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Building Community: Moving Towards Meaningful Connection

Back in January, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a Young Adult Leadership Summit. I wanted to impart some wisdom as I shared my journey. Knowing that so much of my journey is wrapped up in my community, I decided to run with that idea. Here’s some of what I shared about community building and the journey that got me to where I am now!

Choosing my name

I am a trans person. – One of the many stops on my gender journey was changing my name to one that felt more like home. I knew that I wanted the meaning of my name to be both qualities I embody and qualities I aspire to. After several visits to cafes to try on names – it became so clear that my name is Quinn Atlas. It checked every single box. Quinn means wise or counsel – and though I’m still in my 20’s, I think I’ve both acquired and shared lots of wisdom. The best part is that I get to continue becoming wiser and offering guidance to those who seek it from me. How cool!

Funnily enough, I knew that Atlas was going to be my middle name before I decided on Quinn as my first name. The meaning of the name Atlas is support – and though Atlas was condemned to hold up the sky for eternity, I chose this name as a reminder that I don’t have to do that. That I get to choose the kind of support I want to offer, how much I want to offer it, when I want to offer it, and, of course, why I want to offer support. Let me put this in context.

Trust the process

To understand why having autonomy over the ways I offer support is so important, let me take you back a bit to where I’ve been. Trust the process, this will all make sense soon.

I am glass child, an invisible child, the “other child”, or the child who lives in the shadow of a sibling whose needs take up a lot of their parents’ and caregivers’ time, energy, resources, attention, and protection. This is usually because of a disability or illness, but this dynamic can arise for a variety of reasons.

As a result, my teenhood and young adulthood looked really different from my peers. I was often left to my own devices, and expected to grow up really fast. I was expected to be needless, boundaryless, and helpful to my parents and my sibling, and that took a tremendous toll on me.

As a glass child, I’ve found it really difficult to find resources and stories from other glass children. When this experience is talked about, it’s typically in ways that sterilize the reality of glass children.

I felt like I always had to have everything figured out, and I got stuck in perfectionism really quickly. This, coupled with the immense pressure I felt to never say no, created the perfect environment for a crash and burn. When I felt like I couldn’t live up to mine and my family’s expectations, I lost my sense of self. I did not know who I was outside of being helpful and taking on responsibilities that never should have belonged to me, especially at 17 years old.

Affected in College

When I got to college, I started drinking heavily to numb my feelings of inadequacy. I felt like being away from home meant that I wasn’t showing up for my family – whenever my sibling was struggling, I told myself that it was my fault for not answering my phone during a lecture or for picking up an extra shift at work and not visiting that weekend.

My grades slipped, I lost my spot in the Honors Program, I found out I wasn’t going to graduate on time, I lost a lot of friends, and I eventually didn’t even recognize myself. I was stuck in a metaphorical revolving door of going to work, going to class, going to my second job, drinking to stop feeling, sleeping for a few hours, then waking up and doing it all over again.

It took more than I’d like to admit for me to stop self destructing. I was lucky; there were people in my life who saw what was happening. And they showed up. They were firm, but patient and understanding. I couldn’t get away with saying “I’m fine” anymore. Fine is the suckiest word anyways.


Now, my life looks a lot different. In 2020, I wrote and facilitated workshops about queer and trans identities, history, and allyship – which gave me the opportunity to lean into my desire to share my story and use it to educate folks. I started working as a peer support specialist for TurningPointCT a year ago, and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. Not only am I doing work that’s meaningful and purposeful, but I’ve also gotten to connect with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. This work has led me to advocacy in ways that feel so affirming. I’m growing into the adult that my younger self didn’t get to see – a queer, trans person who is not just surviving.

As I continue to learn and grow and change – I am moving towards cultivating more care in my community. I am stepping into fully showing up. More often, my yes’s no longer have silent no’s attached to them. I’m finding ways to make time for fun – to play and create and explore without pressure or expectation. I’m learning to take more breaks and more deep breaths. Curiosity is now my starting place on every map – because I know that if I can get to curious, I can get to possibilities. When I start from fear, resentment, frustration, and judgment – there’s no room for those possibilities to exist.

How did we get here?

Gratitude and grief are two staples of my journey thus far. I know that I will have both in my life. Sometimes they’ll ebb and flow, sometimes they’ll come at the same time. I’m learning how to make space for both to exist both within myself and others.

It took time to re-orient my outlook on empathy, sharing, and generosity. I’d gotten so used to ignoring my needs and self sacrificing that it prevented me from understanding that practicing these skills did not have to come at the expense of myself. I truly believed that I existed for the purpose of making other peoples’ lives easier – and I grew more and more resentful each time I ignored my own capacity in order to help someone else. I didn’t realize that this resentment wasn’t actually anger at the people I was helping – it was a deep sadness that nobody was doing that for me. That understanding unlocked so much for me. It was like an invitation to listen to myself and honor what my mind and body were saying. I could be helpful and generous in ways that felt authentic. Why hadn’t anyone told me?!

Vulnerability was, and sometimes still is, a really hard sell. How could I be vulnerable when I had to have everything figured out? When I had to be responsible and resourceful and independent and needless? Yeah, I would sometimes tell my friends that I was having a hard time – but I wouldn’t let them show up for me in those moments. I was so afraid for people to see what was truly happening that I clammed up and shut down and changed the subject anytime someone got anywhere close to uncovering a piece of the truth. I couldn’t even be honest with myself – how could I be honest with other people?

The Beginning of Vulnerability

Well the thing about the truth is, I could only run away from it for so long. My favorite professor caught on real quick – and he was not going to let me weasel my way out of a conversation during office hours. I sat down absolutely determined to say as little as possible and get out of there as fast as possible. He asked me “What’s going on?” followed by “tell me the truth, so we can figure this out together”.

What followed was vulnerability and radical honesty that I hadn’t been able to access before. He gave me a place to put it all down – all of the guilt and shame and fear I had been carrying. It felt like I took my first full breath in months – maybe years. I was finally able to let go of some of the perfectionism I had been clinging to so tightly. Suddenly I was a human being, not a human doing. Wild, I know. It made room for something else… making mistakes, messing up, and taking accountability.

This was a tough one. My perfectionism created one heck of a shame gremlin, and that shame gremlin could get real mean real quick. When the shame gremlin was loud, my outward defensiveness and justification of my actions followed in short order. I made excuses and explained myself to the point where I couldn’t hear what others were telling me – that I had hurt their feelings or broken their trust. I didn’t know how else to respond when I had caused harm. Nobody had ever shown me what taking accountability looks like. I had gotten so used to being blamed and shamed for making mistakes – and told that it was a reflection of me as a person – that I didn’t know anything other than defending myself.

Seeing Clearly

When I started loosening my grip on perfectionism – it created space for me to listen to what others were saying to me. “You haven’t been answering my texts and I’m feeling like you don’t value our friendship” “You said you’d come to my concert, but you didn’t show and it hurt my feelings”

Now I can see that those were invitations to show up to my relationships – not criticisms of my character. Huh. Wild concept.

I’m no longer afraid to have those conversations. I understand that Accountability is the practice that allows us to move through the world knowing that if we make a mistake that causes harm, we have the tools and skills to repair that harm and restore trust in the relationship. And that feels a lot better than, well, whatever I was doing before.

How I built my community

There’s no right way to build community. But since my name means wisdom, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to impart some. These are some of the things I’ve done to grow and sustain my community.

  • Joining grassroots organizations as an educator & facilitator
  • Becoming a peer support specialist & sharing my story
  • Being intentional & honoring my capacity
  • Volunteering and mentoring young people
  • Attending community events
  • Reaching out and expressing gratitude and support for people in my life
  • Spending time in and caring for third spaces (third spaces are the places that are not home and not work/school, but a familiar public spot where you can regularly connect with others over a shared interest or activity. It could be a park, a yoga studio, a coffee shop, a concert venue… you get the idea. When I say caring for third spaces, I mean taking the time to leave these spaces better than you found them – whether that’s picking up litter in the park, pushing in chairs on your way out of the coffee shop – taking the time to care for these spaces, especially as there are fewer and fewer of them, is crucial for community building.

Take what resonates, leave what doesn’t.

Oh how things change

Reflecting on where I was at the beginning of this story, I can honestly say that I felt so disconnected from hope. I really didn’t believe that I could ever feel differently. Hope was for people with purpose – not boundaries doormats afraid of ever messing up.

Well – obviously something changed. Actually, a lot of things changed. A lot of old parts of me had to step back so I could nurture new parts – my vulnerable part, my accountable part, my curious part, my grateful part… they all wanted a seat at the table.

So I made room. I thanked the old parts of me for keeping me safe, for getting me this far – and I excused them from the table. I’d like to think they all went to take naps. I mean, what perfectionist/overachiever doesn’t need rest?

Doing this allowed me to connect more deeply with the people in my life and the people I had yet to meet. And in these deeper connections, a chosen family, a community, a network of mutual care, a sense of belonging grew in ways I never thought possible.

And it’s because of my community, my chosen family, my people – that I’m here.