When only art survives…
Orlando and the silencing of communities
At the end of this introductory background, I share a poem that I wrote over 2 decades ago, yet never shared publicly before today.
I grew up believing that the appropriate way of publicly expressing emotion, was through artistic expression of some sort. Perhaps this is because in my childhood and teen years’ boys and men were told by society that men were not supposed to be emotionally expressive in public. Those that did were most likely gay — or at least suspected/teased/ridiculed for being gay, or were “babies,” or “acting like a girl.” As insults for boys go, we knew this was the same as being called gay. After all, “big boys don’t cry,” and Robert Smith certainly reminded us so.
The first decade and a half of the AIDS Epidemic in the U.S. (prior to anti-retroviral drugs offering their first real hope in 1995) was, for gay men who lived through it, emotionally overwhelming. At the same time, the stigma of HIV/AIDS made it very difficult to ask for and receive support from others, even within our own embattled LGBT communities. Others have written at length about survivors’ guilt, PTSD, sero-defined divisions within communities, and other psycho-social community dynamics that I only name in order to reference the enormity of impact of HIV/AIDS for those who were not there to witness it.
I wrote these poems at a point in my life when I was trying to figure a way of understanding and coping with my own feelings and thoughts. Then, I felt I had no real outlet for expressing the enormity of these feelings other than the rage, concern, despair, hope, fear, and disbelief I could express along with others through activism. However, at least for me, being an AIDS activist, as part of ACT UP and other groups, was only a partial, often dissatisfying, and frequently isolating experience. Expressing these things, with others, is only partly expressing yourself and your own feelings and thoughts. Frequently it felt like I was only representing feelings, thoughts, ideas, and messages that were still removed from my own sense of self (is this who I really am? Is this all that I am?) and only partially fulfilling. I know I am not the only activist that felt let down and alone after the “high” of the meeting/ sit-in/ action/ postering campaign ended…
I don’t even remember the exact year I wrote these poems down, sometime between 1990 and 1992, and they were part of a larger set of agitprop art I was trying to create during those same years, which was for me mostly private expression and not something I shared publically. Over the intervening years, when some significant historical event has happened, I’ve pulled these out and re-read them and thought about them.
On June 12, the mass shooting/hate crime in Orlando pulled me back into this reflective mood that never quite goes away, it’s the app always running in the background. I know I’m not the only LGBT person of a certain age that thought back to the societal panic, the overwhelming trauma, and the highly politicized national environment of the “early years” of the AIDS epidemic and thought “oh, f*ck, here we go again…”
So this first poem, at the time I wrote it, was clearly for me both a reflection of how I felt HIV/AIDS was represented within our larger society at the time, but also speaks to a reality of what it meant to be a gay man during that specific social historical period.
Today, the social political narrative(s) surrounding the Orlando mass shooting that have been offered to us through the media and in much of what I’ve seen on social media are a faint echo. An echo, or reverberating cacophony (depending upon your social position) of background narratives of guilt/innocence and responsibility/blame that go without saying when one references the LGBT community. One that brings up the same silencing of how LGBT people, and LGBT people of color were specifically targeted at the Pulse nightclub. How when it *is* acknowledged that a gay bar was attacked, a frequent “whitewashing” occurs. We have to hear the explanations that “they weren’t all gay,” and how the hate crime or targeting of specific individuals in a specific community is not what is relevant. How the “experts” try to remove the connect between this “unfortunate incident” and the larger societal demonizing and silencing of LGBT lives, communities, spaces, identities, and voices.
This is the echo, the silence, yet the deafening internal rage, that was there then and again today, that still murmurs and lives in the poem below…
Poem #1: “Positively, A Reasonable Doubt”
we are all innocent, yet guilty
guilty of indifference, of contempt, of guile
those who we never know, we condemn
and those we profess to love, exempt through pity
of ourself, we know only denial--
every image we are given of ourself we pronounce "the other"
(and let them not forget it)
how can we know not ourself, yet be so sure we know others?
we express ignorance of their "exotic ways"
(for ignorance is bliss, and we are assured, "blessed")
but we know well-enough-to-judge "guilty!"
to this verdict, I add another:
"in every dichotomy, there is surely hypocrisy!"
you cannot speak "truth" without implicating my "lie"
(you must negate my life, my voice, my vision)
and you cannot condemn me
(to your simple fate of "choice")
when I do not wish to die