Seeing the Whole Picture
by Yvonne Palmer
by Mark Welch
I’m always on the lookout for ways to make a difference because you know when you're out and about, there are always opportunities that present themselves.
Chapter 2: Unfettered
I realized early that there was something different about me. I was early on identified as “gifted” and that sort of set me apart from my peers. In the third grade, I accepted one of two double promotions ultimately offered. In my local community, which was racially integrating at the time, my school performance was both praised and derided, especially by other black boys. I was chubby and not particularly athletically inclined. Though I did play some sports, I was much more drawn to be a loner.
As a child of about 8, there was a major library that was built approximately two miles away from my home. I was there the first week it opened. Whether I was on the bus or walking, whatever the season. I would also visit a weekly bookmobile that would come to my neighborhood and sit there selecting books for hours. So, that kind of set me apart.
I also realized early on that I liked boys and I didn’t, of course, as a child, immediately realize what the implications were. I did come to infer this was something that was considered taboo in my community and largely within my family. I learned very early how to attempt masking and to assimilate as much as possible, but I was who I was and so at some point, my evolution became apparent to my family. It wasn’t met with great sympathy, particularly from my dad. Around the age of 13, that caused some challenges. I developed an unbearable crush on another boy. Stronger than any before. I then began to think of myself as potentially bisexual. I still dated girls and, once I began to practice sexually, I was having sex with girls as well as with boys. And so, this was a foundational period of uncovering who I was becoming.
This crush coincided with transitioning to high school, which was liberating. I was fortunate to be one of the first three children from my neighborhood to attend the city's first magnet high school. I tell you, once I was able to get away from the neighborhood, so to speak, and find myself surrounded by artistic, bright, ambitious, peers who not only looked like me but who bore similar markers of English usage and interests. I experienced an even more pronounced series of shedding layers of personal denial, conformity, and “living out loud”. I found other like-minded people. In fact, my first boyfriend came to my school as a notable performer, although he stuck with it. It was really very reaffirming to go to the school. I was no longer bullied or excluded, which I had been as a child, and joined a community of other kids who often had similar experiences prior to high school.
Once I got to college there was yet again another shedding of layers. At that point, although my childhood neighborhood and my high school were racially diverse, when I got to college it was really the first time where I was, as a black person, in an extreme minority. I began to link more positively, affirmatively, with my racial identity and issues surrounding that. And how I was being perceived, what my presentation meant to a variety of people and then trying to negotiate that. So I became active in campus politics and became one of the editors for the campus newspaper, again had radio shows, participated in a variety of forums. My minor was political science so that provided me with another forum by which to come to understand and help others to understand and to create positive dialogue around the interface of race and culture and what it meant on that campus and in society. What the political and social construction was about in terms of being black in an environment like that. And so, I was also able to develop a deeper, broader, more academically-oriented understanding of what it meant to be gay.
While I was in undergraduate school there wasn’t the language of ‘intersection’ and so, I tended to treat the two separately. And I think back now, and I say, “what a much richer dialogue and experience it could have been it not just myself but peers, professors, who served as mentors and advisors, checked in talking about the intersections of being of color and gay.” The only place where I encountered, in a very personal way, that intersection was becoming introduced to James Baldwin. I think I read all of his published works and I've read some of his unpublished stuff too. he was a person, a figure, that for me in a very personal way made it possible for me to sort of begin to identify concepts, common experiences, and language as to what it means to be a black gay man in America. For me, college was a tremendous learning opportunity but much of the most meaningful learning did not occur in the classroom.
After college, the country was in the midst of an economic recession. That’s not usually a good predictor for graduating undergrads entering the workforce. I was fortunate, in that the woman who introduced me to the college I eventually attended and had become a mentor, introduced me to a small community-based organization on Chicago’s West Side. And they had a need for an independent contractor. It was at that point that I began to shed yet another layer and I began to understand on some levels that there had been some privilege that I had taken for granted. I had not really explored educational privilege, per se. For example, before work, I assumed that high school was largely a universal standard. I assumed that preparation of students was more common than not and that to qualify for graduation, students by and large had to meet a common core of expectations. What I uncovered in my first job was a powerful opportunity for me to give back. I've always had a spirit of charity and giving and helping and that had become refined in college, particularly through my social and political activism. But because of the nature of the work that I was doing on the West Side, I really got to throw myself into the real “roll up your sleeves” work of community development.
It was great because I came to understand not only the fact that I had benefited from some privilege that I had never really explored in terms of my educational opportunities, but I also realized that because I had that composite, that profile, I was able to help those who had not been given similar opportunities but were just as deserving to bridge some gaps. And so, I was there on the West Side until I was in my mid-twenties. At that point, I left, and I went to graduate school.
I went to graduate school in the Midwest, this was in the late ‘80s, and there was still such publicly sanctioned, writ large discrimination against LGBT people. The discrimination, the stigma, the hate and the violence, all were not just felt on a personal level but they were legal and institutional. And so, knowing that that was the case, when I went away to graduate school, I again threw myself into my work. My program was competitive and challenging but I was in a small town in the Midwest. There weren't very many people with whom I could personally identify on one part of my identity: my sexuality. And by that time I should add, I had begun to identify as gay, no longer as bisexual, which I had prior to graduate school. So, there was nobody I could identify with on that level or that I felt comfortable openly doing so. There were several guys, undergraduate students, who expressed attractions to me. Due to my association with the university, the presence that I had, I of course deflected. What I did do was, I discovered what for me had been a very strong interest in helping other people and had been sort of punctuated by my work on the West Side. Once I got to the campus, because of the nature of my academic program, I was able to learn and merge the theory with application for the first time in ways that I had not before. I found that really exciting and I thrived. I did very well in my courses and was inducted into a national Graduate Honors Society. I received several awards and accommodations, I did lots of campus programming, particularly in the areas of student retention, cultural identity development and what was then known as “political correctness,” which were all very fertile areas for study, contribution, and dialogue. However, public expressions of my sexuality were unacknowledged in the environment, and only when I left the town, did I - to borrow an expression - exhale.
By the end of my several years there, I was nominated for a special professional opportunity at a large coastal university. So, I was asked to come out and do an interview. As my plane was landing, I saw this beautiful rainbow. To myself, I said “this is where I need to be. This is my pot of gold.” I fell in love with the place.
I worked with a tremendous group of students, professors, administrators, and community people, overseeing what became a model S.T.E.M. program for underrepresented students. And we did a lot of hard work. I developed a really, really strong team of talented, committed people working with me. At the end of four years, we were recognized by the White House for significant progress on a national goal of increasing minority S.T.E.M. graduates and recognized by the university chancellor for doubling the number of minority S.T.E.M. students that graduated with degrees in a 4-year period. So, that work was like wonderful! It was a culmination of my political, academic and professional past. I was able to merge all of these things.
On a personal note, for the first time in my life, even more so than in college, I was able to just be me and express my identity in ways I had not. For the first time, I had positively affirming and diverse gay friends and colleagues. I was able to learn from scholars and activists. People openly discussed, taught and researched questions involving matters of intersectionality, politics, economics, and disparity. My undergraduate students were amazing for many reasons but perhaps what was most personally fulfilling is that so many of them CAME to college with not only complex, open identities but armed with clarity of their power. They inspired and encouraged me, entrusted me with their care. To me, this signified unanticipated rewards and progress.
I really kind of “came out” and I made the affirmation that I would never again hide, reduce or compromise my whole self. And not just my sexuality but also whatever my interest or my inclination, my talents, my abilities, because growing up as a black male who was identified as academically gifted, I had come to realize was not just a challenge for me but for many others and that there were structural, systemic and institutional facts to help explain why society and culture were off the mark. Pop artist Keith Haring made famous “Silence = Death.” People are often afraid of what they don’t know or understand. These students were bravely and capably bridging that ignorance, benefiting not just themselves but the society. I had not only this social experience but also the real fertile academic grounding where I could interact with and learn from people and read things that made sense to me. I decided I would not turn back again, I wouldn’t hide, I wouldn't try to be less in order to make others feel more. It just was useless; in fact, it was self-defeating.
I was there for almost a decade, like I said, and then statewide politics happened that unfortunately brought most of my work, and life there, to a staunch halt. I returned to Chicago.
I think the fact I've developed a diverse career portfolio speaks to the preparation that I got in my undergraduate schooling. And furthermore, the impact on the person that I've become thus far, since it was so diversified, and because I had scope as well as depth, I was able to apply so much of what I was learning to what was happening in my life; what would happen in my life, what was to happen in my life. And, it certainly has opened the doors to lots of wonderful opportunities with friendships and professional relationships.
I realized that the restraints and challenges that I uncovered in my youth, based on how I personally present and the variety of filters - some unjust - assigned to that presentation, do not have to limit, reduce or define me. Certainly, in the past few years, particularly since the Obama administration, there has been a more significant liberalizing, if you will, of American society, with acceptance of different kinds of people. We had our first Black president, and first Black First Lady and first Black First Family. Amazing it’s 2019 and we are still charting “firsts.” I mean Chicago elected its first Black, female, out, gay mayor. And you know there were a few significant accomplishments made with respect to recognizing different types of people, particularly the LGBT community and others. Hence, I think that if I had not gotten comfortable, become comfortable in my skin when I did, that my appreciation of where we are now would be meaningfully different. That’s not to suggest that things have become easy, but they certainly have become easier
Unredacted: Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Uncovered
In which Mark Welch begins the uncovering of the man that stands today. During the first quarter of his life, Mark gets to know who he is, much of which is premeditated. Surrounded by external factors, Mark Welch learns and explores the way his life begins to be shaped and defined.
Chapter 2: Unfettered
In which Mark Welch throws himself into his work during graduate school. Now identifying as gay, Mark faces the discrimination and stigma related to the gay community in the ‘80’s. Amongst the hardships and highlights, Mark Welch gains experience in serval professional environments and refuses to let others dim his light.
Chapter 3: Unfinished
In which Mark Welch, now semi-retired, Oversees his management consulting firm. A long road has been traveled yet Mark Welch still has some things to do. Welch is enjoying working in community development and being involved around Chicago.
About Mark Welch
My name is Mark Welch and I am a small business owner with a management consulting firm that is focused on providing resources for small business and non-profits in underserved communities. I have had a variety of professional and personal experiences that I believe some people may find interesting. I hope they do.
 All names have been changed to pseudonyms