Updated: Sep 25, 2021
The following is a copy of my speech at the Lead Out Loud Economic Summit sponsored by the Utah LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce.
Queer Gifts: Using Them on Purpose
The title of my speech is stolen in part from Dolly Parton who said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan. Dolly is my spiritual advisor. She leads me, guides me, and walks beside me.
Dolly has a gift for inspiring and bringing people together. So what is it about her that speaks so profoundly to so many people from so many disparate backgrounds?
I think it’s in part because Dolly knows who she is. She knows she shines. She knows what her purpose is in this life, and she shares her gifts with the world, and has gotten filthy rich in the process. She has known her path since she was just a little girl, writing her first song at the age of 5. She has since written more than 5,000.
She grew up in a family that loved her and encouraged her talents. Because they all knew she was going to grow up and do something fabulous in the world.
But not all of us have been as clear as Dolly on what our unique gifts are, and we may not have been given the proper tools to explore them. Not all of us have had the support systems in place to encourage us, to build us up, or to make us the best versions of ourselves.
When I read this speech to Steven he said I was just looking for an excuse to put Dolly into my speech. But one of my gifts is that I can take in a lot of seemingly random information, correlate it, and make sense of it. - At least in my own mind.
THE NOVEMBER POLICY
That being said, I want to take you back to 2015 - some of you here will probably remember. That November, the local church here in Salt Lake City, let it leak that they were no longer going to accept the children of LGBTQIA parents on to their membership roles. At least, not until they were 18, and only then if they disavowed their “homosexual” parents.
Now, I haven’t been a believer since I was 14, and I haven’t let the beliefs of that religion dictate my own life since, but to say I was outraged at this news would be an understatement.
“Why do you care?” someone asked.
I cared because I knew this policy would hurt my community, I knew it would hurt my family, and more than anything, I knew it would hurt those very children the church claimed to protect, because once upon a time I was one of those kids, as many of you were too.
When it leaked, I called my dad in Australia, a devout convert. Because of the time difference, he hadn’t heard the news, and he was blind-sided. When I asked him how his church could be so cruel, I could hear him crying on the other end of the phone, “I don’t know, son.” Just weeks earlier he had helped bless the daughter of a lesbian couple in his own congregation.
I resigned my membership immediately, along with thousands of others, something I had avoided because I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge that it mattered.
And I carried that anger for weeks.
But then I attended a lecture by my friend, Jerry Buie, at the Genderevolution conference sponsored by the Utah Pride Center. Jerry is a professional therapist and a queer spiritual leader, one of the few non-indigenous people to be given permission to perform sacred sweat lodges and other indigenous spiritual ceremonies.
I had heard Jerry speak before, but this was one of those moments that it all came more sharply into focus, and he spoke of the indigenous cultures here in the Americas in which queer people were embraced and considered gifted. They believed that because some people straddled both the feminine and the masculine, that they had special and sacred insight. In the 1960s an English term, Two Spirits, was coined to describe those with this gift. Long before our Western ideas of sexuality and gender came along, their communities recognized that these individuals had a vital contribution to make. That every member of their community had a vital contribution to make.
Many indigenous, earth-based, cultures all over the world have known for millennia that in order to survive and thrive, they need everyone to bring their own unique, inherent gifts to the table.
In these cultures, childhood was a time to explore and to develop and harness those unique gifts, to encourage them, and to never diminish them.
Queer people were often the spiritual leaders, the diplomats, and the cultural gatekeepers of these societies.
So here I am sitting in this classroom at Rowland Hall Middle School listening to Jerry speak about this thing that I had heard many times before. But this time it was like a magic spell cast upon me—the anger I was carrying around suddenly vanished. And what I felt was pity.
Imagine, your children, children of God, bringing you these beautiful gifts and laying them at your feet, gifts that could enrich you and your community in ways you can only imagine. And imagine turning away those children. Imagine closing the door on them.
And as I listened to Jerry speak, I imagined those 12 old white men in their tower, all in Mr. Mac suits, dealing with this PR disaster and agreeing to agree, to tell their people that these gifts were worthless.
And it made me sad for them, that they would never see the real beauty and the riches of this lifetime. They would go to their heaven on a conveyor belt of Stepford husbands and wives in blue and pink, just like the game of Life.
I remember seeing a story on the local news back in the early 90s, about a young gay Navajo, and what it meant to be gay in their culture. And they interviewed his 80 year old grandmother and asked her what she thought of her grandson, and she said, “We don’t believe in wasting people.”
We don’t believe in wasting people.
We are all inherently born with special powers and unique gifts that can enrich us and our communities, if we seek them out, and we use them on purpose and with purpose.
QUEERNESS IS STRENGTH
One of those gifts for me, I believe, was being born gay. I say it’s a gift because unlike some of my straight siblings, I knew that the prescribed formula for happiness and success that we were given as children, wasn’t the same for me. I was forced to figure out early on what that path was going to be.
And I was particularly lucky growing up in different states and different countries, so I knew that the world was big, and that there was a place out there for me in it. I just had to find it. I had to find my people.
And as I grew up, I also knew that we spend a majority of our adult lives working, and that I better figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life.
At the age of 24, I had a quarter-life, because I hadn’t yet figured it out. I had gone to college and what I wanted wasn’t there. Yet. I had moved to Europe and San Francisco, and I danced away my weekends, slept with as many beautiful men as I could, and my weekdays were spent working as an administrative assistant at an AIDS non-profit on Castro Street. I was in the thick of it all, but I knew I still hadn’t found a calling or a career.
Up until then, I didn’t know what I wanted in a job, but I knew what I didn’t.
And then I dated a hairdresser. And I saw him talking to people all day, moving around, wearing clothes that he loved, listening to music, making his own schedule, being creative, and most importantly, making a lot of money doing it!
Until then, I hadn’t allowed myself to consider hairdressing because I was a 4.0 student, Most Likely to Succeed. People like me didn’t become hairdressers. Besides, it was such a gay cliche. But then I thought, who cares? I am a gay cliche, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that honey. It’s a beautiful thing.
You know, over the years, I have heard people stand in front of audiences like this, and say, “Not all gay men are hairdressers,” and I think to myself, “Yeah? Well, some of us are.”
OPPORTUNITY VS MONEY
I went on to do pretty well at hairdressing before discovering another skill that I have, and that’s teaching and mentoring other people to be successful.
I used to work at one of the biggest hair salons in the country, Van Michael Salon in Atlanta, where I worked with some of the best hairdressers around.
And they were paid pretty well, but they weren’t the highest paid in the market, but they were loyal to a fault. And I wondered, what was it that made them so loyal to Van, the owner.
And I discovered that it wasn’t just money most people were looking for. They were looking for validation, appreciation, and above all, opportunity.
Van had a career ladder for his people, starting with the training salon, and then working your way up to senior stylist, educator, manager, then on to photo shoots, fashion shows, and so on. We had stylists working with some of the biggest celebrities you can imagine. What young hairdressers wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
When I opened Landis Salons here in Salt Lake back in 2005, I simply copied his formula. Create fail-proof systems, and provide my employees with opportunity. I also wanted to give them a sense of ownership. I never referred to it as my this or my that. It was always us and ours.
I also knew that there would always be turnover. Employees inevitably leave to pursue their own dreams, and I knew I couldn’t take that personally or try to hold them back, so we created our New Artist program, something a bit like a paid internship, in which newly minted hair stylists could work on clients at a discounted rate and get paid to receive advanced education twice a week.
It’s a bit like getting a master’s degree in cosmetology. It also provided a bridge for them from basic cosmetology school to a full-time clientele.
And for us, we always had a flow of talent with every level of experience to keep our salon filled.
And it worked. I always joke that it worked so well that they didn’t need me when I left.
Unfortunately, my business partner and I didn’t always see things the same way, and I left in 2008. But if I took anything from that experience, it’s that empowering other people to be successful has made me successful, and I promise it will do the same for you.
I also learned that there are “scarcity” people in this world, and there are “abundance” people. I prefer to believe that there is more than enough for all of us to win.
CREATIVITY, FREEDOM, SUCCESS
Shortly after my very public exit from the salon which still bears my name, two important people came into my life.
The first was my career coach, Lyn Christian. At the time, I was working 3 jobs—running a beauty school, traveling and teaching for a corporate brand, and doing hair. I was working 7 days, I think in order to keep my mind off the trauma I had experienced. To say I was burnt out would be a gross understatement. And I knew something had to change.
I hired a coach because I needed direction in my career, and in turn, my life. I knew I needed to give something up, and I thought it was going to be my work as a hairdresser. But it was through the coaching process that I realized I needed to quit the other jobs, and what I needed was to just show up every day and do an honest day’s work and give myself time and space to heal and rebuild. It was also less stressful, and it was a lot more money.
And I did that for ten years before becoming a coach myself, in order to help others meet similar challenges in their careers and their lives. I focus on small businesses and solopreneurs because I know what it’s like to run a business and be the business.
I also met Jason Olsen around that time. I knew Jason from around and I had been to a few of his legendary Halloween parties, but I really didn’t know him that well.
He reached out to me to talk about a salon suite concept he was thinking about. I knew right away that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit. His business model was not only solid, but the way he talked about the professionals who would fill up the studios was with admiration and respect, something people in my industry often don’t get from business leaders.
Jason owned a car dealership, so he didn’t know much about the industry at that time, but he was in awe of the people who were a part of it. They always seemed to have fun, and they always seemed to have money.
We often hear that creative people aren’t good at business, which is a load of crap. We are good at business or we wouldn’t be in it. And if we weren’t, we wouldn’t take so much of your money making you look and feel good.
Jason knew that, and from the beginning he set out to provide creative entrepreneurs the space and the tools to watch them soar, knowing that if they did, he would be successful in turn.
I knew I had to be a part of it, this revolution. I began doing some consulting for him, and I even had my own studio at our Salt Lake location for over 7 years before opening my current salon, Matthew Landis Atelier at 9th & 9th.
I’ve been a part of IMAGE in one form or another since 2009.
You see, what sets IMAGE apart from other business models is that we think outside the box, while ironically renting boxes to creative thinkers and do-ers. From that first location in Draper, here in Utah, we have grown to more than 130 locations nationwide, and it seems every week, we are signing on new ones.
With all that growth, we have never forgotten that it’s ultimately our Pros, our renters to put it bluntly, our customers, that make us who we are, who are responsible for our success.
In 2020, partly in response to the challenges our Pros faced during the pandemic, Jason, our COO, Taylor Lamont, and I created IMAGE Pro Business, a program to help build more solid and sustainable business foundations, in order for our Pros to thrive and do what they do best.
We teach our Pros how to market themselves, how to manage their money, how to price themselves, and how to plan for retirement—education that no other company in our industry is offering.
We have never lost sight that it’s the unique gifts and offerings of each individual that makes us stronger as a whole.
QUEER BUSINESS LEADERSHIP
In the last 18 months, millions of people have walked away from their jobs to seek out careers and businesses that are more aligned with their values and that speak to their unique gifts. It’s been called The Great Resignation.
And with companies having a hard time finding employees, it’s time to stop seeing employees as employees, but partners in the holistic success of your business community.
As queer business leaders, we have a unique opportunity to change the way business is conducted, to straddle different worlds in a way that many of our contemporaries can’t even imagine.
We can build our communities within and contribute to our communities without.
And here’s how. First, find
out what makes YOU unique. Explore, take classes, read books, listen to podcasts, go on walks, meditate.
Get a coach! Give me a call and let’s get together and have a conversation about your unique situation.
Second, do the same for those around you. Help them to discover what makes them special and help them to grow. Provide them with the opportunity to share with you and your business the unique gifts that each of them bring. It will only make your business stronger and more successful. Give them a path to follow that speaks to their values and to their sense of purpose.
Share your queer gifts with your
communities. You don’t even have to be a queer person. Share those gifts with an open heart and keep an open mind.
Sometimes the greatest gift you can give the world, and you may never know who is helped by it, is to be your authentic self.
So, wear a skirt to work if that’s your thing, or flannel, or sequins, or a silly gold poodle brooch on your shirt or jacket. Stop modulating your voice to make someone else more comfortable. Let the purse or the power drill fall out of your mouth. Let the lightness in your loafers carry you to the next level of success. And rather than dim someone else’s light, brighten yours.
Since we started with Dolly, I think it’s only right to end with Dalai Lama:
“The future will be in the hands of those of you who belong to the 21st century. You have the opportunity and responsibility to build a better humanity. This means developing warm-heartedness in this very life, here and now. So, do whatever work you do, but ask yourselves now and then, ``How can I contribute to human beings being happier and more peaceful?”
And in the words of the great Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”