Speaking Out

Sophie Klahr

Nov 25, 2010

How to write about the recent violence coursing through the young LGBT world? I could list here the number of suicides committed by gay youth in the past year, the weight of that number, but, like the statistics of global genocide, the statistics of drug-related arrests in America, the statistics of the state of literacy, what's in a number? There's a certain terror to being a witness. As a writer, I feel a type of itchy responsibility toward what I can only call "speaking out." Some might find this term frightfully insufficient, but to cry out, to call out, to protest, to mourn, these too are insufficient. Sometimes the best we can do is speak and hope someone will hear. It is one thing to sit on the edges of a war and write about the men and women who fight, or are displaced, or kill, or torture, or are tortured. There are hundreds of creative writers who do this work beautifully (if beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror½) viscerally; there's a rich history of writing about the failure and corruption of governments. This is one thing - speaking as an Us, against a Them. It is another thing (isn't it?) to write about a child, a teenager, so porous and fearful, so worn down by surrounding hatred, emotional instability, and a lack of open support that suicide becomes the only possible outlet of relief. And, it is another thing, when what has buried these kids is the prejudice and hatred they experience because of their sexuality, because they've expressed, in some way threatening to the ignorant, who they are. How do we write about this? Because the questions I have about this issue aren't rhetorical, I wrote to my friend Leigh Phillips, a poet who teaches at Hostos College in New York City, and a queer, furious, beautiful being, asking for her thoughts about these issues. We spent the better part of a cold Sunday afternoon inside a flurry of emails, sharing our questions and outrage. The first thing Leigh did was point me towards the idea that part of what artists do (or try to do) is make the invisible visible, and that the way that language is wielded in America makes a shockingly deep impact in the politics of sexuality and gender. "Traditionally," wrote Leigh, "marginal voice and visibility threaten the status quo that maintains itself only by assuming its universality. Then, of course, there is the 'Silence = Death'' motto from Act Up, which was used during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The government-created slogan 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' was a tool used to eradicate queer visibility in the past two decades. Martin Luther King said that injustice anywhere poses a threat to justice everywhere. This is deeply personal, because it assaults every last one of our freedoms. We are not living in a democratic society if there are institutionalized denials of freedom that have trickled down to impact the most vulnerable contingent of our society--its children. Staying in the closet vs. coming out of the closet are all tied to speech acts. Part of visibility comes through speaking." Leigh sent me a link to a poem, "Homo Shall Not Inherit," by Mark Doty. Reading this poem, I struggled to come back to my original questions, my original upset about the recent suicides, reeling in the fact that Doty's poem is 15 years old, published in his collection Atlantis. For a moment, I can only think in colloquials: So close, and yet so far. How much better things have gotten for the LGBT community; how little has changed½. The format of the Gulf Coast blog necessitates that all of my thoughts & questions surrounding the recent sweep of LGBT suicides be condensed into their essentials of "why?" and, hopefully "how?" Creative reactions have ranged from the LGBT flash mob "Die-In" staged at Grand Central Station to the viral internet video It Gets Better project. My friend Leigh pointed me towards many other creative voices of question and outrage, past and present pieces of a howl my voice (and yours) might join½.. and so, I pass these voices to you: Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness ed. Carolyn Forche Audre Lord's "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" (excerpt). Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems." Dear poets & writers, maybe it's time to ask yourselves what the hell you're doing. I know that I'm asking myself, which is natural for a first year MFA student, but also, maybe, something that should be examined periodically. Are you a poet because you're deeply compelled to splash around in language, or because you have some type of investment in calling out, in connecting to humanity? I choose the latter, with certainty. And, by choosing the latter, I choose social responsibility; I choose to speak, to try to speak, about the world with the hope that someone will hear.