For most of his life, people have tried to force activist Jon Gilroy to live in a box.
In his talk, “Unlocking Our Truths,” held in the Forum on Wednesday night, Gilroy told an “intimate” group of students about growing up with cerebral palsy, and jokingly addressed the “big blue elephant in the room,” referring to his 400-pound wheelchair.
Gilroy graduated from SUNY Albany with a degree in social welfare. He focused on counseling for substance abuse, depression and anxiety disorders.
“I want to take every single one of you on a journey within yourselves – on a journey to unlock that area of yourself that you might not want to travel to,” said Gilroy.
He told the group about a time he went grocery shopping with his mother when he was five years old. A man approached his mother and asked if Gilroy was her son. When she said yes, he was her son, the man apologized to her, saying, “I am so sorry.”
Gilroy’s mother asked the man why he was sorry. “He proceeded to pull my mom away. I guess he thought he was out of earshot, but he wasn’t,” said Gilroy. “He said, ‘Well you know, he’s never going to go anywhere since he’s in that chair.’”
He said that at five years old, he didn’t really understand what the man was saying about him. But he did understand there was something about him that made this man “uncomfortable, or he genuinely did not like.”
He explained he didn’t fit in this man’s box of “what it meant to have a disability.”
Because of his disability, people have tried to “shrink” their vision of him, of who he could be. Gilroy said people tried to make him fit into the box of what it meant to be in a wheelchair.
“What I’ve learned throughout my life is … we’re all the authors of our own stories. We determine how it’s written,” said Gilroy.
For Gilroy, that analogy has had a lot of weight in his life.
To be the authors of our own stories, said Gilroy, doesn’t mean running from the people who try to “shrink” you. “It means confronting them – proving to them who you are, and why you don’t fit their mold.”
Gilroy told a second anecdote about shopping at the supermarket with his mother, this time when he was 12 years old. A young boy came up to Gilroy and asked what was wrong with him. The boy’s mother snatched him away, and Gilroy went on a “CSI chase” around the supermarket before finally catching up to them.
He said he asked the mother to let her son ask his question again. The woman told him that what her son had said was rude, and Gilroy’s response was, “You see, by yanking him away, you’re teaching him to fear me. … You’re teaching him to not approach and ask people questions who are different than him.”
Gilroy said these stories are a way to get people thinking, especially with the current political climate. “We have a lot of people that are going to be very confrontational with us,” he said. He reminded the group that instead of “clocking somebody,” give them respect and act “cordial to them … because maybe if I’m cordial to them, they’ll realize they can be cordial back to me.”
Three years ago, Gilroy wrote and produced a song that he then uploaded to YouTube, in which he came out as gay. He said the same people who tried to put him in a box because of his disability were now confused, because they didn’t expect him to even have a sexuality at all. According to Gilroy, people with disabilities have their sexualities erased – “We become the cute little pet puppy in the corner that you can go pet,” he said.
He said after uploading the video, his phone did not stop going off for the next 48 hours. “It reminded me I am the author of my own story,” said Gilroy. He added in that moment, he had so many people from all different parts of his life coming to try to tear the “journal” out of his hands. “Trying to take my story and write their version of me in it,” he said.
He said it felt as if they were “crossing out what they thought wasn’t acceptable and writing what they thought was acceptable in it.” He said he took a step back and took inventory of his life.
“Because now more than ever, it is so important to remember that part of unlocking your power is who you surround yourself with,” he said.
Gilroy said ultimately, everyone has the power to determine how much weight people’s opinions have in their lives.
After he ended his talk, Gilroy asked the group if they would be OK with having what he called “breakthroughs,” in which he would ask them questions that would make them vulnerable.
“I will never ask you a question that I myself can’t answer. I will never ask you questions that I have not experienced as well,” Gilroy explained.
He asked the group about suicide, safe spaces and if they had ever experienced a time in which they thought no one would ever love them.
One student shared her concerns about the aftermath of the election, saying, “I feel like there are some people that I have to walk a very thin line with, especially with the upcoming holiday season. A lot of anxiety is building.”
Gilroy said he had anticipated the topic coming up. He said he sat down with his journal and wrote down names of people whom he felt safe around, as well as people whom he didn’t feel safe around. “I looked down at that list of people I didn’t feel safe around, and I saw my grandparents. I saw pretty much all of my extended family,” said Gilroy.
He explained the best way to go into interactions with these people is with the mindset of “I love you, and because I love you I don’t want to have this conversation with you.” His recommendation was to let those people say whatever they want to say, and then leave taking inventory. “We need to come to a place to accept that.”
Another student shared how he doesn’t “feel safe anywhere.” He said the places he doesn’t feel safe are “the places I’m supposed to feel safe.” He shared he doesn’t really have a familial support system, and instead his support system is more “found family.”
Gilroy said he felt as though the student hadn’t really ever had a space to be himself. “What I want you to know is you’re in a space right now of people who love you,” Gilroy said.
He asked the student to let his wall down, and to let the people in the safe space know the “real him.” He then asked the group to stand up if they loved or supported the student, and then asked the group to hug the student to show they accept him for who he is, an exercise in which everyone participated.
Gilroy concluded his talk by reminding the group that the journey to self-awareness is ongoing, and they shouldn’t be looking for it to end.
“Realize that to grow, you need to stop and be,” said Gilroy.