Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as supreme court justice despite being accused of sexually attacking at least three women. Despite being a political operative. Despite his rash and biased behavior during the hearing. Despite all the loud objections. But it’s these objections, the breaking of silence, that matters most. All year, women and men have stood up and said, “This happened to me” and “I believe her.” We shattered silence in elevators and on the senate floor. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford didn’t stay quiet. Neither did Deborah Ramirez. None of us stayed in our places like we were supposed to, so don’t think we’re about to start. Get ready. We are rising.
I have difficulty interrupting others. I wait my turn, look for an appropriate opening, one in which I can respectfully assert my view without cutting someone off or talking over anyone. I generally don’t like to interrupt, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.
Like when transgender rights activist Jennicet Gutierrez interrupted President Obama’s speech at a recent White House pride event. Granted the press conference had happened just days after the Supreme Court had struck down DOMA, making it legal in all fifty states for same sex couples to get married. All the years that DOMA was in place were painful years for the LGBTQ community and now second class status was history. People wanted to celebrate. I understand that. I’m grateful that my marriage will now be federally recognized too. But Gutierrez says she was following her instincts. She had been invited to the event and hadn’t planned on speaking out, but when Obama talked about the gains of the LGBTQ community, she says she thought about her trans sisters – immigrants who face deportation and abuse inside US detention centers. She couldn’t let these abuses get papered over. She had to speak out.
And when she did, the president tried to shut her down.
“No, no, no…” he said. And, “Listen, you’re in my house…”
In the video, the room looked like it was full of LGBTQ advocates. And while it was disappointing to see Obama try and shut her down, it was far worse to see Gutierrez booed and shushed by her own community.
To see and hear LGBTQ activists silencing one of their own was painful.
As I watched, I felt the shaming. Maybe that’s because there’s an internal voice that is always telling me to shush. It says I should wait to talk when the time is right or when I’m invited to speak. Above all, it tells me to go with the flow and not rock the boat. Or ruin the party. Which is what the message seemed to be at the press conference. It viscerally affected me to hear how loud the mostly white crowd was against Gutierrez. The message was clear, “Don’t ruin the party.”
But what if the party doesn’t include you?
Just recently, immigration authorities announced they will consider housing transgender detainees in separate facilities in response to criticism about detention conditions. There is still a long way to go to translate these policies into reality, but it makes me think that maybe Gutierrez’s interruption was heard after all.
I was born in south Florida and from there moved from place to place, in the US and abroad. But despite all the wandering, I somehow absorbed the message that I should diminish myself and stay small. Maybe we all did. Maybe for me this message had its origins in my spy dad whose training was to blend into the background and observe, or from his Midwestern parents before him, who believed so much in the power of silence and keeping to themselves. Maybe it came from my shy and introspective mother, who spoke most comfortably with brushes and acrylics, water colors and canvases. Maybe it came from my own reluctant self. Certainly it comes from a world that teaches girls, and queers, and so many of us to stay inside our closets and doubt ourselves.
But isn’t it time we left the smallness behind?
Let’s leave the cobwebbed walls and dusty floors, the cracked windows and uninsulated walls. Let’s leave the crumbling floorboards and dilapidated chairs. All the rooms we’ve outgrown and the ways we hold ourselves back. Let’s abandon our fear of trusting and risking, our penchant for careful circumspection. All the stabs at erasure.
It’s time to tweet and report and paint and blog and write and film and speak. Time to shed and become, and stop trying to squeeze ourselves into tight places. Isn’t it finally time to do this? To breathe under a wider sky?
My writing life began in private journals and remained there for years, until I was well into my 20s. I never considered sharing anything I wrote until one day, while I was working on a prose poem, the writing seemed to lift off the pages of my journal. There was a larger force creating my words alongside me and the words seemed intended not for me alone, but for some kind of audience. I was the one typing, yes, but what I was writing didn’t feel solely “mine” anymore.
But sending out my private words to the world was another matter altogether. Going public was terrifying. When I published my first piece about my relationship with my mother, vulnerability thrummed inside me.
Children of spies are never supposed to talk
This was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve published more family pieces, some about what it was like growing up with a CIA dad, which added another dimension of fear because children of spies are never supposed to talk about anything too private or secret. We are supposed to keep the BIG secret forever. I’ve experienced what it’s like to liberate myself from this silence, still, whenever I publish something, I feel the old spy kid fear. And once the piece comes out, my perfectionist side comes into play and I wonder, Could I have said it better? Did I get it right? It doesn’t matter how much I’ve edited or researched, sharing my work is daunting on so many levels.
Sending words out into the world is also difficult because writing has the power to change the world. Its effects can ripple out far beyond the writer and her initial creative impulse, which of course, is the point.
The bottom line is that it’s scary to tell something alive and true.
Over time, I’ve learned to take up space and to voice myself. Each time I write an article or blog post, the girl I once was worries. I tell her I understand – it is scary to tell something that feels alive and true. But it’s also great.
Growing up, I learned an unspoken and unwritten rule: don’t ever talk about it. It being what Dad did for a living. If I talked about whatever “it” was, not only would I be betraying him, but I would also be putting him in danger. It wasn’t until I was twenty that I found out he was in the CIA. By then I was a lefty, and critical of U.S. foreign policy, but I loved him and wanted him to be safe, so I stayed inside this closet.
I was born into two closets – the spy-daughter closet and the gay closet.
I came out of my other closet first. Boston was an easy town to be a lesbian in and as soon as I graduated from college I dated girls, went to gay pride parades, and joined a feminist radio collective and women’s soccer team. I felt very out except that I still hadn’t told Dad. He was conservative and I was sure wouldn’t approve. When I finally did tell him, he said he it wasn’t natural, “…but that we shouldn’t lose contact over it.” It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, so I went right back into the closet with him and rarely brought it up in our phone calls.
He was ready to be out about his spy identity, but I wasn’t.
Then in the 90s, my father retired from the CIA and decided to teach. But in order to do this he had to undergo an agency sanctioned process of having his covers removed. Once this happened, he would be able to tell people he had worked for the Agency. He agreed to this process and after his covers were removed, he started teaching classes on intelligence at US colleges. It was a remarkable journey, to move from being a Cold War covert officer to an openly ex-CIA college professor. He seemed unperturbed by the change but it shocked me. I was in my early thirties then and couldn’t get my head around the fact that my secretive father was now going to talk openly, or somewhat openly, about his career. He was ready to be out about his spy identity, but I wasn’t.
Closets have a way of multiplying.
It took ten more years before I came out of my second closet. I did it in a personal essay in the LA Times, in which I told the story of how I found out what my dad did for a living. I received many emails after the piece ran, mostly from other children of spies. There was a breathless quality to the emails, as if there wasn’t enough time to say what needed saying. As if we were breaking the law by being in contact with one another.
“I guess not everyone comes from a family where secrets are…secret.”
One person said, it was no wonder that when someone asked him not to tell anyone something, he kept that confidence: “I guess not everyone comes from a family where secrets are…secret.” Another person said, “Don’t use my name in anything you write.” I understood the fear. Putting my story out there had been terrifying for me. I was breaking a code I had lived all my life by and for a while it seemed like a totally destructive thing to do. I thought it would ruin my relationship with Dad and other family members.
“It’s your story to tell.”
And there was some fall out. A few family members asked me not to run it but Dad wasn’t one of them. He said, “It’s your story to tell.” So I did. Not only did putting my story out into the world lead to a breakthrough in my relationship with my dad, but it also led to a sense of connection with other spy kids. I realized that there was a community of us out there. Suddenly, sending that piece out into the world, the secret I had carried all my life, no longer carried such power over me.
This then, is why I write – to diminish the space that separates us all from one another. Coming out of both my closets taught me that the only way to be free is to break down closet doors regardless of where they are. We’re never free or safe inside them anyway. They only keep us small and living a partial life. The spy family closet may seem an unusual one but really it’s no different than all the others. The rules are the same.