Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Silence Equals Death


Tomorrow is an embarrassing day for gay liberationists. Somehow some "committee" ... and I use the word with some derision notwithstanding my long history on committees ... decided that they would name May 7 as National Day of Silence for gay people. The idea is so retrograde, so obviously out-of-touch and ignorant of gay history, so ludicrously out-of-touch with what it means to be a gay person in society today. Less significantly, it signals again and once again the degree to which the left has self-absorbed itself out of relevance to the movement.

So some history. The regular reader of my scratch will know that I was a gay activist through the 70s. The photo that follows is pure credentialing ... I may be an old crank now, but I were a yute once, and nobody is taking that away from me ... this is a photo of me addressing the National Gay Rights March in 1976 in Toronto ...
photograph of Stephen Arod Shirreffs addressing the Canadian National Gay Rights March in Toronto in 1976
I wrote a little more of my history in the movement here.

I can tell you that the notion of a Day of Silence for gay people would have been viewed as the work of double agents in those days ... if it had not been laughed out the door, it would have been the subject of a stream of those special 70s-style polemics. We were not about silence, and the gay movement was not about silence. For crying out loud, one of our most infamous tactics was the "zap" when a bunch of fags would go to a straight place and kiss and hold hands and queen it up. We had guts, and we knew that silence was the language of cowards. If silence had been our kit bag, my dear friends in the movement today, we would all still be in the closet.

Think about it. The history of gay people is nearly impossible to discern because of the silence which our enemies brutally, murderously, enforced upon us. Remember the phrase "the love that dare not speak its name." That is silence. Remember what they said about us in the 70s when we finally spoke up, they called it "the love that will not shut up." That's me. I am a faggot who will not shut up, even if a bunch of cloistered self-styled radicals came up with the lame idea that sitting around with tape on their mouths represented homosexuality and our struggle for freedom. Our movement is about making noise, and every success we have had is because we have not shut up, not because we wandered around in a daze pretending to have lost our voices.

The modern gay left needs to study the history upon which they are built, and they need to shed the blinders of post-gay-liberation apologies ... I'll explain that shortly ... and look at what really happened.

First though ... how can you have a day of silence when the slogan of our struggle against AIDS was "Silence Equals Death". Let me tell you that all my friends whom I lost in the plague, they are silent. And I can swear to you that if they could speak now, they would tell us to shout and make noise and never to allow anyone to silence us. Every Saturday morning, my dog and I make a pilgrimage to the AIDS memorial grove where I recite thrice the words of my friend, the late poet Thom Gunn, in memory of my silent friends in the stone circle where these words are carved:

walker within this circle pause
although they all died of one cause
remember how their lives were dense
with fine compacted difference




Yeah ... that is what I am saying ... the notion of a Day of Silence dishonors their memory. It is as if all that we did has been pointlessly forgotten in favor of some half-baked idea that nobody with any sense questioned. Imagine what the committee meeting must have been like when this idea first reared its head ... was there no one with any sense of history, of the struggles which have made us what we are today? Did no one think to look at where we came from? I mean this idea has less consciousness than Boys in the Band ... no, the characters in Boys in the Band had the balls to be loud, but whatever committee came up with silence as a strategy could no more have led gay liberation than the Log Cabin Club.

You know, a year ago, I tried to write this post, and it made me so viscerally angry that I stopped. I am writing it this year because only a week ago I promised to blog thrice weekly, so I am stuck with having to spit out what I sat on before. I run my brain like a committee, and I keep commitments even if just to myself ... and my inner committee has enough sense that it tosses lousy ideas into the trash heap without a vote.

So back to gay history. In the 70s, a key debate in the movement, expressed in sundry ways, was between the notion of single issuism and the notion that the gay movement had to "link up" with other movements. The genuine gay liberationists ... I was one of them ... ignored multi-issuism because it obviously spelled the death of our demands. No one liked us. My friends in the movement today, listen to this ... feminism hated us ... the women's movement did everything they could to distance themselves from us. The reason why dykes boycotted the gay movement was the homophobia of the women's movement.

They wanted us to shut up ... they wanted us to be silent. We were inconvenient. They might nod to the fact that we ought to have rights, but it was inconvenient. It played, in their minds, to the bigotry of the opponents of the women's movement. So, better the fags should shut up and go back to their drag shows in shuttered bars.

We did not shut up. We shouted. We screamed. We invaded their precincts and we made them listen. And with reference to above, that is why we do not need to apologize to the myriad ex-post-facto "supporters" who chide us on overblown claims of racism and sexism in the most liberal community in the country. We made our own liberation, not only against the bigots of church and state and common sense, but also against such bigots on the self-absorbed left who still congratulate themselves on finding ways to dump on gay men for being free.

No excuses, no apologies, no silence.

A couple of stories from my past ... at a march for abortion rights led by a group called CARAL (Canadian Abortion Rights Action League) in Vancouver in the 70s ... we jumped into the lead of the march with our banner. The organizers tried to get rid of us, but we wouldn't leave. We wanted to speak at the rally at the end of the march, and they wouldn't let us. So, with the encouragement of my comrades, I simply walked on to the stage as if it was my turn, took the mike and gave a speech. That is one of the proudest moments of my life. There was silence through the speech, but at the end, I remember a rousing cheer. Why? Because we refused to be silent.

Hear this ... Silence is death. Get silence out of your lexicon.

Another moment ... in the 70s in Vancouver, there was a lot of left wing political action to prevent the deportation of the native activist Leonard Peltier. So, as a kind of object lesson to the scolds on the left who kept telling gay liberation that it had to "link up", we "linked up." The homophobia in the native movement was thick. I was at a meeting in somebody's house ... remember I was a 20s slip-of-a-thing hippie-esque gay guy ... and I got to playing with this 5 year-old. Later I found out that there was an angry meeting in the kitchen where the father of the 5 year-old was demanding that all the gay guys be kicked out of the meeting because he didn't want me playing with his kid. That happened. Link up be damned, faggots were last. But we still did not shut up. No silence for us.

So we went to the big march for Peltier. And again, we simply took the microphone when the committee denied us the right to speak. Their silence, our voice. I have this exquisite photo of that moment, and I promise to post it here some time when I find it ... there is this little girl looking right in my eyes when everyone else is looking elsewhere. Why? Because they wanted us to be silent.

We were not silent. And now we are free. Do the math.

Another example ... the Democrats were livid at Newsom because he took a public loud position on gay marriage. But look what happened. Now gay marriage is a prairie fire. If we, and Newsom, had been silent when our "friends" and "fierce allies" told us to be silent, would we be winning in Maine and Iowa and perhaps even in California? No. Because ... my young friends ... Silence Equals Death. BTW, don't forget the episode where Obama long ago refused to be photographed with Newsom ... he has yet to prove to be our friend. Are we going to be silent with him as some have advised?

Has the "silence" crowd seen Word Is Out? Do you have any idea how that film galvanized the movement when it came out? Came out. Because today, yesterday, tomorrow, the gay movement is about coming out and civil rights. Coming out is about being loud and open and speaking. Civil rights is about refusing to be silent in the face of oppression. Any committee who sponsors Day of Silence events should have the self-respect to do a showing of Word Is Out ... because it is the counterpoint that exposes the foolishness of this idea.

Dinner is ready. So let me conclude.

I am not going to be silent tomorrow. I am not going to be silent until they give me six feet of dirt. Silence is the wrong way to go. Kill this stupid idea.

Let's have a National Day of Screaming Queens. Gay pride, not silence.

Silence Equals Death. No excuses.

Postscript: FWIW ... here's a history of the National Day of Silence. Frankly, pretty bloody lame. They actually ask "what are you going to do to end the silence? ... well, how about organizing a National Shout-out to All Oppressed Gay People. That would actually make sense.

Photos ... top by Arod of a bus shelter on Church Street ... middle by unknown of me addressing the 1976 National Gay Rights March in front of Toronto City Hall in 1976 ... bottom by Arod of the AIDS Memorial Grove.

1 comment:

Zeon said...

You know this is only one of the reasons why I love you so much! ZZ