Dream of the Three Magi, 12th
Century. Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun.
friend thinks I keep silence,
who am only choked with letting it out so fast. Does he forget that new
mines of secrecy are constantly opening up in me?”
Henry David Thoreau[i]
January 1933 Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Homosexual
rights organizations were outlawed twenty-five days later. In May that
year, the Nazis held a city-wide bookburning in Berlin. Magnus
Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Sciences was destroyed, along with
his large collection of scholarly writings, case studies, and archival
materials on homosexuality. Homosexuals were incarcerated in
concentration camps, subjected to experiments by Nazi doctors, beaten,
starved and gassed. Yet historical studies of the Third Reich rarely
mention the persecution of homosexuals.
Dickinson’s passionate letters to her sister-in-law were expurgated by
her niece before they were published. All talk of kisses and ardent
longings was excised. Michelangelo’s grandnephew changed the gendered
pronouns of the artist’s sonnets to make it appear as if they were
written to women instead of to boys and men. Alternative gender roles
were widespread throughout North America, but anthropological records
fail to mention it. King Rufus (England, 12th Century) was a flaming
queen, but historians gloss over it. History, current events, social
studies, art, and sex education classes in schools fail to mention
same-sex passions or homosexuality. The very existence of lesbians and
gay men is burned up, cut out, covered up, ignored –
with monstrous, deadly silence.
= Death, as the Aids Coalition To Unleash Power put it, when for years
no action was taken to research, combat and educate people on avoiding
the virus killing gay men. If we fail to rupture the silence that
surrounds us, we suffocate to death. So many queer folk do not survive
their teenage years. They are bullied. They are murdered. They die of
suicide, drugs, alcohol and HIV. They are choked to death by silence
that denies them desire, agency, history and community. So many elders
die in silence. Some fail to protect their “friends” with wills and
legally-executed representation agreements. They would rather lose all
security and betray their life partners than be named –
even posthumously – homosexual.
silence and “the deadly elasticity of heterosexist presumption,”
as Eve Kofosky Sedgwick describes it, make “coming out” a continual
task. Rupturing silence with an announcement of identity – with every new doctor, landlord, employee and P.T.A. meeting –
is a process fraught with risk and anxiety. It takes enormous courage
and has profound effects. It makes the air we breathe; it creates an
environment that can sustain our lives.
know in our bones the deadly effects of silence. Yet the silence that
surrounds and suffocates gay and lesbian identity also carries its
gifts. Thomas Moore calls silence an aid to enchantment. He writes, “Silence
is not an absence of sound but rather a shifting of attention toward
sounds that speak to the soul . . . . Silence is a positive kind of
hearing which requires turning off the knob that tunes in to the active,
literal life and turning on the one that amplifies the movements of the
silence, without names and precedents to direct our yearnings, each one
of us has to divine identity and find our life’s direction by
listening to the movement of our hearts. We are called to a soulful life
through silence. Michel Foucault talks about the freedom silence makes
possible, the multiple causes and meanings. He notes that in other
cultures silence is “a specific form of experiencing a relationship
silence that surrounds homosexuality makes simply “coming out” a
transgression. Announcing our homosexuality, we reveal the invisible and
say the unspeakable. Unannounced, queer slips back into the nether-world
of secrecy and maybe-not. Gay and lesbian people cannot exist without
annunciation – continually repeated, judiciously withheld. Coming out always
implicates those we come out to. Friends and family often feel
themselves contaminated with homosexuality and concerned with defending
themselves against it. Alternately, our identity can function as an
opening for those who hear us, a crack in the obdurate wall of
heterosexist conformity. Sometimes they can slip through to join us in a
starry sky of passion and possibility.
mouths are sex organs when they speak the forbidden language of
difference. Coming out is an erotic act. Modern life bifurcates people
into visible surface and inner self.[v]
Historical, cultural and economic forces wrench individuals free from
predictable lifeways and social contexts where they are “known.”
Superficial social interactions demand more and more energy, while the
“inner essence” that is each person’s history, fantasy, dream and
desire is constituted as a territory withheld from social life. The self
is secret, and its deepest secrets are sexual secrets –
libidinal drives and guilty narratives of sexual wounds and woundings.
There is a yearning to be touched, seen, permitted and forgiven, and the
defended territory of the “inner self” is constitutionally incapable
of satisfying that yearning –
at least in the superficial interactions of everyday life.
out refers to this dark, secret, silent place within; it calls the “inner
essence” into an act of speech. At
the moment of annunciation, we give
our selves away, surrendering the paranoid territory of a self that
is constituted by withholding. Instead of confining our sexuality to
secret sexual acts, in coming out we claim a public sexual identity. The
secret is out; we make our selves the hot and slippery subject of public
discourse. The air is charged with libidinal energy when we bring our
selves out in social intercourse.
we “come out,” our richly productive inwardness is sublimated to
social purposes. The annunciation is an act of self-disclosure that is
simultaneously an act of service – a way to align the self with, and to act in the
service of, the queer community. The self conceived in this disclosure
is not individual. Transfigured by annunciation, it cannot stay
self-identical. Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish economist, Secretary General
of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in 1957, international
peacemaker, Nobel Prize laureate, dedicated public servant, and
homosexual, writes, “. . .I can realize my individuality by becoming a
bridge for others, a stone in the temple of righteousness.”[vi]
Just so, coming out is a way of realizing individuality by becoming a
stone, a bridge, a representative specimen.
writes of his calling, “To preserve the silence within –
amid all the noise. To remain open and quiet, a moist humus in the
fertile darkness where the rain falls and the grain ripens –
no matter how many tramp across the parade-ground in whirling dust under
an arid sky.”[vii]
If we live, the silence surrounding gay and lesbian existence can open a
fertile space inside the soul. Silence can be a meditative practice and
a spiritual discipline. It is a way to find the inmost images, and
become nourished by the deepest wisdom. The richest veins of creativity
and love can only be tapped in silence.
identity is always new. Hammarskjöld writes of holding out “the
chalice of our being to receive, to carry and give back. It must be held
out empty –
for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its
The past does not limit us. Language does not structure each startling
movement of the heart. We are secret, silent, and in Hammarskjöld’s
sense, empty. We have to invent ourselves and each other. We live always
new like a river: running clean, making tracks as we go. And the thick
mud of the riverbed is dark and rich with forever. We have no beginning.
We have no end.
and creating ourselves as gay and lesbian persons with each
annunciation, we can say with Hammarskjöld, “each day the first day:
each day a life.” ▼
Henry David Thoreau, 1841 Journal, quoted in Katz, 1976, (210).
Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, 1990, (68).
Thomas Moore, 1996, (104).
Stephen Riggins interview 1983.
As Henning Bech, 1997, points out. He writes: “At the same time a
surface is formed, an inner, a depth, an essence develops –
This is partly a kind of residuum of what was before and what
otherwise is and cannot get absorbed in the surface: being Fred
Bloggs, siring his children, boozing away his pay, and so on. . . .
What we have, then, is a person who has fallen into two parts: an
inner self on the one hand, and a surface on the other.” (164-5).
Dag Hammarskjöld, 1964, ( 62).
Dag Hammarskjöld, 1964, (83).
ibid., (127). The quote in the following paragraph is also from page