Tag Archives: LGBT activism

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


So I went to San Francisco Pride this past weekend. And it was an adventure.

It was crowded. I waited in line for 30 minutes to buy my train ticket – and that was at the station that was an hour away from the Pride festival. When the train arrived at our destination, it took me 15 minutes to get out of the station. It was THAT kind of crowded.

It was loud. One of the lines in This Day in June says, “Dancers jumping/Music pumping.” And the music was pumping – so much that it made the sidewalks shake. Just like another line in the book.

It was outrageous (I mean that in terms of clothing). Sequined bras, lamé shorty-shorts, rainbow tutus, platform heels, leather harnesses – I saw it all. I didn’t see complete nudity, but there were people I saw who came close.

None of this bothered me – it’s what to expect when you go to Pride (especially San Francisco Pride, which is the second largest public event held in California). And none of this would prevent me from bringing my child to Pride. After all, I wrote a children’s book about Pride – children should be able to go, right? It’s what makes Pride the fabulous event that it is.

But there were two things I saw at Pride that did bother me. A LOT. One was that a lot of people were drunk. Actually, let me specify: A lot of very young people were very, very drunk. I saw quite a few people being carted off by the paramedics because they were so drunk or high. And on the train ride home, a young woman was passed out to the point where it was unclear whether or not her friends would be able to get her off the train. (They did, but barely.)  Has Pride devolved into an excuse to get drunk? I thought repeatedly throughout the day.

You know what else bothered me, even more than the drunkenness? There was trash EVERYWHERE. You know those Burger King wrappers that everyone’s talking about, the ones that look like this?

 burger king wrapper

Well, I got to know them quite well. Because by the end of the day, thousands of them were crumpled up and tossed onto Market Street. THOUSANDS. The city was a mess by the time this was all over.

People were trashed, and the city was trashed. That upset me more than anything else. People live in this city, I thought angrily as I shuffled my way through the crumpled-up Whopper wrappers. How rude it is to come here, get trashed and trash the city, and then leave, expecting someone else to clean up the mess you left! I was seriously awake for part of that night, ruminating about this.

The next morning, I got up and I did some writing about this. (Free-writing often reveals things to me that wouldn’t otherwise be revealed by thinking or talking about them.) And I came to this: How we oppress people isn’t all that different from how we oppress the environment. That’s the basis of ecofeminism, which links ecological destruction with patriarchal oppression under male-dominated capitalist systems. In other words, trashing a city is just like trashing an entire class of people.

Now, a major caveat emptor: A number of well-known ecofeminists, including Mary Daly, have held extremely transphobic beliefs. For example, Daly, in her classic book Gyn/Ecology, went so far as to describe the presumed “unnaturalness” of transgender people as “the Frankenstein phenomenon.” Daly was also Janice Raymond’s dissertation advisor – the dissertation that was eventually published as The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male. (That is seriously the title.) I’m in no way endorsing this component of ecofeminism, nor do I necessarily agree with the gender-essentialist idea that all women have a “maternal instinct” that is analogous with the concept of Mother Earth. But I will stick with what I came to in my writing. How we oppress people isn’t all that different from how we oppress the environment.

Pride celebrations rose up out of the Stonewall Riots (and, if we go a little earlier in history, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots). Instead of submitting to dominating authority figures, queer people decided to rise up, speak out, and fight back. That’s why people marched in the first Pride parades – as a form of guerrilla, grassroots activism. So if Pride is about celebrating our collective LGBTQ communities, and rising up from oppression, then how does getting staggering, stumbling-on-the-sidewalk drunk (and high on E, in some cases) and violently trashing a city achieve that?

It doesn’t. And that’s probably why I was so upset. Because if that’s what Pride is all about, then we’re just reaffirming the oppression we’ve been trying to resist all along.

We reveal our internalized oppression through the ways we hurt ourselves. It’s no secret that alcoholism and drug addiction are huge problems in our collective LGBTQ communities. We experience a lot of collateral damage as a result of internalized oppression, and addictions are just one example. At the same time, we demonstrate externalized oppression by imposing our power unjustly onto someone or something else. Trashing a city that has provided a safe ground for so many LGBTQ people is a good example of externalized oppression, in my opinion.

Several weeks ago, I came across an article titled “Re-Queering Pride.” The article, accompanied by an illustration of people yelling, “Stonewall was a police riot!” captures exactly why I think Pride needs to be re-visioned. Our collective queer communities deserve a big fabulous party, that’s for sure. But if we’re going to continue the fight against heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, sexism, cissexism, racism, class oppression, ableism, et cetera, et cetera, then we need to practice what we preach. Treat ourselves with respect, treat others with respect, treat our surroundings with respect.


Filed under activism, biphobia, human rights, racism, San Francisco, transphobia, violence

The dangers of apathy

In my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class this week, I asked my students to identify some of the events that LGBTQ people over the age of 65 have lived through. And there are many:

The end of World War II – and the subsequent Red Scare.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – and, later, the Stonewall Riots.

The removal of the “homosexuality” diagnosis from the DSM.

The AIDS crisis.

During this conversation, one student made an interesting comment: “We have it so easy compared to them. They must feel so frustrated with the apathy of our generation. We click ‘like’ on Facebook and call it activism.”

Is the younger generation – known to many as “millennials” – truly in a state of apathy? If you ask Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, her answer would be an unequivocal yes. Her 2007 book Generation Me, which draws upon 14 years of intergenerational research, paints a picture of a cohort characterized by inaction, hiding behind a computer and an iPhone, expecting things to come easily – and when they don’t, for others to do it for them. Not a pretty characterization, I must say.

There’s considerable debate as to whether millennials – also known as Generation Y – truly fit this profile. However, I know that, without the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement, fighting on the front lines for our rights, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Compared to the activism of the 1960s and 70s gay liberation movement, and the AIDS activism of the 1980s, I think we are, in fact, living in an era of apathy today – particularly when it comes to LGBTQ grassroots activism. And, I’ll admit, I get incredibly frustrated about this. Personally, I feel empowered and energized by activism, and I can’t for the life of me understand why others might choose to sit back and do nothing.

But I don’t think it’s just the millennials who are to blame. Rather, I think it’s the time period in which we all live. Frankly, I think we’re suffering from what I’ll call a cultural diffusion of responsibility. To explain what I mean, I have a story to tell.

* * * * * * * *

One early morning in 1964, at about 3:15 A.M., a young woman got home from her shift working as a bar manager. She parked her car and started walking towards her apartment building. A man approached her. Frightened, she started to run away, but he caught her, stabbing her twice in the back.

“Oh my God!” she yelled. “He stabbed me. Help me!” An onlooker yelled, “Let that girl alone!” The attacker ran away.

And then he came back. The attacker found the young woman lying in a hallway at the back of her building. He stabbed her several more times, raped her, and stole $49 before leaving her to die. The entire scene, from start to finish, spanned about 30 minutes. And during that time, no one came to her aid – even though numerous people heard or observed parts of the attack.

The woman who was murdered was named Kitty Genovese. While some of the facts of the case are in dispute, this tragic incident brought the phrase “bystander apathy” into our cultural conversation – and raised questions about what causes it to occur. A few years after this tragic incident, two researchers at Columbia University, John Darley and Bibb Latane, conducted a series of studies to try to better understand this phenomenon, two of which are relevant, I think, to our modern-day culture of inaction.

In one study, often referred to as the “smoke-filled room” experiment, Darley and Latane randomly assigned their participants to one of three conditions: either (A) the person was in a classroom alone, (B) with two other participants, or (C) with two “confederates.” Within several minutes of the study, smoke began to fill the room – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how likely they were to report it. While 75% of the participants in group A reported the smoke, only 38% in group B and 10% (!) in group C made any report.

In a second study, better known as the “seizure” study, participants were told that they would be engaging in a communication task via intercom with an individual in a separate classroom. Like in the “smoke-filled room” study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:  either (A) the participant was in a classroom alone, (B) with one other person, or (C) with five other people. During the communication task, the person they’re communicating with in the other room starts having a seizure – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how many people would respond. As it turns out, 85% of those in group A left the room to provide help. However, when other people were present in the room, helping behavior decreased substantially: 62% in group B and 31% in group C left the room to help the victim. Different study, but essentially the same findings as the “smoke-filled room” experiment: The more people that are around, the less likely people are to spring to action.

And why is that? Diffusion of responsibility. People are less likely to take action when there are other people around – because they assume that others will. I didn’t do anything because I thought someone else would step up.

People over the age of 65 didn’t have an LGBTQ community. Hell, I didn’t have much of an LGBTQ community – not until later, anyway. In 1966, when the police tried to arrest a transwoman at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, there wasn’t any “gay community” to immediately help her – in fact, she was at Compton’s Cafeteria because, at the time, transwomen were unwelcome in gay bars. During the 1980s, when thousands of people were dying of AIDS, it took a long time for those in power to step up to the plate. These are people who had to fight on their own behalf – because nobody else was going to do it for them. Now, we not only have a collection of LGBTQ communities, we have numerous advocacy and activist groups who, many think, will do the work for us – hence the “cultural diffusion of responsibility.” The reality is that, when everyone thinks that someone else will take action, the end result is that no one takes action.

* * * * * * * *

Winston Moseley was the man who murdered Kitty Genovese. He was given the death penalty, which was reduced to life plus two 15-year sentences. His parole hearing is slated to take place this month. And the woman who was Kitty Genovese’s partner at the time of her death, Mary Ann Zielonko, will probably be there.


Filed under activism, human rights, psychological research, San Francisco, transgender, violence