32 – Joseph Shelton

Gay (he/him) // Colorado Springs, CO // First openly gay person to run for office in Colorado Springs – Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Education.

With the infinite possibilities of gender identity and expression, when did you know….

“I went through the early years of my life – elementary, beginning of 6th grade – always having that typical little kid crush on girls… eventually I started finding some men attractive… but at the time, I didn’t know anything about what being gay was. I don’t know anything, I just knew people liked people. I went through life just saying, these people are people I like. It’s a typical thing. Once I got to 7th grade, and someone explained to me what being bisexual was from that time and for the longest time I said, ‘I guess I’m bisexual!’ I wasn’t fully open to my family at the time, and up until my Junior year of high school I had identified as bisexual. One day my mom walked into the room and I finally just came out to her… well I didn’t really come out. She came to me and said, ‘You know I know, right?’ Even though I told her I was bisexual, since then, I’ve come out and identified as gay.”

On his coming out experience

“When I first came out, like I said, my mom just walked into the room and asked about it. Ultimately, she had found out because I had posted a picture on Instagram of me kissing the guy I was dating at the time. My brother called her and told her, ‘Hey, you might wanna look at Instagram!’ She asked me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ At the time, trying to clear everything, I never was trying to keep it from her because of a fear or anything… I just didn’t know what would happen. She was about to go on vacation when she came and talked to me, and she said the only reason she wanted to talk to me was because… about 2 weeks prior, I had 3 or 4 friends commit suicide because they didn’t want to be honest about themselves… they were afraid to tell their parents… or they did tell their parents and their parents didn’t take it well… So, she told me, ‘I don’t want to leave for California, with you thinking I didn’t love you… or that I didn’t care for you, because you’re gay… or bisexual… or whatever you are… I don’t want you thinking that. That’s why I wanted to come to you, because I don’t wanna go out there and get a phone call from someone telling me you committed suicide…’

My mom, she took it really well. My biological dad… he didn’t take it the best… and to this day, I still don’t think he’s taking it well. He says he accepts me for who I am, but I don’t feel a full sense of acceptance with him. I live with my mom and my stepdad now… and my stepdad, along with my step family… they say, ‘Whoever you love, that’s okay! We’re not gonna say whether you’re right, or whether you’re wrong… It’s up to you, it’s your life…’ They’ve all been really cool and accepting about it. A lot of them have met every person I’ve dated… they say, ‘That’s a great guy! He’s really great for you…’

…my dad’s side of the family hasn’t been too on board. There are some [relatives on my dad’s side] that do support me, but for the most part, a lot of them ‘don’t think it’s right’. I take it as it comes. I had my Dad contact me the other day and say, ‘I love who you are, but I don’t think it’s the right thing…’ I told him it wasn’t his decision. It’s not anybody’s decision. It’s not my decision. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘You know what?! Let’s have fun… let’s be gay today…’ I told him, ‘I’m happy with who I am, and that’s all that matters…’

…it’s great in life to have that one accepting person who says, ‘Others may not accept you, but I love you for who you are!’ Some of us might not have anyone, but the only person that needs to accept you in your life… is you. It doesn’t need to be your mom, dad, teacher, priest, preacher… or whoever… it just needs to be you. As long as you accept yourself, that’s the only person that matters…”

Biggest fears or concern about coming out…

“When I first came out I always had the fear of… will I actually be accepted. That was one of the biggest reasons I didn’t tell my parents… it wasn’t like I was afraid they were going to disown me. I knew my mom would love me no matter what, but I didn’t know how she was going to take it… Recently, I was going to go on a date with a guy I had met online, and my mom didn’t like it one bit. Then her friend reminded her that sometimes the internet is the only place LGBTQ+ people can meet each other…

I love to go out, but I don’t like to fully go by myself because of [what happened to] Matthew Shepard. It’s not a major fear, but a small fear… Especially being in a town that has a predominant population of republicans and conservatives, and people who say that [being gay] is wrong…

I started Drag Story Time here in Colorado Springs, and I had so many people that were coming out against us… saying it should be banned… stopped… ‘not here in our city, because this is our right’…

My mom told me one day, ‘Ever since you started Drag Queen Story Time, and started running for office… you’re out there in the public eye… I’m afraid something might happen… I’m afraid someone might hurt you… or something…’”

Favorite part about the community?

“Everybody is there for each other. For the most part, at least. If you’re ever really having a really hard day, you can call someone up and tell them you really need to talk something over. And they’ll be there. I’ve had people call me at 3 in the morning… ‘I’m sorry to wake you… I know you were sleeping…’ and I tell them to talk to me. They’ve obviously got something going on if they’re calling at 3am. A lot of us don’t want to see another person gone to suicide… or to doing drugs… We want to see them going towards happiness… so we are a line of support. We’ve been there. A lot of us have gone through depression… or questioning their coming out… or their identity… It’s always great to have those people there reminding you’re not a bad person. You’re not someone who is wrong. You’re not someone who’s disgusting. Just because you love someone else, doesn’t mean you’re disgusting or gross… and certainly doesn’t mean you’re going to hell. It just means you’re happy with yourself…”

Least favorite?

“I’d have to say the people who are in it, put others down… Like those who consider themselves gay and put down transgender people… I always tell people, ‘Who’s to say what’s right? And, who’s to say what’s wrong?’ I didn’t write the book of what’s right and what’s wrong… I can’t tell that what I do, is right. I can’t tell you it’s wrong. In my opinion it’s right. In theirs it’s wrong. Who’s right?”

What is something you would tell a younger you? Advice for anyone out there who feels like they can’t come out, or they don’t have a community to be a part of?

“Just be honest with yourself… don’t wait until mom walks in the room! Just be who you are. Let your happiness show.

To others…. We’re all here. We’ve all gone through the same feelings. It’s important to be yourself. There are 2 quotes I always carry with me everyday… the first one I learned from Inside Out, and it goes:

‘In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.’

And the other one is my favorite quote of all time – warning it is a Dr. Seuss quote –

‘Today you are you, this is truer than true, There is no one alive who is youer than you!’

I always take those quotes and think, ‘You can only be yourself… you have to be honest with yourself and open with yourself… I know it’s hard to be truthful to yourself, and say this is who I am… because there is a fear that… maybe my parents won’t accept me… or my friends won’t accept me… or my school won’t accept me… or the church won’t accept me… If your family doesn’t accept you, that’s not your family. There are people in our community who will accept you. You get to make your own family and only you get the chance to choose who is in your family. You fully have the choice to choose who is in your family.”

What in your life are you most proud of?

“This is going to sound really weird… but, I’m most proud of going to jail for 3 days when I was in 8th grade… The only reason I say that is because it really helped me turn my life around. My two biggest dreams in life were to run in politics (which I’m doing!), and to be a police officer… The reason I always wanted to be an officer is because the officer [who arrested me] sat down with me and told me, ‘This isn’t you… You can easily change the mistakes you’ve made… You just need to learn from it… and go forward.’ I honestly believe if I hadn’t gotten into trouble and spent that time in jail, I would’ve never learned… Who knows where I’d be today had that not happened…”

With the state of the nation and the world in its current state, what’s one thing you would change if you had the power?

“I wouldn’t let anyone judge anyone based off of anything… whether you’re black, white, Christian, Jewish, gay, straight… Pretty much everyone would know we’re all the same people. We all bleed red. When we fall, we all get back up again… just the general idea that we are all one. We are all human. We’re all on the same level. No one better or worse than anyone else… Keep in your own lane. Love who you are. Give others the same acceptance you wish you had…”

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