It took Eileen Stephens a long time to feel comfortable in her own skin. Today, as she sits at her desk with a LGBTQ+ rainbow pin affixed to her WesleyLife collared shirt and the rainbow flag flying outside the community where she works, you'd never know she hadn't spent her entire life as self-assured as she is now.
"I'm very happy here because I feel like I prove myself with my skills," Eileen, transportation and security coordinator for Edgewater, a WesleyLife Community for Healthy Living, said. "I spent nearly half my life caring about what others thought. Now, that doesn't worry me nearly as much."
Eileen, who identifies as gay, came out when she was in her late 30s. Close to her parents, who raised her on a farm near Iowa City, she spent decades afraid that her orientation would disappoint them, so she tried to "fit inside the box" she believed society wanted to place her in.
Eventually, though, she realized she could no longer pretend to be someone she wasn't, and a therapist helped her make the decision to accept herself -- and to present herself to others as she truly was. At 39, Eileen mustered the courage to move to Des Moines and live an authentic life.
Shortly after her arrival, Eileen -- on the shy side by nature -- mustered the courage to venture out of her apartment to attend the city's Pride celebration. That day, she met a group of women who invited her to join them for dinner; from that evening came friendship she credits with helping her feel more secure in her identity.
Their encouragement eventually helped her create an online-dating profile, and it was on a dating site that she met Carol, the woman who would become her spouse.
Then, in 2009 and looking for work, Eileen learned about an opening at Edgewater. She worked there as a driver before taking a position at Wesley Wheels; recently, she transferred back to the Edgewater campus. She says she's found her niche in her current role, but adds she's enjoyed each position she's held at WesleyLife and has always felt comfortable as a team member who happens to be gay.
"I've always felt very welcome here -- not just accepted, but welcome," Eileen says. "I love the diversity here. Everyone's got a different life experience, but we all treat each other with respect. I'm sure there are people who don't appreciate or agree with who I am, but that's OK; no one has ever been disrespectful.
"I come to work and I feel good inside -- which is what we all want. I've always enjoyed older people and we have a lot of veterans here, and being around them reminds me that they fought for our ability to be free. And that includes my ability to be who I am."
She's come a long way, as she proudly wears her rainbow-flag pin, from the little girl who enjoyed working with machinery, the teen who didn't have crushes on boys, and the young adult who was consumed by depression because she didn't feel she had the right to be happy.
"I feel safe here and I feel valued here; I look out and see the flag flying and know that here, I can just be Eileen who cares about people and is good at her job," she says. "When it comes down to it, isn't that what we all want?"
Post Topic(s): LGBTQ PRIDE MONTH