Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Silence Equals ... ? Anyone? Anyone?

Silence did not kill Lawrence King. He was shot to death in his classroom by another teenaged boy for the crime of effeminacy. Nor did silence kill Simmie Williams Jr., who was shot to death while wearing a dress a couple of weeks later in Florida.

Silence did not kill Matthew Shepard. Fists, boots, blunt instruments killed him. In fact, Matthew Shepard is not the best choice as a victim of silence. His murder was featured prominently by the national heterosexual media, and has been the subject of a play and a made-for-MTV movie. Fans of the gay philosopher Michel Foucault should appreciate the irony.

Also, Shepard was openly gay, though one of his gay friends tried to closet him posthumously in Time Magazine. In my own life, it's difficult to say whether more gay people or more straight people have tried to stuff me back into the closet. When I came out in 1971, though, I was struck by the hostility of most gay people I met toward openly gay people in general, not just to me. But even nowadays, many gay people hate openly gay people, romanticizing the closet and arguing that it takes more courage to stay there. Being openly gay, in their eyes, is the easy way out.

Being silenced is not a serious problem for me, not anymore, thanks to my truculent personality (which discredits me in many gay people's eyes), my verbal articulateness (ditto), and my three decades of visibility in Bloomington (double ditto). If only I would let the professionals handle gay visibility for me! It’s not a job for an amateur without proper training.

Silence did not kill Harvey Milk. Four bullets killed him, fired by Dan White in his office in San Francisco City Hall.

Silence did not kill Rebecca Wight. Three bullets killed her, fired by Stephen Ray Carr as she lay with her lover Claudia Brenner (who was also seriously wounded) in a tent on the Appalachian trail.

Silence did not kill Allen Schindler. His fellow sailors smashed his head against a porcelain urinal. The Navy tried to lie about his murder by claiming that he fell and accidentally hit his head. Thanks to the determined efforts of Schindler's mother, the Navy's lie was exposed. Yet many gay people want to join the military, the House of Lies.

Silence did not kill Charlie Howard. A little mob of high school kids drowned him by throwing him off a bridge into a river, even though he told them he couldn't swim. He was on his way home from a gay discussion group, which in many gay people’s eyes is a silly waste of time. Why talk to other gay people in a bright, well-lit room when you could be snubbing them in a half-lit bar?

Today the National Day of Silence was observed at Indiana University. Paradoxically, a high-visibility Kiss-In was among the scheduled events, though I suppose technically a kiss is silent. It wasn’t so long ago, though, that the campus gay organization defended not having kiss-ins because they were gross, scandalous, and gave GLBTQ+ π people a bad name.

I’m very ambivalent about the whole thing. After awhile such an event loses its specificity, as people try to hang everything they possibly can on it, forgetting the original impulse and meaning. Why not observe the Day of Silence with speeches, noisemakers, and I don’t know, fireworks?

From another angle, even symbolic silence is, to my mind, less valuable than breaking silence. That could be related to my generation: we who were inspired by Stonewall and its aftermath weren’t interested in gay people being silent anymore. Twenty years later, Queer Nation showed that making noise was still necessary. And a few years ago, when the NDOS was first getting a foothold here, I noticed a sign-up table staffed by two straight girls who spent the whole time chattering about their boyfriends. Having straight people shut up for a day about their sexuality, now, that would be something. It would be educational for them to hesitate for a moment before exercising the privilege they have. As far back as the seventies (and probably further) some heterosexual bigots were starting to opine that the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name had become The Neurosis That Won’t Shut Up. No, dears, that’s heterosexuality you’re talking about.