(This story was published in 2007).
How do you measure the power of a speaker? Some may measure it by how professional and put-together someone appears when they get up to speak in front of a crowd, their use of dramatic pauses, their ability to elicit a tear at just the right moment. After my experience last night, I can assure you that's definitely not it.
Last night I listened for the first time while Esera Tuaolo spoke before a crowd -- at a book signing for his new book, "Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL," at a Barnes & Noble in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Saying he "spoke" before the crowd doesn't really cut it. Yes, he opened his mouth and words came out. But it was a lot more than that. Esera shared with the 80 mostly strangers in attendance. He laughed with them, and he sang for them. He stumbled over his words at times, starting an idea and not quite finishing it. And it was a breath of fresh air. In a time of sound bites and polished speeches, Esera's endearing quality is his ability to just talk to people, to share with them, to stumble over his own words without losing his message, and to be vulnerable.
That vulnerability, in turn, opens an emotional door for the people who have come to hear him speak. Last night, after he made us all laugh and left us wondering more about his stories of Christianity, children and relationships, he sat down to sign some books. As the rest of us chatted amongst ourselves, a woman approached him to sign a book. Esera had shared with us details about the pain of being molested as a child by his uncle in Hawaii, about running into the banana patch afterward and asking God to take him away, and about being happy when his uncle died a horrible death. When this woman finally got her chance to talk to Esera one-on-one, she broke down in tears. He wrapped her in his big arms as she cried aloud, "No one knows. No one knows. Thank you so much. Thank you so much." By simply being himself and telling his own painful story last night, and doing it with strength and wisdom, Esera told that woman – and all of us in the room – that she was okay.
The image of that hulking Samoan man embracing that petite woman with a cane, both connecting through a deep dark secret they had hoped to bury as a child, is an image I will long remember.
Esera also shared with us some of the latest news of his life.
He has been making headway with the NFL, he said. He got a call from them recently inviting him to a meeting in New York to talk about including gay sensitivity as a permanent component to their rookie symposium.
His daughter, Michelle, he says, is the next Serena Williams. The 5-year-old, according to the proud papa, is swinging the racquet with the strength of an 8-year-old.
His love and respect for his "husband," Mitchell Wherley, has never been stronger. The NFL may still not be offering the kind of same-sex partner benefits they would both like, but Esera and Dave Kopay are working on that.
I've known Esera since he came out publicly in the press. I've shared with him, danced with him, heard him sing karaoke, and even played flag football with him. I've always respected him a great deal, though I never really considered why. It became apparent last night: he is always himself, and he is damn proud of it. He is proud of his Samoan and Hawaiian heritage. He is proud of his Christianity. He is proud of being gay. And, like few other high-profile gay people, he is able to embrace his unique role in the gay fight for equality. He makes the tough phone calls to the NFL. He mounts educated arguments against the Christians who would use the Bible to keep gay people oppressed. He has spoken before the Minnesota state legislature about the importance of equal marriage rights. He knows who he is and he won't let anyone tell him or any of us that who we are isn't great.
If you have a chance to attend one of his book signings or appearances in the coming weeks (listed on the right), do yourself the favor and go. Esera is powerful in a very unique way, and we're all lucky that he took the leap several years ago and became who he is today.