On speaking up or staying quiet.
A couple years ago, I participated in a project put together by the Human Rights Initiative (HRSI) at Central European University in Budapest. The project, made up of photo exhibits, discussions, personal stories and lectures, and culminating during a week-long LGBT conference at the university, encouraged people to speak out against hate crimes and LGBT-based aggression.
As today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, and violence against LGBT folks is still very real, I thought I’d share something I wrote for the opening of the photo exhibit in 2010.
When I was asked to participate in this photo project, I answered with a full-hearted, “Yes!” for reasons which, at the time I gave little thought to. It seemed natural to pose for these pictures, to place multicolored tape across my mouth, cross my arms beneath my chest and stare into a camera lens with unblinking eyes, a look irrepressible. It seemed natural and it seemed necessary.
But then a funny thing happened. I was asked to explain myself. To state why I participated, why the project was important to me and why I thought it was important to speak out against LGBT-based violence. I started scanning my wee brain for answers to this question and got to the original feeling: “Uhh, well, it’s just natural.” That’s it? It’s natural?
Unsatisfied with this finding, I did what most of us do when we are searching for meaningful answers. I started reading. A lot. All other work screeched to a halt through this process. For days I focused only on the issue of LGBT-based aggression, what it meant to me, our community, our culture. I thought about the cultural environment that gives breath to this violence, the institutional practices that ignore its unique nature, and perhaps most importantly, our role in allowing it to perpetuate. It was an enlightening process - one that rendered me manic – an insomniatic escapade that at moments had me cursing my inability to keep things simple.
And then something else happened. Something shocking even to me. I had arrived at a simple answer.
The reason being that the more I thought about those questions, the more the answers began to meld into one central idea - that my reasons for participating in the shoot, the importance of the shoot, and the importance of raising our voices against LGBT-based violence, can all be summed up with one simple phrase:
Silence is violence.
I know. Sounds a bit contrived, cheesy, cliché, perhaps? That this phrase happens to rhyme is a matter of simple coincidence. I won’t shy away from accidental literary devices any more than I will shy away from telling people how I feel about violence, any more than I will shy away from encouraging people to speak out against violence. At worst, the phrase will be disregarded as platitudinous language. At best, it will achieve what its lingual cousins have, with time-tested efficacy, managed to effect,; which is this: driving the point home in a palatable manner - easy to swallow, easy to digest, easy to repeat. So I’ll say it again.
Silence is violence.
I was going to attempt to draw connections between the words on my own, to add greater cogency to this argument, but once again,but my handy computer’s built-in dictionary has done it for me.
1. The avoidance of mentioning or discussing something is an unpleasant or destructive force.
2. To prohibit or prevent from speaking is an exercise of force or intimidation.
3. When our voices are fit with a silencer, behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something, escapes undetected.
It would be incorrect to attribute the origins of LGBT-based violence to our collective reticence. Senseless aggression has a root much more complex and socially sowed than I have the capacity to explore in these few minutes. What can be, at least in part, attributed to our silence thus, is the perpetuation of this violence, its accepted place in the realm of normative social behaviors and the proliferation of fear among the LGBT community. Like victims of an abusive relationship, we find ourselves thinking, “Surely this was the last time, maybe if we let it go it will stop.”
When our culture declares that we are provocateurs, asking for punishment in a society struggling to cling to archaic notions of what is normal, shouting, “Look at what you made me do!” we internalize our voices and think, “Maybe this is our fault. Maybe we are to blame. Maybe, if we become what they want us to be, they’ll stop attacking us.”
Three days after these photos were taken, the body of 19 year-old Jorge Steven Mercado, a volunteer gay rights activist and aspiring fashion designer, was found dismembered, decapitated and burned in Puerto Rico. That this would happen to anyone is beyond my scope of comprehension. But what I find most devastating about this tragedy is that it was, according to the murderer, due to Jorge’s sexuality and the fact that his (allegedly) women’s clothing disguised his gender.
The assailant confessed that he attacked Jorge, but not before driving him to his apartment in a nearby town, and not before realizing he was gay. His confession fits in with the commonly used ‘gay/transvestite panic’ defense, through which offenders are often granted lesser charges on the grounds that their offenses were not premeditated but rather the result of a sense of panic – produced by the ‘discovery’ that someone is homosexual and/or a transvestite. In other words an act of self-defense against an intense emotional and psychological attack - a confused fury exacted in the face of perceived deception.
Look at what you made me do.
To further exacerbate the situation, and perhaps reflect the vacuous, hateful frames ubiquitously manifest in our culture, the head police officer on Jorge’s case offered this warm advice: “People who lead this type of lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen.”
One has to wonder how a community would react if the same was said about an officer of the law killed in the line of duty. If instead of an elaborate funeral and a ceremonial motorcade, replete with community leaders, crisp uniforms and the command of solemn trumpets, the community turned its collective back as if to say, he deserved it.
You should have seen it coming.
In what kind of world, outside of one entirely populated by the criminally insane, would someone consider the act of tearing a person’s limbs from his body, decapitating him and setting him on fire, an act of self-defense? In what kind of culture is it acceptable for the very individuals sworn to protect us, to blame us for unspeakable crimes to which we are subject?
In a silent one.
When a defendant is acquitted, or receives a lesser charge for a hate crime on the grounds of self-defense - this is silence.
When a police officer openly blames a hate crime on the victim’s lifestyle, and he is not relieved of his duty - this is silence.
When a group of teenagers rape a lesbian woman, with the aim of ‘correcting’ her lifestyle, and receive no punishment - this is silence.
When a high school administrator ignores the pleas of a young gay boy who is subject to chronic bullying and humiliation, and chooses instead to chastise the boy for his ‘disruptive behavior’ - this is silence.
When a community averts its eyes to a hate-based transgression - this is silence.
And when gays, lesbians, trannies, queers and all the wonderfully diverse members of our global community are verbally harassed, and they accept its as a fact of life - well, that’s silence too.
Silence is violence.
We can go on allowing ourselves and our culture to justify the violence perpetrated against us, our friends, our loved ones, strangers, grandparents, parents, children. But ask the survivor of domestic abuse if this tactic ever worked, if the violence ever stopped, if compliance and submission led to a permanent respite from harm, and the answer will undoubtedly be a resounding, “No.”
Those who will abuse, who will attack, who will rape, murder, hospitalize, slander, humiliate - those who will target an individual or a people based on nothing more than their race, gender, sexual identity, religion or nationality - operate from a place of fear, a place of hatred, and a place of ignorance. It is in their best interest to make us hate ourselves, to make us live in fear, to make us feel like they must feel. If we hate each other, we won’t cry in outrage when one of us is hurt. If we hate ourselves we won’t resist. In succumbing to hate, we are rendered silent. When we are silenced, hate-based violence goes undetected.
If we wish to effect positive change within our culture we have to work toward eradicating the condonation and glorification of violence by standing up against the very factors that encourage its acceptance. This does not have to be radical. Action comes in many forms. If you witness an act of homophobic violence, call a local LGBT organization, and describe what you’ve seen. If you endure an act of violence, report it to the police as a hate crime. If you fear the police will not help, again, contact a local organization. These organizations exist for this purpose. They are here to help. Of course changing the lens through which our culture views rapists and aggressors goes far beyond improving the statistics. Somehow these behaviors must be de-glorified and de-normalized.
One of my favorite examples of these attempts at normative unraveling comes from Inga Muscio’s book, Cunt: a Declaration of Independence. In her book she describes a great many ways through which people can stand up and speak out against violence when our culture deems it safer not to. For instance, in the case that a friend has been raped, and the rapist’s identity is known, she suggests a campaign of public humiliation, during which the victim, and all the friends she can muster do everything in their power to make his life a living hell, without the use of violence.
To quote Ms. Muscio herself,
“Any rapist would feel pretty dang upset to see his car packed full with rotting fish heads and limburger cheese…Also, if the 542 women responsible were crowded onto the street where he lived, insisting that he move himself and his stinky car to another locale.”
I don’t know about you, but if I was consistently taunted and belittled by a group of dedicated women, I’d probably feel really, really bad. Really bad and really stupid.
What if agressors in our culture were met with this kind of reaction? What if these people were viewed as cowards instead of as dominators?
Imagine you’re walking out of a restaurant with the person you love and a passerby mutters, “Faggots,” hoping she’s just loud enough to ruin your night. , And instead of lowering your head and picking up your pace as you normally do in these situations, you turn around and exclaim, “Did you hear that honey?! That nice lady called us ‘faggots!’ Sweet Jesus, finally some recognition!” Bet that would be confusing.
What if, every time some hateful ignoramus called you a sissy, fag, dyke, lesbo, or any other term deemed derogatory in our culture, you turn it into a complement, and express your gratitude? What if, each act of LGBT-based violence was reported as a hate crime instead of brushed under the rug? What if we refused to stay silent?
Paradigm, meet Shift.
Things don’t have to be this way. We can, through individual and collective action, begin to unravel the normative threads that eroticize rape and give strength to the rapist, that deem the very words that identify us derogatory, that allow people to view our sexual orientation as a disease, and that time and again cause us to blame ourselves, to fear our own voices and to remain silent. Things don’t have to be this way. The fabric of our culture is not set in an iron glaze.
In the words of Derrick Jensen, a man of interminable wisdom and enormous compassion, “I have grown to understand that in the shadow of the unspeakable I can and must speak and act.”
We’ve all got voices. Let’s break some silence.