From Silence to Speaking
From Silence to Speaking
Finding the Courage to Speak the Truth
by Heather Bryant
I grew up surrounded by noise. The clank of pipes in our building, sirens outside, stray dogs in the alleys, cars honking horns, our elderly neighbor calling out to his nurse, “Can you help me please?”, the thunder of subway cars underground. The hot breath of the city exhaled through the subway grates.
I shared a room with my sister, so even at night, there was her breathing or mumbling, her rustle of sheets. Our twin beds stood to either side of our dressers. On top of those, a pair of guinea pigs rustled around in cedar shavings and rattled the metal tip of the water bottles.
As soon as I learned words, I talk-talk-talked to whoever would listen, never stopping until I was asked. I got in trouble in math class for talking to my neighbor. Miss Proffitt sat me next to the wall for the remainder of class. I even talked to the wall.
I discovered silence for the first time on our frozen pond in Upstate New York in the winter, when my breath turned into clouds. Twigs snapped in the woods, but under that was a quiet that laced through the spaces between trees. It was a gentle quiet that held everything. I didn’t fully register it then, so focused on the scritch-scritch of my skates as I ankle-skated across the ice.
We moved to California to a home in the Oakland hills just after I turned ten. There, I came face to face with silence. We had no neighbors making noise. Fog hushed in each morning from the Bay. There were long stretches when no cars passed on the road. I missed the city with its noises and restlessness, its busy streets. Here, the houses were often dark with no one home. Only down on Telegraph Avenue did I find the bustle and energy I craved.
Still, the silence I found was a gentle silence, like cupped palms turned up. It was a silence to meet, to come face to face with questions about the world. Around that time, I became aware of parts of the world that didn’t make sense to me. Apartheid. Homelessness. It didn’t fit into my picture of the world. On Thanksgiving, our parents drove us down to the soup kitchen to serve food. People filed past, plates filled with food.
Our parents wanted us to ask questions, to challenge the world, but when it came to our own lives, we slipped into another kind of silence, one of hiding behind a mask. The year we moved to California was the same year my father started growing longer hair and taking hormones that softened a body that had been mostly skinny straight lines. At the time, doctors required a full year of living as a woman before surgery. It felt like a trial year of slipping by unnoticed. All I had to do was say “Diana” instead of “Dad.”
We introduced her to new friends as my “Aunt,” my father’s sister. My father had gone to England, we said, and his sister came to stay. No one questioned this story and for that year, it worked. We passed under the radar. Passing was the goal. Slipping by unnoticed. Fitting in. We did so well at that that we forgot our own story. Even after we no longer had to hide, we still did. Our silence was born of a larger silence in the late ‘80s, when silences multiplied across the gay community and when the stories in the outside world left ours aside.
“This is my Aunt,” I said, long after the school years when telling might have led to ridicule and ostracization.
Once, in high school, a friend read a letter from a women’s magazine. A young woman had written in about her boyfriend who wore women’s clothes sometimes. I was the one to laugh the loudest. That’s so weird, my laugh said. I wanted to make it clear that I had no difference inside me, that I wasn’t an outsider.
I developed a chameleon-like ability to slip into a crowd unnoticed. I ordered preppy clothes from a catalog, wore the sweaters and jackets the other girls wore. This was a way of blending in on the outside to mask what I was hiding within. “We all have secret selves,” writes Kenji Yoshino in Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. “Such secrets want telling.”
Still, in school, I chose to stay hidden. When our school gave us ivory notecards to send inviting our family to graduation, I didn’t send one to Diana. If she came as my aunt, it would have been another layer of pretending in a day of celebration. I didn’t want to pretend.
In college, I still told no one, not even my closest friends. By then, the silence had taken up residence in my body. It felt like a part of me. If I told, that part of me would crack and break off. In class, I wrote about gender as a construction of society, but I didn’t write about my father’s passage into womanhood. The silence grew.
If I couldn’t tell who my family was, if I had to try to fit into a mold that looked like everyone else, then what could I tell? Who could I trust? If my own experience was best kept secret, then what did I see? What was my truth? If people looked for the wrong in my family, then how could I see what was right?
Crossing over the line from silence to speaking brings with it a vulnerability that left me open to any response. A friend helped me tell my college boyfriend. He held me in his arms. “You can tell me anything,” he said, but still I kept it hidden from most. He told people, and I got to hear of their reactions through him, unedited by my presence. Shock and confusion. The questions rolled out. I was relieved that I wasn’t there to hear them. I didn’t know what I would say, so I kept it inside.
My family intended our silence as a protection, but it also taught me shame. That the people I loved were wrong in the eyes of society. That we were different.
“But you seem so normal,” one friend said when I told her.
Now, when I tell people, they want to know the details.
“How old were you when it happened?”
“Oh—that’s such a vulnerable age.”
Yet it’s also the age when we’re closest to childhood in our adolescence, when there’s still a door open to possibility. This too is part of the world, is what I thought about the change back then. Yet years of silences draped layers over that understanding.
When I worked at the Yale Law Library, one day I was checking in books on transgender law when a man I knew passed by.
“Transgender,” he said, a hint of amusement in his voice, and I didn’t say anything. I kept checking in the books with a small smile on my face. I was the one standing by, not speaking up for what I believed in. The truth was caught in my throat, unable to come out.
In those moments of silence, I believed I was protecting myself, but instead I was allowing for the shame to grow. Audre Lorde writes of the importance of breaking through silence in her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” “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.” It was the potential for misunderstanding that kept me in chameleon mode. Still, on some level, I knew I needed to say something.
How do we move from silence to speaking, from the mask of hiding to the light of truth? How do we find the courage to speak our truths? Silence is born out of isolation. When we step into community, we build the courage to speak. Then, when we stand face to face with someone who doesn’t understand, we know others who do.
At a retreat for people who grew up with LGBTQ parents, I met someone who shared my story. Though many other parts of our lives were different, we connected as if we had known each other our whole lives. It was as if we spoke the same language and only needed a chance to use it. We walked around the city, stepping through subway turnstiles and onto trains, but we could have been anywhere, connected by our shared experience. I found that day that even two people can make a community, pulling us out of our separateness and division.
We may think that silence is a source of protection, but it is just the opposite. Lorde writes, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”
The search for meaning can be a shared effort. These bridges build a community and give more people the courage to step out of the silence.
At times, I’ve borrowed other people’s voices to find my own. The friend in college who first helped me tell the story said it as if it could happen to anyone. I borrowed her words the next time I told the story. I’ve listened to others cross the line, breaking their own silences. That gave me courage. When one of us breaks the silence, it helps others do the same. In 1978, Harvey Milk challenged the silence that had spread across the gay community. “You must come out,” he said. “Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends…if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop…Come out only to the people you know, and who know you…. But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.” His call to action broke silences that had grown thick in families and communities.
In Covering, Yoshino writes of students revealing the true selves they hide behind masks. “I find pleasure in these incantations, which…secure these identities for the next generation. It recollects the verve and urgency of each of my own moments of coming out, that rush of feeling that says, Life changes now.” A single moment can mark that change from hiding to being ourselves.
For so long, I simply didn’t have the words. I had no language to break the silence. The questions we ask each other about our parents didn’t give room for my story:
Where do your parents live?
Could I change that question to read,
What body does your parent live in?
What do your parents do for work?
Maybe that could be,
Do dresses or suits work for your parent?
Are your parents still together?
Do your parents know their true identities?
Do you visit them often?
Do their bodies match the ones they had when you were born?
We don’t ask what we don’t know.
To find the words that translate our experience is to invent a language. To speak is to find that language. It’s a radical act of truth-telling in a world full of glossy veneers.
There can be a useful silence, that silence of cupped palms, the silence of discovery. In her essay, “Arts of the Possible,” Adrienne Rich writes of the sustaining silence that can be used to find the words that need to be spoken, discover “what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.”
She writes that, “Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.” It’s these silences, paradoxically, that can lead us into breaking out of the silence that keeps us enclosed.
We have to try, stumbling and making mistakes as we go. Whether speaking or writing the story, the challenge is to find the words. Toni Morrison, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech wrote that “narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly—once and for all. Passion is never enough. Neither is skill. But try.” Her call to venture out into the wilderness of words is a call to break the silence. To accept imperfection. To fail as a matter of course. The same is true for speaking up. We won’t say the right thing every time. People will ask questions that burn. Misunderstanding might rise up more than connection. But we can try.
In her essay, Audre Lorde asks each of us, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
None of us fit into the labels we’re given. As we tell our stories, let’s reach for the words that fill the silence, the ones that share the shape of our experiences. The word “transgender” is what I was given for my father, but the truth, for me, was not held in that word. I witnessed a passage from man to woman, and I witnessed the loss of a life of privilege. I witnessed a change into a person more comfortable in their skin, and I witnessed the fear of violence that comes with any mark of difference. I witnessed the courage to stay true no matter what it cost, and I witnessed the beauty of a life devoted to books and animals.
Through everything, only the animals, with their quiet acceptance, never asked stupid questions. All of this I witnessed, and when I’m tempted to sink into silence, I only need to remember the difference between the silence of cupped palms and the one of hiding behind the mask. If it’s the latter, then it’s time to open my mouth and speak. §
* Names have been changed to protect the family's privacy.
Heather Bryant, a writer based in Sunnyside, NY, has published short fiction and nonfiction in The Massachusetts Review, The Southeast Review, CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action, and in multiple anthologies. Her essay, “Habitat,” won the 2009 Southeast Review Narrative Nonfiction Contest. She teaches at Pace University and leads writing workshops in New York City.