Darcy Galane is a person who stutters and has been active in the stuttering community in the United States since 2010. She has attended 10 consecutive National Stuttering Association annual conferences, and sometimes participates in activities with NSA chapters in the New York City area. She is also actively involved with Passing Twice, a network of LGBTQ+ people who stutter and allies. Darcy earned a B.A. in Political Science from UCLA and a J.D. from the University of Connecticut. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife, daughter, and two dogs.
At my first National Stuttering Association conference, I told an old story in a new way, and it kind of changed me. To use a tired (yet accurate) cliché, it was the first moment of the rest of my stuttering life.
I had attended the conference specifically to find community. At age 41, I wanted to change how I felt about stuttering, but I did not know a single other person who stuttered. Once there, however, making friends and finding community was proving more difficult than I had anticipated, so when a group of self-identified “Old Timers” invited me to join them for dinner, I felt happy to be included. Conversation turned to sharing funny stuttering stories, and I tensed up because I could not think of one. At that point, for me, stuttering was still being made fun of as kid, enduring damaging speech therapy in sixth grade, being asked if I had forgotten my name, not knowing whether I could say “hello” when the phone rang, ordering the food I could say instead of the food I wanted, getting “the look” from listeners when I blocked, and all other manner of shame and anger and fear. I could not find the humor in any of this. Yet.
So, I went with the story I had told frequently before when I was going for a laugh: the time I ended up in the promo for a tabloid talk show episode about “lipstick lesbians.” The story legitimately had a significant stuttering element, but I did not find that part funny, and I usually glossed over it during the telling. This time, I decided to lean into it.
Here’s the story I told: in 1992, as a recent college graduate, I was working for an LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization when I was tasked with leading a group of volunteers to be audience members at a taping of The Montel Williams Show. When Montel elicited audience questions and comments, I was expected to relate “lipstick lesbians” to LGBTQ+ media advocacy and mention the organization and its work by name. In the days before the taping, I lived with debilitating anxiety and anticipatory shame at the prospect of blocking or getting stuck on filler “ums.” But I did my job and gathered the volunteers and found my opportunity to speak. I sat back down afterwards feeling both relieved that I was done and sick because I had no idea how fluent or disfluent I’d sounded.
The weeks until the show aired were just a blur of preparing for the humiliation of watching myself stutter on national television. The day came and I found watching was not as bad as I expected. I could see my struggle and it was uncomfortable to watch, but I had employed all my stuttering avoidance tricks and probably just seemed ordinarily nervous to the untrained eye. I finally exhaled. And then later that day I lost my job for unrelated reasons, thereby rendering all the stress a colossal waste of energy. When I reached this part of the story, the crew at dinner empathized with the stuttering angst and appreciated the irony of the timing.
Then I moved on to the usual thrust of the story: what happened after the show aired. Although I had been out to my liberal parents for a couple of years, they were still uncomfortable with me being gay, and our relationship was strained. After a prior awkward incident, they had explicitly asked me to forewarn them if I was going to be “gay on television.” Nevertheless, I did not mention Montel to them because I was just an audience member, not a featured guest. Plus, I was confident they didn’t watch the show and, frankly, I was too busy worrying about the stuttering. Unbeknownst to me, however, the show aired again a couple of months later – which I learned when my mother called. My parents’ neighbors had called to share that they had just seen me on television! Apparently the “Tomorrow on Montel” teaser featured my comment. Oops. So, my parents watched the show.
At this point in the telling, someone at the table asked, “How did your parents react to seeing you on the show?!” I replied, “Well…they certainly didn’t mention the stuttering.” And everyone at the table broke out laughing.
Mine was just one story among many that night, and there was nothing inherently special about the moment or the laughter, but 10 years later I can still feel it. It was the first time in my life I had ever found the humor in what had previously just been an unpleasant stuttering memory, and it opened something in me. Everyone was laughing with me, not at me; it was the first step towards finding the community and developing the resilience I needed to more forward.
The significance of telling what turned out to be a funny stuttering story was striking to me. To take humor a little seriously for a moment, it has power and can provide enormous benefit to people feeling marginalized. It’s possible to use humor to simultaneously protect oneself, put others at ease, and create intimacy. While I know I often present as serious and earnest, I grew up in an environment in which affectionate sarcasm was the norm, and gallows humor was generally appreciated. I also know that I use humor to connect with people and to demonstrate that I don’t take myself as seriously as my demeanor might otherwise suggest.
Finding the humor in a previously painful experience can take some of the power from it. And the inability to find humor can imbue something with more power than it warrants. There was a reason that I had often told the Montel story to other LGBTQ+ people. My parents’ discomfort wasn’t funny at the time; it was painful. But in the retelling, I could appreciate the absurdity of ending up in the promo and how that led to my parents’ embarrassment. And I could take the sting out of my parents’ disapproval by laughing with people who approved of my openness and advocacy. But I’d never been able to do that with stuttering experiences, because I had no one with whom to share and empathize.
I’d actually had an epiphany about this almost 20 years earlier. As a UCLA New Student Orientation Counselor, I had volunteered – as expected – to present about LGBTQ+ student life as a member of the Diversity Panel. As the only out lesbian undergrad on staff (and the first in the history of the program, which I was quick to mention at the time), I tended to step up when representation was needed. But what most of my friends didn’t know was how seriously, albeit briefly, I considered speaking about what it was like to be a student who stuttered. I had spent college not talking about my stutter and fearing situations that would trigger a block, such as being called on in class. I wanted to challenge myself to change the narrative and to let other students who stuttered know they were not alone. Ultimately, I abandoned this idea because I realized – and the realization was stark – that I had absolutely no sense of humor about stuttering. None. If I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t prepare myself to handle any nervous laughter or silence from the audience. And I couldn’t put other students at ease by showing I didn’t take myself – or stuttering – unduly seriously. In hindsight, it was the right decision, but it was a decision rooted in fear, and in humorlessness, and it felt like failure.
The reason I was comfortable presenting as a lesbian but not as a person who stutters was abundantly clear to me even then: community. While I had found my LGBTQ+ people, I was stuttering – or trying not to stutter – alone. Before I came out in college, I felt afraid and angsty much of the time. When I gathered the courage to come out to my closest straight friends, I still felt afraid and angsty, but a little less so. Then I sought out an older, gay student who listened to me and supported me and mentored me a bit, which helped me build confidence and bolstered my incipient sense of safety. And then I found a life-changing, close gay friend. Rob lived on my floor in the dorms, and early in our friendship, we sort of accidentally stayed up until dawn one night sharing all our coming out stories and crying and laughing and, for the first time, finding the humor in telling stories that had been difficult to experience alone. Thirty years later, we still talk about that night and how it was a turning point for both us – how that was the start of us finding more gay friends, and coming out to our families (at almost exactly the same time), and eventually becoming resources to other LGBTQ+ students. In fact, we were Orientation Counselors together, and I knew that if a Diversity presentation bombed, Rob would blunt the impact afterwards with a shoulder to cry on and a humorous observation to make me laugh. And it wasn’t just Rob; I had lots of LGBTQ+ friends. And eventually, years later, I had a wife and a whole chosen family of LGBTQ+ friends and allies, in addition to my family of origin (who, for the record, were eventually able to laugh about the Montel story.)
When it came to stuttering, however, almost 20 years after I couldn’t present about stuttering in college, I still felt stuck. I had no stuttering friends, and no stuttering role models. Even as I learned more and started to advocate for myself and opened up to my friends and my wife, I still felt so isolated and so brittle and so vulnerable when I blocked or when I “um’ed.” And I realized that to effect change, I needed to do something different. So, I went to the conference. And then I seized the opportunity to feel included, and I told my story, and laughed with my new acquaintances. I went back to my room that night and called my wife and sobbed because I could feel that it had been a before-and-after moment. I had taken the first step towards understanding that stuttering did not have to be this humiliating thing I tried not to do; it could be something I accepted, something that was a part of who I was, something that could connect me with other people worth knowing. By the end of that conference, I had begun friendships that would sustain me as I figured out who I was as a person who stuttered. At subsequent conferences, I would spend late nights talking with these friends, sharing our stories, and laughing at things I couldn’t have imagined finding funny for most of my life previously. I had found my people, my resilience, and me. So, I guess I owe someone on The Montel Williams Show production staff a pretty big thank you.
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