What does it mean to have a voice? There is the voice that is sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or noise. There is the voice that is an agency by which a particular point of view is expressed or represented. There is ”The Voice” otherwise known as Whitney Houston. If you look at the voice in either the physical or metaphoric form it is used to express. You are expressing the audio-physical experience of sound, or the metaphysical voice of thought. The first expression is easy to take away; you can cut out the tongue or damage any part of the larynx. You can even go full “Titus Andronicus” and cut off poor Lavinia’s hands, taking away all forms of physically expressing the voice. The latter voice is a little harder to take away. It requires years of oppression and manipulation. It requires control over someone’s body and spirit. It requires, not silence of sound, but silence of hope. It’s harder to take away, yes, but this kind of silence can go on for generations effecting more than one person, or one group of people.
This silence is tricky. Just when you think it’s stopped in lingers in the DNA passed down through ancestors. This type of silence can change the world. This silence has been used to place people on a hierarchy, a hierarchy that has been perpetuated by religion, politics, and power. This hierarchical scale has allowed a certain group of people to control who remains at the top and who is forced to grow comfortable at the bottom. We are born with our place on this scale already determined for us, and have to spend our lifetime fighting to chance where we fall. This scale places male above female, heterosexual above homosexual, cisgender above transgender, wealthy above poor, and whiteness above all other races. This list, unfortunately, could go on and on. I am just beginning to fully recognize my privileges on this scale, and am almost daily reminded of my disadvantages on this scale. I know this scale is global, but I can really only speak of my experience in the country I call home.
The Midterm elections got me thinking a lot about what it means to be American. What it means to be an active citizen participating in democracy. I haven’t always thought about myself as an active participate in democracy. I grew up in a Republican, formally Democratic, family. I trusted my family to think about things in my best interest. I took their advice because I knew they loved me and would protect me. This was all of course before fully realizing the person I am and what exactly I needed protecting from. I feel like I need to clarify what I mean when I say family, because that term covers and doesn’t cover various members of my family, both biological and chosen. When I refer to family it could mean by grandparents, my parents, my uncles and aunts, and my family friends. I am never fully naming someone specific, unless I do. If you think my reference is about you, then maybe it is.
When I turned eighteen I proudly registered as a Republican, and in my high schools mock presidential election I cast my mock vote for George W. Bush, based on my family’s advice. I didn’t even know much about his opponent, John Kerry, because I wasn’t provided with his information in an un-bias way. I don’t blame my family for that because I didn’t take the initiative to search out the information, and I was too involved in the neurotic nature that is being a hormonal teenager to even consider it. George won my high schools mock election in a landslide, not surprising based on the demographic and location. I knew I had made the right decision because it was the popular decision. I had spent my life just trying to fit in with what was popular in my surroundings. It was popular in my family to be Christian, so I tried to fit in. It was popular in my family to be heterosexual, so I tried to fit in. It was popular in my family to agree with the family and not to have your own voice, so I kept my mouth shut.
I felt like sticking up for these ideals, and the people who represented them, was a version of sticking up for my family. When I was sticking up for George W. Bush, even without any real facts or understanding, I was sticking up for my family who believed in him. When people would challenge him they were challenging my family. It wasn’t until I was in college, and the popular opinion was different, that I began to see things from another side. I was also exposed to people that weren’t like my family. In religion, race, sexual orientation, and life experience. I began to see how this thing called politics affected someone outside of my family’s lives. I began to question how politics affected my life, and what my life outside of family was.
The next presidential election to come around came in college. This was the first presidential election I was old enough to actually vote in. I sought advice from my family who were 98% behind Sen. John McCain. I was also around my college friends and professors who were 100% behind Sen. Barrack Obama. I was confused. I still felt this weird protection over my family and their political choice, John McCain. I also felt this weird awakening to my new view and new friends and their choice, Barrack Obama. I remember I went home to vote and my mother took me to the polls. The day before the election I was told by a family member that John McCain was the only choice that aligned with our family values. I was told by my mom moments before walking in that I need to vote for whoever was in my heart. She told me she was voting for John McCain but that I am my own person and had my own choice to make.
I got into the “booth” in a basement in North Wheeling and I voted for everything my family told me to vote for. I went down the line vote after vote that was never really my own. I got to the presidential choice and I paused. I looked at my choices and I thought about what I wanted for the future. I wanted change, in my personal life, and for the world. I wanted hope, for my future, and for the future of the country. I knew in that moment what I had to do. I voted for Barrack Obama for President. I lied to everyone that asked me, even the ones who voted for him as well. I knew from an early age if you want to get away with a lie, you have to lie to EVERYONE. I used this skill to hide my sexuality and my religious views. I used this skill again to hide my shame of voting against the people who raised and loved me. I lied to the random person who asked me on the street, and to my closest friend. Like all of the deep lies I told myself, and others, I internalized it to a place of near belief.
I internalized this lie like I did all of my lies. My biggest lie was of course about my sexuality. My sexuality was always a struggle for me. The first struggle came with just understanding what sexuality was. I was confused about my feelings and what they meant for me, and my place in the world. I knew I had feelings for boys, in a way that I didn’t see other boys having feelings for each other. I couldn’t comprehend that it could be in a romantic way. All of the romantic relationships I saw in my life, and in media, were heterosexual. This made me think that my feelings were wrong. This made me feel like my feelings were negative and I should push them away. So I did. My suspicion that my feelings were negative was reaffirmed by my religion, and the sermons in church. This was not just a negative feeling, but also something that could make me spend an ENTERITY in hell. That puts a lot on a young person’s psyche. Not only are you wrong, but also you are so wrong that you will suffer for eternity.
I couldn’t understand how something I didn’t choose was going to make me suffer forever. I wasn’t breaking a commandment, or sinning by choice. I was being punished for something I had no control over. My identity, and voice, was being taken away without my choice. This made me fight these feelings to the death. If I didn’t admit that they were true then they could never hold me back. Little did I know that when something isn’t a choice it would come about whether you want it to or not?
I fought my “urges” towards boys...until I couldn’t. The fist time I couldn’t fight these urges, which I’ve spoken about in a previous blog, was while playing house with a boy. The second time these urges manifested in my life was when I was thirteen and working at my first job at a zoo in Wheeling, WV. I didn’t know the effect this incident would have on my life, and they years of silence it would place on my life. I was working as a zookeeper’s assistant at the zoo in my hometown. My job was to feed and clean up after the animals. This job was delegated to the young volunteers and employees of the zoo. Among them was a boy a year above me in school. He was a year above me but two years older than me. He was an actor, like me, and someone that I looked up to years before our employment at the zoo. He was confident and funny. Talented and self-assured, he was everything I felt like I wasn’t.
It was a summer day, the actual date is a blurry memory, and we were both working at the petting zoo attraction that afternoon. We talked about theatre and our aspirations as performers. He inspired me in ways I can’t even articulate. As our shift grew to a close and we were waiting to be told it was time to go home he began to get uncharacteristically quiet. He told me that he was stressed because he had a project due for school. It never occurred to me that he shouldn’t have projects due in the middle of summer. I thought I was just a naive middle school student who didn’t understand the complicated schoolwork of high school students. He asked me if I would help with his project. I asked him what the project was. He told me he couldn’t tell me unless I blindly agreed to participate. I reluctantly said yes. I wanted this person to like me and take me under his wing. I knew, in my heart that something didn’t feel right but I so desperately wanted to be liked by him, and was hoping some of his talent and drive would rub off on me. He told me his project was for an anatomy class and that we would have to go into the bathroom to do the “experiment”. I questioned the validity of this project and was told that I was naive and didn’t understand what it was about. I felt belittled and stupid, two things I didn’t want him to associate with me. I quickly encouraged him that I was open-minded and ready to go with him into the bathroom. Partially because I wanted him to like me and partially because I was genuinely curious to what this “experiment” entailed.
I followed him to the secluded bathroom on our break. I thought it was weird he picked the bathroom that was at the far end of the zoo, but I trusted him enough to know where we should go. We got into the public restroom and he began to ask me questions about masturbation. I remember feeling so embarrassed but I didn’t want to seem uncool with his line of questioning. I had only started masturbating a year or two before that and answered his questions generally, as not to give away my sexual preference. He told me part of his project was to touch people and see how they felt being touched in certain parts of their body. I vocalized my discomfort with being touched. He replied telling me that he had done this experiment with countless people and that I was strange for feeling uncomfortable. I didn’t want to appear as strange and quickly agreed to participate in the experiment. It wasn't weird because I was doing it for a class, I thought. I was curious and scared but I had agreed to participate without saying no, in my mind I had no choice.
He started by touching my shoulders and asking how that made me feel. I responded, surprisingly honestly, by saying “weird but good.” He then moved his hands to my ribcage, which I replied, “I feel strange.” He then lowered his hands to my waist. I said, “This is weird.” He said, “but good?” I said, “I guess”, he then said for this next part I need you to take off your shirt. I paused for a moment feeling like things were moving in a direction I was uncomfortable with. His tone changed and he said, irritated and angrily, “You aren’t ready for this…just forget it!” I felt so embarrassed and ashamed. I had agreed to not say no and here I was saying no, even if it was non-verbally. I quickly took off my shirt and stared at myself in the mirror. I was always so skinny and small, and attribute I hated and thought made me less than. He continued to touch different parts of my torso, while asking me how his touch made me feel, I don’t remember my response, I only remember the lump growing in my throat as I tried not to cry. I felt so exposed and vulnerable. I don’t remember a lot of what happened next I just remember looking at myself in the mirror. I had a moment of consciousness when I saw myself in the mirror in my underwear with his hands down my pants, in both the front and the back of my underwear. I remember saying stop when I became aware of the reality of my situation. He reminded me that I couldn’t say no and pushed me against the cold wet counter of the sink. I pushed him away and started to gather my clothes and put them back on. I went towards the door where he stood in my way. I reached around him to open the door. I grabbed the handle and began to open when he slammed it shut with both of his hands. “You can’t leave!” he said. This part of my memory goes blank. The only thing I remember is him leaving the bathroom and me waiting a few minutes to leave. Its strange and scary not having those pieces of my memory. I don’t even remember physically leaving the restroom. My next vivid memory is waiting for my mom to pick me up at the end of my shift.
I got in the car as my mom drove off; I was in a mental state of numbness. She asked me how my day was and I replied vaguely. I don’t remember the conversation we had on the drive home but I do remember when she parked and got out of the car. She opened the door and got out of the car, I sat there frozen in my seat. She asked me if I was coming inside. I told her I would be in in a minute. I waited till she got inside the house and I started to cry. It was a weird cry because I wasn’t sure why it was happening. I felt numb yet tears were rolling down my face. That night I thought about what had happened as I lay in bed. My first thought was this was a punishment for my lustful feelings I was having for this boy. This was God showing me that these feelings are bad and will only cause me pain. I took note of this pain and associated it with my behavior. I wasn’t going to feel this pain again.
My voice was silenced because of someone else's actions, and because of someone else’s words. I allowed that silence to grow and fester in my soul. It became a weight that was slowly pushing me down. I was worried that this weight would kill me one day, and I know I am so lucky, and privileged, that it didn’t. I know that allowing that silence to take over my soul wasn’t really a choice, but a mentality placed into the world long before my existence. A mentality that I am trying to break everyday, and fail to overcome more than I succeed. Even with my failures I know that the journey is more important than the destination, as cheesy as that sounds. I know my small successes in reclaiming my voice are making steps to break the hierarchy for future humans. I know that may seem ridiculous but I credit the people before me, who weren’t afraid to use their voices, as giving me the strength to start to use mine. I stand on their shoulders. I may not know all of their names, or what they did, but I know I have the freedom to be myself because of the fights they fought to share their own voices.
I’m angry, and I’m not afraid to be angry. I’m scared, and I’m not afraid to be scared. I’m hopeful, and I’m not afraid to be hopeful. I was afraid for so long to share my voice as not to offend people. I didn’t want to lose the love of family, friends, and any other random person. I know now that love doesn’t against with someone who wants to silence my voice, even if their silence isn’t their actual choice. Even if that goal of silence is something that has been implanted in them through generations of hierarchy and DNA. By sharing my voice, and living in my truth, I can allow them to see the silence that has been implanted in them without their choice. This isn’t some narcissistic proclamation that I am some sort of magnificent change in their lives. I believe that anyone that is finding their voice can do this, not just me.
I found my voice in a new way living in my truth. I am now able, with age and honesty, to call out moments where I feel my voice being silenced. I still fail sometimes and allow my voice to be quieted, but now I am able to recognize those moments and grow from them. I can now see that the moments I allow my voice to be silenced are on some level not my choice because I am a product of a system of power, but at times are completely my choice. I can choose to not let that silence come over me. It’s hard as hell to fight that inner struggle but I feel so much stronger afterwards when I challenge it. I feel strength like I have never felt. One thing the people at the top, controlling you voice, never tell you is how much power you have when you own your voice. They don’t tell you this because it diminishes their power. The only way to diminish that power on a large scale is for everyone to fight for their voice to be heard, and for those with the privilege to listen to actually listen. Listening requires us to not write off someone else’s voice, even when their voice brings into question our own privilege. I have learned so much about my own voice by listening to others express theirs. It isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it’s worth so much more than my personal comfort. Discomfort is worth a change that can break hierarchy and make it harder to have anyone be silenced again.
I tell these stories not to make you feel bad for the misfortunes of my life. I know that I have had a privileged existence, because of the sacrifices of those who raised me, and because of my place on the scale. I have felt a safety in the word because of being a white cisgender male. I tell these stories not to have comfort in my disenfranchisement, although I now see those things as my super powers, not as the things that bring me down on the scale. I tell these stories to feel uncomfortable. I know my place on the scale has a lot of power. Yes, with that power comes shame, but with that power comes a lot of responsibility. My responsibility is to share my voice; both in the places it holds power, and in the places where I have to fight for power. I know, from personal experience, that hearing the voices of the people seen below me on this scale can be scary and uncomfortable. I have thought in my mind, many times, well I am not the one doing that to you. I may not be the direct person but I have benefited from the system. Everyday I don’t challenge or stand beside those being silenced I AM part of the problem, even if my daily actions aren’t silencing them. I am adding to their current, and future, silence, and so are you!
Part of finding, and using, my voice has been recognizing the silence that has been placed on me, and the silence I have placed on others. I can’t change my past, or the pasts of the people who’s blood, and experiences, run through my DNA. I can, however, keep strengthening my voice and using that newly strengthened voice to elevate others. I invite you to do the same. Listen. Speak up. Find your voice and use it, because nothing is more powerful then taking down the patriarchy!
Thank you for reading!
Remember, make good choices and be safe with your bodies.