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Please note: This article was published in the Summer, 2006 issue of White Crane Journal.

Unspoken Mentorship: Intentional and unobtrusive coaching for new generations of queer men and women By Chris Bartlett Many spiritual traditions point to the value of a gift freely and anonymously given. Jewish tradition states that all charity and philanthropy (tzedaka) ought to be contributed anonymously, with the goal that the recipient not be aware of who gave the gift. The strength of such an anonymous gift is that it can have a positive impact on the recipient, neither bringing about shame nor reinforcing existing power dynamics. I argue here that a gift of mentorship can likewise be unspoken—fueled by a powerful intention, and strengthened, paradoxically, by the lack of formal or named structure. In short, please mentor someone—but don’t tell him or her that you are doing it! How would it feel if you knew that a number of men and women had been secretly watching your back; both gently guiding your path with an invisible hand, and offering words of support in moments of both success and failure. They had actually been doing this for you for over ten years, without formalizing the relationship or pointing out the many gifts of coaching and leadership development that they had offered. You had often noticed their involvement in your life: the shared lively debates about politics, tips on how to manage a difficult situation or person, or advice on the best disco music for inspiring a crowd. It was they who (without telling you) had advocated that you receive the scholarship or the position of leadership. It was they who (without your knowledge) sent friends your way: new, inspiring friends who came along at just the right moment. They (unbeknownst to you) observed your growth and watched your development. It was they who told you that you were more than up to the many challenges that confronted you in living a good life. I was lucky to have such an intentional and powerful gay adult in my life in Eric Rofes, who had been my friend and colleague for fifteen years when he died in June, 2006. Eric played an influential and unobtrusive role in my development as a leader. What I didn’t know until quite late in our relationship is that he had an intention to have this role towards me (and to quite a few others). I had been thrilled and honored when Eric sent me the draft of one of his books to review, or invited me to sit on a panel with him, or introduced me to another gay writer or activist whom he admired. He gave me gentle feedback about my own efforts: “Your talk grabbed the audience”; “You could have given a few more examples”; “You need to include more ideas from women and people of color”. When I went through some very challenging months in 2000, Eric wrote me an encouraging note but didn’t offer any intrusive or unsolicited advice. If I had attempted (as some did) to formalize my relationship with Eric in some way, he would have said, “I don’t like the concept of the mentor. Too hierarchical. I learn as much from you as you do from me.”

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Three years ago, after many years of such steady and informal coaching and friendship, Eric revealed his original intention in the context of a discussion about leadership development. He told me that Urvashi Vaid, community organizer and philanthropist, had talked with him in the early 1990s and suggested that he choose seven gay men and work with them to understand what it meant to be a radical gay community organizer. Eric liked the idea—but he decided that he didn’t want to tell the guys that he chose that they had been chosen. In addition to me, he chose six other men from different regions, fields of interest, and skills sets. If you were to speak to any of them today, they would tell you that they experienced the same depths of Eric’s generosity that I had. Having had such a positive experience with Eric, I have sought to embrace this model of “unspoken mentorship” (as I call it: Eric would have been appalled at the implied hierarchy). I too have chosen a number of men (and in my case women and transpeople) whom I have intentionally and (unstatedly, informally) supported in their work as allies, colleagues, and organizers. I choose five to seven men or women whose lives I would like to impact. Why five to seven? It’s natural that some percentage of the total will not be interested in my energies on their behalf: some will be too busy to receive my intention; others will be the sorts of independent spirits who bolt at the appearance of my assistance. It’s important for me quickly to let go of those who clearly are unwilling recipients of my intention and attention. When I do choose, I look for the individuals who seem to benefit from my particular personality and energy type. Perhaps my match is the new young sissy at the faerie circle, or the co-worker who shows particular signs of strength in gentle leadership. I have been drawn to the transman who has spoken up at a community forum, or the lesbian who has just moved to town and shared a smile and a warm hug with me. I choose carefully, because the intention of support for these individuals is a powerful one, and it’s important for me to carefully consider possible recipients before I set my intention into action. I choose widely and diversely: people of color, queer heterosexuals, bold colleagues, dance partners, Radical Faeries, and, in one case, someone I met on the subway. Once I have chosen, I begin to support the individual in his or her work. I offer to help on their projects, I share information about my own work, I recommend participation in various community efforts, I email interesting articles to them for their comment, and I am available to listen if they wish to share something. The key thing for me is to be keenly aware of when such support is appreciated, and when it is obtrusive and unwanted. I am always listening for the invitation for my unspoken intention. When the invitation does not exist, I let go and move on. Importantly, my intention is to help each one manifest his or her own dreams successfully. I measure success in this project by the extent to which I am steadily of service to some number of queer folk who are open to my support. It feels unnecessary to name the

Page 3 relationship or to set forth its responsibilities in a contract. Such formality would, I believe, dispel the magic that exists in an informal relationship of mutual service and kindness. At Eric’s memorial service in San Francisco I told a few of his “secret mentees” about Eric’s intentions towards us. It turned out that he hadn’t mentioned the plan to any of the others. I have to say that I’m not sure that it was the right thing to do to tell them myself. One of the people I told was thrilled to find out (“I thought that something like that was going on”); another seemed perplexed (“How weird”). The key thing I learned from these interactions at the memorial was that the magic of any of our relationships with Eric did not come from knowing that he had the intention. It came from the actions he took to invest in each one of us- actions that derived from that purposely unexpressed intention. Perhaps Eric would have preferred to have kept his secret to the grave, knowing as he did that some of the more spirited among us would resist the idea of being mentored by anyone. It is certainly clear that Eric’s impact in my life, and the lives of these other men, had nothing to do with a formal, structured relationship called mentoring. On the contrary, the beauty of his intention came in the humility of its not being spoken and in its actual impact: a new generation of gay men who benefited from Eric, as he benefited from us. It’s tzedaka of the best sort, I would say. Chris Bartlett is gay community organizer and activist from Philadelphia, PA. He can be reached at Bartlett.cd@gmail.com .