My Queer History: “Burn All the Letters”

Laura Laing
Dec 6, 2019 · 3 min read

This essay is part of a series that explores my personal history of queerness through the songs of the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Sailers. For details on the project and links to all of the essays, check out this introduction: “My Queer History: Me and the Indigo Girls.”

When you’re a 50-something writer working on a coming-of-age memoir, you pull out all of the letters you saved from that time, because there was no email or texting or SnapChat when you were 17. When your love of that time is now your wife, you end up reading boxes of embarrassing stuff written by people who are nothing like who they were then.

I’m no Virginia Woolf or Vita Sackville-West, so no one else will be interested in my love letters in years to come. I’m guessing that it’s these literary lovers who Emily Saliers is referencing in this deep cut from the Indigo Girls’ Shaming of the Sun, “Burn All the Letters.”

When the song came out, I wasn’t thinking of the letters that my now-wife wrote to me every single day over winter, spring and summer breaks or sent to my college PO box during the school year. Shaming of the Sun came about a decade later, a few years after my wife had come home from Somalia. We had thankfully come out, leaving the secrets of the Army behind. But the lines of this song (“Burn all the letters / (Someone’s always watching) / Burn all the letters / (The government’s on the phone)”) reminded me of real threats at that time. CID (Criminal Investigation Command) was active at Ft. Eustis when my wife was stationed there. We had a sense of who these folks were and what they were looking for. This was before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which took effect on December 21, 1993, just days before she came home from Somalia. They could ask. They could rummage through personal belongings. They could stake out the gay bars. They could hang out at the girls’ softball games. Many of the lesbians we knew in the Army in the early 90s were legally married to gay male soldiers. Everyone had their beards.

So there was a seriousness to this song for me. We worried and didn’t worry about being caught. We were young and not very smart. It’s only looking back that you discover how damaging that kind of hiding is, that you learn how much you lost by cutting off a part of yourself in public.

Unless you’re a big fan, it’s likely you’ve never heard this song. Take a listen. The modulation throughout and the voice arrangements at the end are striking.

I recently reread the letters we wrote to one another during my wife’s deployment to Somalia. We had been together for six years by then, so I they’re less romantic, less desperate than our college letters. I wrote to her under a male pseudonym for the first few weeks, abandoning it when we gave up caring, when her personal safety had become so compromised she needed to see my name, to stop pretending to be less than human. Within a month, she hit a landmine while in a convoy driving across Mogadishu. She stayed for another four months, and we collected stacks of letters, which are now hidden in an Army footlocker in our basement.

More from this series:

My Queer History: “Dirt and Dead Ends”

My Queer History: “Driver Education”

My Queer History: “Fugitive”

My Queer History: “Go”

Laura Laing

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Exploring my queer history through the music of the Indigo Girls @llaingwriter

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