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June 29, 2023

See and Be Your True Self

In his recent blog, Saint Louis Zoo Director Michael Macek shares his story of seeing and being his true self.

Author: Saint Louis Zoo Director Michael Macek

Michael Macek, Director

On June 28, 1969, New York police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular dance bar frequented by gay and lesbian patrons. The raid was part of a campaign by the then Mayor to rid the city of immoral behavior he felt was damaging the city’s image. However, this night was different; patrons did not willingly line up to be arrested. Instead, they resisted. Several more nights of resistance followed and came to be known as the Stonewall Uprising. This uprising is widely considered to be the twentieth century watershed event that transformed the gay liberation movement for LGBTQ rights in the United States and is in part the reason we celebrate Gay Pride in the month of June.

I was seven years old when Stonewall took place. I have no recollection of the event and suspect I was simply enjoying the summer after the completion of my second grade school year. I know I spent time with my hamsters Fergie, named for the baseball player Fergie Jenkins who played for the Cubs at that time, and Schroeder, the piano playing Peanuts comic strip character. Our miniature poodle Tracy would carry the hamsters around the house like they were her puppies. At seven years old, I wonder if I knew who I was?

Michael Macek
Michael at the age of seven holding a zoo-themed board game. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

By the following decade I was like most teenagers developing a sense of self. My self-image was probably pretty average. My self-esteem was like most gay kids – lacking. Social interactions with my peers were challenging as I searched for “my people.” There were few gay role models to which I related. The music group Village People was hitting the charts, but the artists’ personas were not authentic – they were characters, almost comical. The cast of the camp movie Pink Flamingos was getting some time on the late night talk show circuit, but I did not relate. There was Billy Crystal’s gay character of Jodie on the TV show Soap. I think this might have been one of the first gay characters in the cast of an American TV show, but the character went on to have two relationships with women, and I just got confused.

At the same time, my interests in animals continued to develop. My parents indulged all of their children’s passions, including mine. Our house was filled through the years with parakeets, tropical fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, pigeons (my father also raised them as a child), dogs, finches, cockatiels, ducks, and quail. With these years came independence, and I could take the bus for less than a dollar to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which had free admission.

Michael Macek
Michael developed a love of animals at an early age, leading to a career dedicated to wildlife conservation. In this picture, Michael is in Chiapas, Mexico, supporting a project for the horned guan. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

I came to St. Louis from Chicago after working at the Brookfield Zoo to fill the position of Zoologist within the Bird Department. I believe I was the first and last person to hold that particular title. Moving to St. Louis provided me the confidence to not so much “reinvent,” but to express my true self, if not to all, at least (in the beginning) to myself and family. To date, my sense of self has been benchmarked by two events. There is the “me” before and after an aneurysm (that is another story) and the “me” before and after I came out. I talked a bit earlier about self-image and self-esteem, but the other component of “self” is ideal-self, visualizing the person you would like to be or become. It was not until I came out that I could, for the first time, clearly see what I could be. I could open my heart to truly love another and allow my true self to be loved.

Michael Macek, Director, and husband Sam
Michael (right) and his husband Sam (left). Credit: Saint Louis Zoo.

Thirty-two years have passed since I came to St. Louis. I have had the privilege to work with and know some incredible people and animals. In many ways, my life did not really start until I came here and came out. I have been with my husband Sam for almost 20 years, and we have been married for six. I have served as Curator of Birds, Chief Operating Officer and now Director of the best zoo in the world.

Michael Macek, holding penguin
Michael holding a Humboldt penguin chick while supporting the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Center for Conservation in Punta San Juan, Peru. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

So, this is my story. It started before I came out, but it was not until I came out that I was able to see myself in it. In this month of Pride, this is what I hope for all in the LGBTQ community – that you can see your true self, your authentic self, your queer self in your own story. By the way, I did find my people – some of them just happen to be animals.

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Zoo Employees