I have been sitting in silence. I have been sitting in silence mourning the loss of one of my best friends since childhood who died two weeks ago today after fighting a valiant fight against a rageful cancer that no one – not even here in Boston - could cure. I have been sitting in silence waiting for my words to come back, but with a pit growing deeper and deeper in my gut -- because I have a responsibility to speak up. I have a responsibility to, as black lesbian poet Audre Lorde said, “Transform Silence Into Language and Action.”
And so, this morning, I found myself re-reading this essay that I had ironically forgotten was published in Lorde’s book The Cancer Journals, an essay she originally presented as a speech only a few months post her initial diagnosis with the breast cancer which would eventually claim her life. And I remembered her words: “What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
In reading Lorde’s words I was reminded of the vital importance of doing my work, the ongoing work I have committed my life to – the work of breaking silences and fighting against oppressions of all kinds – those I have internalized within myself and those that are still ever-present in my community.
This is not easy work to do. I am a privileged white Jewish lesbian who, after spending her initial years in Brooklyn NY, ended up growing up, ironically, right next to Weston where one of my friends in early childhood – who’s mom was white and dad was black – had a cross burned in her front yard. Racism was alive and well in my community then as it is in my LGBTQ community of Boston now. I myself, the offspring of Holocaust survivors, internalized the oppressive notions of the dominant and, due to fear, often played in to the “isms” that society presented in the 70’s and 80’s I grew up in vs. questioning them. When I did raise my voice I was ostracized and called a “dyke” (and, low and behold a few years later I came out as one!), but still and all I walked the world with the undeniable benefits of being able to pass as an insider in the racist, sexist, homophobic machine of American living. I never personally experience d racism and sure as hell still to this day have never known the experience of being black - male or otherwise - in America.
So, in reading Sue O’Connell’s Bay Widows article “Sharing Our Experience: White Gay Men and Black Men Have More in Common than they Think” I found myself perplexed. So many things disturbed me when I read this piece and O’Connell’s subsequent article “Can a Nice, White Lady Write About Race?.” I tore it and the community’s response to pieces and ended up not knowing where to start. So, instead of saying something, I sat stewing in silence, fearful of saying the wrong thing or stirring up more rage in me and our already hurting community. I sat in silence.
So again, I turned back to the words of my muse Audre Lorde who, in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” wrote:
“… of course, I am afraid– you can hear it in my voice– because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, ‘tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside of you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth.’”
Sue O’Connell’s words and the subsequent outcry it has caused point to a lack of wholeness that we, as Boston’s LGBTQ community, create when we don’t recognize and speak up about the intersectionality of racism and homophobia in our community, our city and our society. O’Connell’s words have broken open some of these unspoken pieces and they are now punching us in the mouth.
Today, I rear my head out of the silent cloud of grief and perplexity I’ve been living under during these last few weeks and recognize a) how my privilege has allowed me the luxury to not deal with a racism-driven crisis in our community while I mourn and b) how I must use my privilege to re-commit to combating institutionalized racism in the LGBTQ community and beyond. I must use this privilege to speak up and listen, to engage in authentic conversations, deal with my discomforts and use them to fuel how I move forward in my life and my work. I have to face my fears of fucking up and dive in – inviting others to join me, remembering that, as Audre Lorde said, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of tha t silence will choke us. The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
I urge us as a LGBTQ community to continue to work to bridge those differences between us, to break our silences by inviting further dialogue in affinity and as a community at large. Sue O’Connell’s writing and the subsequent outrage it has caused in our community is a painful reminder of the urgency of our need to address racism in Boston’s LGBTQ community. So, Boston, let’s use the discomfort this moment has stirred up to our advantage and keep listening to and talking to each other. As Audre Lorde said: “Your silence will not protect you.”