It wasn’t until Josh Norton stood in front of more than 100 Myrtle Creek community members waiting for him to speak that he realized it was time to take control of his own story.
Norton was named Man of the Year at the Myrtle Creek-Tri City Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards banquet on Saturday. The chamber recognizes a male and a female resident who demonstrate a particularly high level of community involvement.
After thanking everyone for the honor, Norton made a personal announcement that he had never discussed publicly, in a conservative town with a population of about 3,500, where 68 percent of voters chose Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
“I will take this recognition as a leader of this community by saying that I am a gay, active member of this community,” Norton said.
The audience stood and applauded.
Joshua Norton and Terri Day were named 2019 Man and Woman of the Year at the 61st annual Cit…
The 28-year-old Myrtle Creek native, who works as the city recorder and manages the community pool, said in an interview that as he stood in front of the audience, he thought about how the award signified community leadership. He was compelled to show the community for the first time in his life that he is proud of his identity, he said. He couldn’t accept the recognition without being the kind of role model he never had growing up.
Immediately after the banquet, people lined up to congratulate Norton on the award and his announcement. The day after, he posted a video of his speech along with a message on his Facebook page. Almost 200 people have reacted to the post, and more than 75 people have posted comments congratulating him.
He said he has been overwhelmed with support almost a week after the banquet.
“Someone came up to me at the end of the speech and said, ‘Did you not think anyone knew you were gay?’” Norton said. “That wasn’t it. I wanted to dictate my story. And I wanted them to know that even if you’re OK with it, I want you to know that I have struggled a lot so you’re aware of it.”
Growing up in Myrtle Creek, it was hard at times for Norton to envision a normal future, or any future at all, he said.
“I think I spent every single day of my teenage years trying to decide between a life of hating myself in private in order to be apart of a community, a life with no community at all, or no life so that I didn’t have to pick between the two,” Norton wrote in his Facebook post after the banquet.
He said as a teenager, he experienced homophobia in different forms, including outright bigotry from people shouting at him from their cars while he walked down the street.
He sensed that he would not be accepted as an equal member of the community he loved if he came out publicly. That drove him to keep it private for years.
He didn’t explicitly discuss it with his parents until about a year and a half ago, he said. And even though they didn’t talk about it again until the banquet, he said his parents were among those filming his speech and embracing him afterward.
While Norton’s experiences growing up in Myrtle Creek contributed to the concealment of his identity, he said he never thought it would be the same community that would give him the opportunity to overcome the shame he felt in keeping his sexuality private.
“I’m not going to be ashamed of anything anymore; I’m not going to hide anything anymore,” Norton said. “Myrtle Creek gave me the opportunity, which is the most ironic statement I think I will ever say in my life.”
A lot has surprised Norton recently, he said.
When he first started working as a 15-year-old lifeguard at the South Umpqua Memorial Pool, and then became the manager two years later, he didn’t think it was laying the groundwork for him to become a leader of the community.
He also didn’t think overcoming the thing that burdened him most as a teenager — the privacy of his sexuality — would become one of the best ways for him to improve his community.
His speech was a message of hope and solidarity to anyone else in the community who is ashamed of their identity and questions their future, he said.
As he looked at kids in the audience at the banquet, many of whom he taught to swim, he thought, “How can you be a role model when you’re ashamed of a part of you there’s nothing wrong with?”
“I think my mind knew, whether it was subconscious or not, ‘You have this platform right now, you have the opportunity to take control of your life,’” he said.
Norton couldn’t let it go to waste.
The speech was the most “vulnerable experience of his life,” he said. It was more frightening than anything he experienced in the eight months he traveled abroad alone teaching English and volunteering in places like Morocco and Cambodia, he said.
He gained the courage to be that vulnerable by thinking back to a conversation he had a few days earlier sitting with some friends in front of his fireplace with the power out — a result of the biggest snowstorm in the area in decades.
“I said I’ve been really struggling lately,” Norton said.
He told his friends — fellow former lifeguards, who were previously aware of his sexuality — that he has been thinking about a quote he heard recently: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”
He thinks his community — and society as a whole — has progressed in its acceptance of homosexuality in his lifetime. But there’s much more work to be done, he said. He added the work may never be finished.
“When you feel different, for any reason, I think you have to put the hard work in for a result that isn’t noticed,” Norton said. Kids often don’t have the ability to be themselves, let alone work toward progress. That’s why they need role models to tell them they’re OK, he said.
“I want to work and put my name out there so that we get to a point where nobody asks if you’re gay or not,” he said. “They see you with your partner and they literally don’t think anything of it.”
Many places are at a point where mere acknowledgment of homosexuality is still a key step to progress, he said. But he feels thankful to live in a time and in a place where he could say what he did at the banquet.
He worries about people like him who are decades older and still conceal their identities.
“The people that did deal with this even 10 years ago, and have stayed hidden, I feel so sad for them,” Norton said. “But they are so much stronger than me because I would have killed myself.”
He hopes his message will be one of many ways he can be a leader and serve his community — even if he never expected it would be.
“To everyone listening, and to me when I was younger, what I want to say is I see you and I accept you and you’re OK, and if there isn’t a spot for you in the community, then make one,” Norton said as he accepted his award. “And once you’ve made one, make one for another person, and thank you for doing that for me.”