: …From my body type. And even – so uncomfortable in that way but uncomfortable to make myself seen as a woman to have that not happen in front of my family. And then it happened anyway. And so you’re just – you’re, you know, simultaneously under a spotlight but also invisible.


BECKHAM: So back to Toledo, Ohio – the frazzled clerk calls me dad. And I hope with every ounce of my body that no one heard – not my sister, not my girlfriend and certainly not my niece. I’m accustomed to this familiar hurt, but I will do whatever I need to do to protect the people I love from it.

So in an unexpected instant, we are faced with the question, who am I? Am I an aunt, or am I an advocate? Would I take my niece off my shoulders and turn to the clerk and explain to her that I was, in fact, her aunt, not her father, and that she should be more careful and not jump to gender conclusions based on haircuts and shoulder rides…


BECKHAM: …And while doing that, miss out on what was, to this point, the greatest moment of my niece’s life? Or would I be an aunt? Would I brush off that comment to not be distracted for an instant from the pure joy of that moment and by doing that, walk out with the shame that comes up for not standing up for myself, especially in front of my niece?

You know, you have these two sides of you – So, you know, professionally and then also personally. You know, my professional and personal life is really intertwined, and so I see myself as an advocate. And I had developed some skills and some talking points and these ways to have conversations. But I think a lot of times, we put ourselves under a tremendous amount of pressure that, you know, we can’t let one moment pass us by without making these kind of moral stands that we identify ourselves with.


BECKHAM: But then I take my niece off my shoulders. And she runs to Elsa and Anna, the thing she’s been waiting so long for, and all that stuff goes away. All that matters is the smile on her face.

And as the 30 seconds we waited 2 1/2 hours for comes to a close, we gather up our things, and I lock eyes with the clerk again. And she gives me an apologetic smile.

And in that moment, she kind of mouthed that I’m sorry. Like, she got it. And we made the connection, and she realized she made the mistake.


BECKHAM: And her humanity, her willingness to admit her mistake, disarms me immediately. And I give her a, it’s OK; it happens. But thanks.

ZOMORODI: Ash, you chose to let it go.

BECKHAM: Right. You know, it’s that empathy that we have to – even in those tense situations, how do we take a moment to give somebody the benefit of the doubt, right…


BECKHAM: …That – you know, that this person wasn’t homophobic or, you know, all of the, like, stereotypes that we would give somebody that would challenge that. Like, she was just a tired woman that took a glance. And so, sure, if you’re exhausted and you take a quick moment and do that, like, you make that mistake. And then I think, you know, I would have missed the experience I was trying to have. Like, you don’t have to be on guard all the time.

ZOMORODI: So what would you say that this moment – like, how did – what did it change for you?

BECKHAM: I guess prior to this, I hadn’t really seen that there was a middle ground. And now, I guess, you see that there always is a middle ground. I don’t have to be one of these two things. You don’t have to be the advocate or be the aunt – that I can exist in this – the vast majority of the world is gray, and we have to give ourselves room to operate in that space.

ZOMORODI: You know, I was thinking, like, what was going on through that woman’s mind? And this woman has her own moment, right?


ZOMORODI: And she had to decide what to do, too. And I love that she decided to mouth an apology to you to say sorry.


ZOMORODI: She could have just ignored it as well, right?

BECKHAM: And that’s certainly the easier thing to do, right?


BECKHAM: Like, more times than not, people just then avoid eye contact, right? Like, they know they made a mistake. It’s over. They say nothing. They kind of pretend it didn’t happen and just get through it. But she knew that that was a mistake. She knew she did it in front of my niece. Like, she was very aware of the situation, the impact that it had, and took the moment to do the right thing – or to do the empathetic and compassionate thing to apologize, to kind of own that mistake.

ZOMORODI: To say, I see you.

BECKHAM: Exactly. And that’s all we all want – right? – is to be seen. I think when people see you and take the time to do that, you reflexively do the same. And so I think the impact of that is so significant. When we can be the person that makes the first step, we know what that response is going to be – right? – that people are going to come back at us the same way.

ZOMORODI: That’s LGBTQ rights advocate Ash Beckham. You can see her full talk at ted.com.


ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week on the School of Life. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier. Our intern is Farrah Safari. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I’m Manoush Zomorodi, and you’ve been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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