How Words Can Open Worlds: In Honor of Audre Lorde

November 18, 2015

 

It was 1991. I was a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, a Spanish major and pre-law, taking an Introduction to Women's Studies course. There, I was introduced to Audre Lorde, who described herself as a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." We were assigned an essay from Sister Outsider, a collection of essays and speeches, entitled "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action." In it, she describes the fear that had kept her silent until she found herself face to face with her own mortality.

 

I have reread that rich essay many times, and with the passage of time I have come to appreciate more and more pieces of it. At that moment in 1991, however, there was one line in particular that threw open the shutters of my sophomoric mind to allow in some light. Lorde describes how she grappled with the topic of this essay (originally delivered as a lecture), and then she quotes her daughter, who said, "Tell them about how you're never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there's always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don't speak it one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside."

 

Those words opened up a whole new world for me, because upon reading them, I uttered, for the first time, the words "I'm gay."

 

At the time, I was dating a woman I had met the previous semester. We had never had sex, but I kept telling myself that in time we would. Earlier that year, a fellow male student had asked me out to see a movie; about halfway through the evening I realized he thought we were on a date—I demurred and said I wasn’t gay. In 1991, it was the era of gay students losing scholarships from the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and the infamous Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was around the corner. In 1986, only five years earlier, the Supreme Court had held that the 14th Amendment in no way protected gays and lesbians from anti-sodomy laws. In many states, the physical expression of same-sex love was a criminal act. At the same time that “I’m gay” was passing across my lips for the first time, homosexuality and AIDS were whispered in the same breath, as if synonymous; I had never thought of homosexuality without also thinking of AIDS. For all those reasons, admitting that I was gay wasn't easy.

 

But by sharing her daughter’s powerful sentiment, Lorde cracked open my consciousness and wrested from deep within me a truth I had not even been able to say to myself, much less to anyone else. In a single sentence, she altered the course of my life. Her words opened up a whole world I had previously ignored and began to lead me in directions I could never have anticipated. This isn't a coming-out story, so I won't recount what ensued. The short version is that within three weeks I had come out to everyone I knew and discovered the freedom and joy that comes from speaking one's truth.

 

Today, November 17, marks the anniversary of Lorde's death, but she lives on in her powerful writings. It is in her memory and with immense gratitude for her words that I write this post. Lorde continues to inspire me—her words lifting me in ways that she may never have intended and could not have anticipated.

 

A whole new world of existence is now emerging for me. I thought I was done coming out of the closet. I have uttered the words "I'm gay" countless times as an affirmation of my existence, as way of saying that this form of being human is real and that you can't ignore or reject me for it. But over time we discover new pieces of ourselves that can become equally stifled by fear.

 

I spent years of intellectual life as a professor and a lawyer in a world where reason reigns and the divine is treated as little more than a discourse to be debated and, more often than not, debunked as superstition. For me to admit openly and publicly that, for me, the divine is real, that we are so much more than carbon-based life forms living in a body, has not been easy. It has not be easy for me to admit to having experienced higher states of consciousness where I was filled with a blissful light for hours, no longer capable of thought or speech. It is has not been easy to admit that I have been infused with powerful and uplifting energetic transmissions of light from figures like Amma, Mother Meera, Mirabai Devi, Howard Wills, Will Linville, and others. It is not easy for me to embark on a new path on which I am called to write and speak on the divine nature of all human beings, and what it means to live one's life in accord with that truth. It is not easy for me to speak without regard for the possibility that my words will be the object of ridicule or discarded altogether. A close friend and intuitive, who understands such fear from his own experience, said to me, “You might as well tell people you can walk through walls.”

 

But rather than allow my fears about how my contribution might be received, Lorde, in the same essay, shared her hard-earned wisdom on the matter: "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood." So, despite my hesitation, I choose to risk some bruises and misunderstanding by embarking on a path of writing and speaking and healing. Like Lorde, I can’t know what effects my words and actions will have and on whom. I can only surrender to what my soul wants to say and convey those messages to the world so that they don’t punch me in the mouth from inside like hot embers.

 

Thank you, Audre, for inspiring me to be so much more than I could ever have imagined. Your words, once again, have inspired me to step fully into a new world.

 

 

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