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Silence and Being Queer: A Complicated History

Photo by  Kristina Flour  on  Unsplash

As an introvert, silence and quiet time are filled with richness and ease.

It wasn’t always that way for me. Being alone with your thoughts can often be a stressful time. The mind can run wild, spin depressing or anxiety-producing fantasies, based in “what-could-happen” (but often doesn’t).

The more I’ve meditated and read about the importance of those quiet moments, I’ve experienced how much richness there is without all of the noise of the world.

As a queer person, however, silence isn’t so clear-cut. Even though there is a complicated dynamic between silence and being queer, perhaps it’s time to try and forge a new path forward.

Silence = Death

It was the 1980s and silence was one of the leading contributors in the spread of HIV through cities across the United States. Many in the Reagan Administration refused to even say the word AIDS until 1985. I’m sure those who were diagnosed with this mysterious disease were afraid to speak up, for fear or judgment or being turned away. More silence. Throw shame into the mix and the consequences were dire. The number of HIV-related deaths continued to rise, tens of thousands each year, all the way until a peak of 41,699 deaths in 1996.

In 1987, six queer men formed a group called the Silence = Death Project, putting up posters all over New York City. Raise awareness. Do anything to try and get medical and government institutions to do something - anything - about this disease. If they hadn’t spoken up and raised their voices, it’s frightening to think how many more deaths there would have been.

In this instance, silence wasn’t an option. I realize I’m not doing the history justice here, so I’d recommend watching the documentary How To Survive A Plague, in order to get a better sense of how activism was a crucial piece to survival for many queer people at this time.

While circumstances are different today, as queer people, we cannot stand still or be silent in the public square. This quote I recently read by professor and author Mohja Kahf speaks to this:

Struggle for human rights is not about one man or woman at the top; it requires constant work … because the injustice is systemic and is spread throughout the order that exists.

There’s also other scenarios, where silence gets tied to negative connotations: the silence of being in the closet or the silence of hiding who you really are. Both of these can be very powerful moments in any queer person’s life. Silence can lead to concealment or signal there’s something to be ashamed about.

Public Silence vs. Private Silence

Perhaps we can think of our lives as queer people as one coin, with two sides. There’s the public side - out in the world, visible, in the open, where our voice and hands and feet are used to speak up against injustice.

Then there’s the private side - behind closed doors, the quiet moments, times when we’re alone with our thoughts.

Even though HIV isn’t our primary nemesis today, we as queer people still face the insidious nature of homophobia, discrimination, and the rolling back of any and all rights that have been achieved up until this point. In the public sphere, we must continue to speak up and be visible. People need to see and hear us. It is our duty to show up.

When it comes to our public lives - silence is not an option.

The private side, where silence resides, is also vitally important. This is the restorative space that allows us to regroup and heal when we’re not on the front lines fighting for justice.

If there’s anything I learned the last two years since Trump took office, it’s that while there is no rest in securing equal rights, it’s absolutely necessary to take breaks. To slow down. To realize that this fight can’t be done by one person. For introverts, this is even more noticeable. That’s why we’re a queer collective of different voices, with varying strengths and weaknesses. Another can step in when we need a break. And we can step up when one of our queer brothers and sisters needs relief from their efforts.

Like yin and yang, we must be persistent and vocal in the public sphere, while quiet and restorative in those private moments.

This is the push and pull that will sustain us in the fight for the rights of queer people across the globe. As they say, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Important Practice of Silence

If you’re queer and not used to silence, that’s okay! I’m sure many introverts are reading this and perhaps are used to silence. Even for myself, who now adores silence, such quiet time wasn’t always a joyful or rejuvenating experience. I wanted to share some tips practices to incorporate more silence into your life:

  1. Meditate: This is an easy one. But it can be super awkward and frustrating to meditate, without a teacher or helpful guidance. Calm and Headspace are two meditation phone apps that make meditation accessible and approachable.

  2. Take a quiet walk: Without your phone or any other music-playing devices. Just listen to what’s around you. Perhaps traffic, the sound of the breeze wafting through autumn leaves, or the chirp of nearby birds. If you can, try to find an area of your city that is relatively quiet or only has natural sounds in your midst.

  3. Quiet yoga: If you’re into yoga, give it a try without any music. I find that while sitting meditation can be challenging - since my mind still wants to run wild - quiet movement helps silence the mind and allows you to inhabit your body.

  4. Read a book: Again, in silence. No background music. Just be with yourself and the pages. Make a cup of hot tea, as a trusty sidekick during this peaceful downtime.

  5. Visit a museum: Even museums can be a tad on the noisy side, so sometimes I will just go to a museum and put on headphones (with no music). It keeps things quiet, keeps people from talking to you, and makes for a lovely zen experience.

My ultimate hope is that as queer people, we can begin to re-examine and renew our relationship with silence. Many aspects of queer social culture are intense on the senses and can leave a queer introvert incredibly depleted. While loud, celebratory spaces are wonderful and certainly meet a need, the quiet moments also speak to another part of ourselves.

While there’s little doubt silence can equal death in the public sphere, we must draw from the powerful source that is silence. The good news is that it’s always there waiting for us.

Josh HershComment