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.