by sophie

THE POLITICS OF SILENCE

By Paul Monette

[Paul Monette received the 1992 National Book Award in non-
fiction for "Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story."  This is
adapted from a National Book Week speech he gave at the Library of Congress.]


Someone asked me last week whether art should be political
or not; his sister is a novelist.

I said, "Is she political?"

And he said, "No, she's an artist."

That's not something I agree with.  It is not enough to be an
artist.  If you live in cataclysmic times, if the lightning
rod of history hits you, then all art is political, and all
art that is not consciously so still partakes of politics, if
only to run away.

Robin Lane Fox, a historian of religion, says most people
believe the Christian world was a fait accompli, that it was a
force of circumstance, a historical inevitability.  But in
fact, until Constantine converted to Christianity in 313, it
was a battle between pagans and Christians.  The pagans were
an urban, sophisticated class.  They had their mysteries, and
they had their gods.  So one of the things the early popes did
was destroy the pagan texts, and Mr. Fox was able to
reconstruct part of the pagan world by going through
cemeteries reading the gravestones.  If you destroy the record,
you destroy the truth.

I've learned in my adult life that the will to silence the
truth is always and everywhere as strong as the truth itself,
and so it is a necessary fight we will always be in: those of
us who struggle to understand our truths, and those who try to
erase them.  The first Nazi book burning, I would have you
remember, was a gay and lesbian archive.

I would like to draw a distinction between homophobia and homo-
ignorance.  There's much more homo-ignorance than there is
homophobia, I think, and though it's difficult for us as a
people, as a tribe, to hear the hate spewed at us, we know
it's better for that hate to be public than for it to be
secret.  When I speak of the politics of silence, I don't just
speak of the silence of gay and lesbian people for 1,500 years,
those rare exceptions like Whitman or Michelangelo
notwithstanding.  I speak of a silence that is tied up with
our lack of self-esteem.

Sometimes I think that the ones who hate us can't stand the
fact that we have won out over oppression.  They can't stand
to see us leading happy and productive lives.  Many of the
right-wing pundits and preachers clearly *chose* not to be gay
or lesbian.  For them being "straight" was a life style choice,
to use their jargon.  With a white-knuckled grip they have
hewed to "traditional values," by which they mean intolerance
and fear.  A joyful gay or lesbian person messes their minds
profoundly.

I don't know if AIDS has made me so brave as a writer.  I
don't know whether it has widened my heart the way witnessing
the world at war widened Anne Frank's heart.  Who would have
thought that the greatest account of that war, the one that
would sear the hearts of the future, would be written by a 14-
year-old girl?  And a 14-year-old girl who died believing
people were fundamentally good.  That's where I fail much of
the time.

The difference between having freedom as a writer and having
no freedom is as narrow as the choice that the truth is
important.  In Sophocles' "Antigone," Antigone buries her
brother, despite the edict of Creon, the king, that she will
die if she does so.  That is the great moment in classical
literature between conscience and the law.  "O tomb, O
marriage chamber," she says, going to her death.  And the
play's Chorus comes out and says: "Isn't man wonderful?  He
longed so much to speak his heart that he taught himself
language, so that what was inside him could be spoken to the
world."

I was given my heart back when I came out.  People say I'm too
hard on myself, but if you were to read the dreary poems I
wrote in my 20's, you would discover they're about nothing
because they are not about me, they are not about the truth.

So I guess what I would say to my gay and lesbian brothers and
sisters, especially to the gay and lesbian children of the
next generation, and to all our friends and allies is: come
out when you can.  I know it's not easy for everybody.  But I
would not give up what the last 17 years of being out have
meant to me.  It has been been a joyous experience, and that
even includes the decade of AIDS.  I seem to be able to be as
angry as I am and as despairing and still be a happy man,
because I am so glad to be out.

I have a psychologist friend who says, "It's not enough to
come out."  Coming out is just the first step, the outer
coming out.  Then we have to start the inner coming out,
looking to nourish our own battered self-esteem.

And to really be a gay or lesbian citizen, you have to also
give back to your community.  You have to reach out and help
it.  Some of the people who hate us think we're out to
indoctrinate their children.  Frankly, we're trying to save
their children from suicide.  A third of all teen suicides are
gay and lesbian, and they're all unnecessary, and we want
those kids to have a chance.

If I believe in anything, rather than God, it's that I am part
of something that goes back to Antigone and that whatever
speaks the truth of our hearts, can only make us stronger.  We
must be the last generation to live in silence.
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