Tag Archives: Audre Lorde

The power of silence

Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. – Mahatma Gandhi

Your silence will not protect you. – Audre Lorde

To be an activist is to use your voice. To speak up. To take action. Silence, for an activist, is a death knell. It signals complicity with the aggressor. Silence equals death.


These last few weeks, I haven’t posted any blog articles, which marks the longest stretch of inactivity since I started blogging at The Active  Voice. I can cite lots of reasons for this. I’ve been incredibly busy at work. My daughter’s school and social calendar has taken on a life of its own. And lately, I’ve been driving all over the place – Fresno, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – for book signings and presentations. My gas tank was running on empty – and for weeks, when blog-writing time rolled around, I chose instead to rest, regroup, and refuel. I wanted to be still and quiet. And I wasn’t feeling good about it. You’ve got a blog article to write, the nagging voice said. Don’t slack off.

And then, last week, a friend sent me an article that changed my perspective.

That article was titled “10 Important Reasons to Start Making Time for Silence, Rest, and Solitude.” Oh great, I thought to myself. Another fluffy self-help piece. But the article resonated with me, on several levels – and I found myself realizing that silence is not only personally healing, it can be a powerful tool in a social justice activist’s toolkit. In fact, I probably need to utilize silence much more frequently than I do. I won’t talk about all ten reasons outlined in the article, but I’ll focus on a few.

Silence strengthens intention and action. Most of us think of “silence” and “action” as mutually exclusive and incompatible concepts. However, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, says this in the article: “During silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.” I might, for example, be dissatisfied with my job, to the point where it affects my work performance. However,  if I’m constantly in a flutter of activity, I’m not creating any space to process what that dissatisfaction is about – and that step needs to happen before I can identify what actions to take.

Here’s an example: Recently, my daughter came home from school singing a song that I thought had lyrics that were sexist. “Who taught you that song?” I asked her.

“My teacher,” she answered brightly, and then went back to singing it.

My initial reaction was anger. RAGE, really. I was ready to pick up my phone and fire off an e-mail to the teacher. Then I thought, No, it’s better to tell her my concerns after school. I started to write down what I wanted to say to her. Maybe I’ll text one of the other parents and see what they think, I thought. And then, somewhere in the depths of my soul, a tiny voice said, Wait.

I listened. And I’m glad I did. Later that day, after she had some after-school “quiet time,” my daughter was singing that song again. When she got to the offending lyric, she said, “I don’t like that part. I’m going to change it.” And she did – she created a totally different line that was positive and non-sexist. “From now on, I’m going to sing it this way at school,” she announced.

Had my daughter not been quiet, the idea might not have come to her. Had I not been quiet, I would have charged like a bull towards the teacher – and I would have denied my daughter the opportunity to take action. In hindsight, her way was far better than mine.

Silence gives us “a-ha” moments. In his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King talks about how he gets his ideas: “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” But in order to recognize them, you need to slow down, be quiet, and pay attention. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have studied this very phenomenon. When we’re quiet, they say, we’re more likely to daydream, to let our minds wander. Mind-wandering and daydreaming give us what they call an “incubation period,” where we digest our thoughts and let our ideas percolate – and this is where we’re most likely to have that “eureka!” moment. Interestingly, studies indicate that people who are more prone to daydreaming are more likely to score higher on tests of creativity – an essential skill for an activist navigating the rocky terrain of social justice work.

Silence increases our tolerance for discomfort. Try this: Find a comfortable place to sit. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes, sit, and do nothing until the alarm rings.

How was it?

If you’ve never meditated before, I bet it felt like the longest five minutes of your life.

So many people HATE silence. They’ll chatter incessantly just to fill space. They’ll crack a joke after a period of uncomfortable silence in order to break the tension. Even texting or Facebooking on our phones is a way to prevent silence. If I’m in the waiting room, or on the bus, or in line, just sitting quietly might be too much to bear  – so it’s iPhone to the rescue, to keep the mental chatter going.

Several years ago, I participated in the Day of Silence, an annual day of action organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). Participants take a day-long vow of silence as a symbolic representation of the silencing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It’s a powerful experience, and for me, it was profoundly uncomfortable. Every time I nonverbally asserted my right to silence, I felt uncomfortable. Every time I watched other people’s uncomfortable reactions, I felt uncomfortable. The whole thing was just . . . uncomfortable. And that, actually, was the most illuminating part of the whole experience for me. I tolerated a tremendous amount of discomfort throughout the day, and to cope with it, I drew on internal resources I didn’t know I had. At the same time, I witnessed discomfort in others – lots of it. For me, it was an exercise that created a boundary between my discomfort and theirs – and that it’s not my job to rescue people from their feelings. Because the only way to do that, of course, would have been for me to break my silence.

Silence as a regular practice. Think about it.


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Filed under activism, mental health, psychological research, sexism

Pick a side, and don’t flip-flop!

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas. Their mission was to announce the end of the war and the immediate abolition of slavery. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in September of 1862, and officially took effect in January of 1863, many Confederate states ignored it, and there weren’t enough Union troops to enforce the policy. On this day in June, Major General Granger said this:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

That day became known as Juneteenth, a mash-up between “June” and “nineteenth.” Juneteenth celebrations began the following year, in 1866. Today, forty-two states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or special day of observance.

* * * * * * * * * *

Early in the morning, on June 28, 1969, New York City police conducted a routine raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Although raids of gay bars were common at that time, this incident was different, in that the transgender and gay patrons of the bar fought back. The police initially beat the crowd away, but the next day, a crowd of over 1,ooo people returned to the site of the raid. A series of violent demonstrations took place over several days, marking the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement.

One year later, on June 28, 1970, the first gay pride marches took place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. Today, most large and mid-size cities host LGBT Pride celebrations, many of which take place in June. Moreover, the federal government has declared June to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two major historical events, both occurring in June. Two events, both celebrating freedom and resistance from the binds of oppression. Two events, both sharing similar underlying roots – and both of which often end up competing with one another. Here in Sacramento, for example, the Sacramento Pride parade took place on June 15 at 11:00AM. The Sacramento Juneteenth Emancipation Parade took place on (drum roll, please. . . ) June 15 at 11:00AM.

If you’re strongly queer-identified, and strongly Black-identified, this poses a problem. It’s like a kid having to decide, “Do I go to Best Friend #1’s party, or Best Friend #2’s party?” Either way, you lose out on one of the parties, and on top of that, you possibly betray one of your friends. Especially if Best Friend #1 and Best Friend #2 hate each other.

Feeling caught in the middle like this is pretty familiar territory for people whose identities span across multiple groups. For queer people of color, the homophobia that often exists in their communities of color collides with the racism that often exists in LGBTQ communities. Throw in the fact that our culture struggles with people who don’t fit into nice, neat, non-overlapping categories, and you’ve got the seeds of some serious stress.

Psychologist Eduardo Morales was the first to put a name to this experience – the divided loyalties that many multiply oppressed people routinely experience. At the heart of his five-stage model of sexual identity development among ethnic minorities is the concept of allegiance.

The stages go like this: In Stage 1, the individual experiences a period of denial – possibly because that person hasn’t come out of the closet yet, or it may be that the coming-out process has begun, but the individual is experiencing a honeymoon period. It’s in Stage 2, where a person grapples with whether they’re exclusively gay or lesbian, or if they might be bisexual, that we see the first conflicts in allegiances. It’s not uncommon, according to several researchers who study sexual orientation in ethnic minority populations, for people to initially come out as bisexual, in order to soften the blow within their racial and ethnic communities. By doing that, allegiances to both communities are maintained – at least for the time being.

By Stage 3, the trials of pacifying both communities begin to take their toll, and the individual begins to experience intense conflict in allegiances. A young black gay man, for example, might be out to his friends, but not to his family. During the week, he might go to school and be active in high school or college LGBTQ activities. In the evenings and on the weekends, he might go to church with his family, or participate in other activities in the African-American community. And on June 15, when his friends are going to Pride and his family is participating in Juneteenth, the jig is up. He has to pick one or the other, but not both.

Enter Stage 4 – choosing one side or the other. Am I gay, or am I black? Morales refers to this as “establishing priorities in allegiances.” Maybe he decides to go to Pride with his friends, knowing that he’s taking a risky step with his family. Or maybe he decides to go to Juneteenth – and his friends might accuse him of being too chicken to stand up to his parents. A prisoner’s dilemma. It’s either Best Friend #1, or Best Friend #2. Either way, somebody’s going to get pissed off. And our young black gay man sees, in living color, the homophobia that lives within his ethnic communities and the racism that breathes within LGBTQ communities.

Stage 5, in which the individual finds a way to integrate both communities, and as a result synthesize all aspects of their identity, is a logical, albeit pie-in-the-sky resolution to this identity development process. Ideally, the individual is able to move seamlessly between communities, grounded in both a strong queer identity as well as a strong ethnic identity.

Sounds good, right? Happily ever after, with a nice neat bow tied on top.

The reality, however, is that this doesn’t always pan out. Some people may choose to stick with one community – either being out and involved in the queer community, but downplaying ethnic identity issues, or being involved in their ethnic community, but being discreet about their sexuality. Some, however, would like to integrate both communities, but don’t have the opportunity. This young black gay man might be very involved in his church, but there’s no open and affirmative discussion about homosexuality – and certainly no groups for LGBTQ African-Americans. This young black gay man might be very involved in his local LGBTQ community center, but there are no groups, activities, or events for queer people of color. And so the dilemma of allegiances continues.

What happens in a world where we have the freedom to live fully as we are, without having to choose sides, make people angry, alienate entire communities? Audre Lorde articulated this vision better than I ever could:

My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all  my different selves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition.



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Filed under bisexuality, coming out, culture, homophobia, intersectionality, LGBTQ youth, racism, religion, Sacramento, transgender

A house divided

OK, I know I’ve already devoted precious blog space to deconstructing the “normalcy” of NBC’s television show “The New Normal,” which features a gay male couple. But here it is, registering on the radar screen once again. A few weeks ago, the January 8 episode of “The New Normal” contained a scene that was highly offensive to intersex people. The beginning of the scene features Gary, the director of the surrogacy agency that’s helping Bryan and David (the gay couple) have their child. Gary, depressed and despondent, is lamenting the fact that he’s single and that he keeps ending up with “losers” every time he goes on a date. Cut to a scene at a restaurant, where Gary is on a first date with a man who says, “And then, at age 6, I learned that I’m intersex.” Insinuating, of course, that Intersex = LOSER. (You can watch that scene here, at about 5:35 minutes.)

If that line was meant as a joke, the intersex community certainly didn’t laugh. A couple of days after the episode aired, Organisation Intersex International (OII) put out a call on their Facebook page encouraging people to report this episode to GLAAD as an act of defamation. “With intersex babies being subjected to nonconsensual infant surgeries proven to be harmful every day b/c of prejudice against those that do not conform to sex and gender norms,” their site read, “the last thing intersex people & their families need are jokes portraying them as inferior to others.”  Especially on a show that’s intended to show how “normal” gay people are.

Of course, pitting one oppressed group against another isn’t anything new. The LGBTQ community itself has seen its own share of infighting. (Should we include the “B”? Or the “T”? Oh wow, now we have to add this “I” thing?) But lots of other us-vs.-them dynamics have cropped up as well. A week after the episode aired, Nico Lang wrote a piece for the Huffington Post charging “The New Normal” with racism – or “gaycism,” a term coined by a GQ writer describing the trend of gay TV writers/producers of finding creative ways of embedding racist stereotypes in their programs. “Hipster racism,” they call it – using blatantly racist comments in a satirical way in order to sound edgy and, well, not-racist. Ellen Barkin’s character, for example, makes all sorts of overtly racist comments – and the other characters respond by rolling their eyes and ignoring her, because her comments are so ridiculous, and because we’re so 2013, so beyond petty forms of racism.

Except we’re not. In fact, this form of racism can be even more covert, insidious, and dangerous than anything the Westboro Baptist Church says. People can read Stuff White People Like and think they’re making fun of White people (oh, we who shop at Whole Foods, listen to NPR and TED talks, and take a year off in order to find ourselves), showing just how post-racist they are. But they don’t see that they’re potentially offending people of color, suggesting that they aren’t interested in eating healthy or pursuing intellectual interests, and failing to recognize that class-privileged activities like taking a year off (and shopping at Whole Foods, for that matter) might be highly desired but financially inaccessible. To use the words of Nico Lang in his piece, it’s “using mock racism to disguise plain ol’ racism.”

I see two problems (at least) with these forms of marginalization. One is that the use of “hipster racism” (or any form of racism, really) seems to lower the threshold for other offensive behaviors. To me, the intersex comment on “The New Normal” was so obviously out of line – but to a regular viewer who’s accustomed to the edgy and satirical [racist] humor on the show, the intersex thing could easily fly under the radar and be seen as funny. What’s more, not only does one form of oppression open the door for other forms, they can then start to feed off of one another and contribute to an overall belief system – an “intolerant schema,” as psychologist Allison Aosved and her colleagues refer to it.  If racism is fair game, according to the “intolerant schema” concept, then so is sexism, sexual prejudice, class prejudice, and religious intolerance. And intersex-phobia, if the January 8 “New Normal” episode is any indication.

Back in 1983, Audre Lorde had this to say in her famous essay, “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression”:

Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.

That brings me to my second concern, which is based on the simple truism uttered by Abraham Lincoln a century and a half ago: A house divided cannot stand. If one marginalized group is pitted against another, both will fall – and the dominant group will remain in power, untouched. The National Organization for Marriage, it was revealed last year, deliberately used this strategy in their campaign to block marriage equality efforts in Maine. Check out the statements below, which were taken word-for-word from NOM’s internal campaign strategy documents:

The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots…

The Latino vote in America is a key swing vote, and will be so even more so in the future, both because of demographic growth and inherent uncertainty: Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We must interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity – a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.

A house divided. Divide and conquer.

How easy it might be to think, Well, “The New Normal” was making fun of intersex people, but at least they’re showing a gay couple. But the reality is this:

Every act of racism hurts the LGBTQ community.

Every act of sexism hurts the LGBTQ community.

Every act of elitism and class oppression, ageism, ableism (the list goes on) hurts the LGBTQ community.

And even one little joke about intersex people hurts the LGBTQ community – and all other oppressed groups, too. As Audre Lorde said in her same essay, “When they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

May we remember these words, and hang together united.


Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, intersex, overt homophobia, racism, same-sex marriage, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized