by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning - discussion of s*xual abuse, coming out, h*mophobia, b*phobia)
Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biophobia. The theme this year is 'Breaking the Silence' - "This year again, tens of thousands of us will speak up. We will take the space that is rightfully ours, because our voices, our stories, our lived realities matter!"
The theme resonates with me deeply. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, silence was something that became a part of my life very early on - silence and secrets*. To keep a secret one must be silent. Whenever an opportunity arises when you could speak** your truth, you experience that invisible hand covering your mouth from a distance. A psychological imprisonment made of threats, fear, and shame - one of the many reasons why survivors often do not disclose even decades later.
It was a circumstance that would become even more ingrained and familiar as I learned just how many 'secrets' I was meant to keep. My bisexuality and gender nonconformity being high on that list too. As a child, who has to keep silent about so many things, you learn to listen well - and you can hear or observe a lot. Every homophobic 'joke', every declaration that same-sex relationships are a 'sin', every time dyke and queer are used as an 'insult'. Even before you know that those words relate to you, you can learn that they are 'bad'. So, quickly those parts of you need to be kept a secret too.
Whenever an opportunity arises when you could speak your truth, you experience that invisible hand covering your mouth from a distance. A psychological imprisonment made of threats, fear, and shame...
Those secrets can be devastating in two ways - 1. that you are experiencing multiple forms of abuse (i.e. sexual, reparative/homphobic/transphobic/biphobic abuse) and 2. that you can't tell anyone about it or voice your truth - whatever that may be.
The physical and emotional impacts of silence in this context can be significant. My silence always settled at the top of my chest and in my throat. A constant ache and pain - that got worse every time I was made to stay silent about who I was and what I had experienced. The cost of masking, or filtering every statement, movement, and thought, to match that expected of you (and/or forced upon you) can be exhausting.
Have you ever faked a smile for the sake of another person's expectations or to avoid conflict? Imagine holding that projected image for days, weeks, or even years - and the pain that would result from having to consciously hold that expression. Imagine that stopping to smile could result in a wide range of outcomes, including violence. Think about the pain in the muscles of your face, and how it would get harder to do and more painful the longer you had to do it. Now imagine that it's not a smile, but everything about a part of who you are. It's a price many pay to be safe(r) - and to survive.
When I was 18, I tried to come out as bisexual. Having tried for many years with no success (most often being told that there was no such thing), I decided that having recently moved to a new area that I could try again and have a new start. Full of nerves and butterflies I said the words, 'I think I'm bisexual'. The response was similar to what I had experienced before ('that's not a real thing') followed by two additional points that further silenced me for over a decade - 'There's something wrong with you. Don't ever tell anyone what you just told me.'
It came from a place of fear and an attempt to protect me (and a healthy dose of biphobia and bi-erasure). Knowing the hostility I was likely to experience, silence seemed safer - and that can be the case for many. But the forced silence, of not being believed, being pathologised, and being told that I must stay silent about this forever or something terrible would happen, meant that I buried a part of myself so deep that I barely knew it existed anymore.
Then, when I was researching sexual abuse in my twenties, I read Audre Lorde's essay 'The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action'. I related to so much of it as a queer survivor. The phrase 'Your silence will not protect you' echoed in my mind for years. Because I had been told the opposite so many times by abusers - and living in a context of such fear and secrecy I had never doubted it.
I came out as bisexual in 2017 and as genderfluid in 2018. But behind that short statement of 'I'm bisexual' or 'I'm genderfluid', was years of advocating for LGBT+ rights, challenging and educating those who knew me about LGBT+ issues, and surrounding myself with allies and a queer and trans community that meant when I finally refused to be silenced, I had the support I needed. Breaking my silence meant that I could make those connections - coming out slowly to more and more people as I met others like me.
...being told that I must stay silent about this forever or something terrible would happen, meant that I buried a part of myself so deep that I barely knew it existed anymore.
Another important aspect for me, which relates to Audre Lorde's piece so much, was the decision that keeping the secret was worse than the consequences of speaking out. Knowing that I could lose support I had depended on my whole life, and knowing that I had to do it anyway - whether that was publicly stating that I had been sexually abused or coming out. As Lorde states, "For we have been socialised to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us."
I think too often we envisage 'Breaking the Silence' as a sudden and immediate act - like breaking glass. And it can be, but it can also be a long process of finding your voice and your truth - that can first involve breaking the lies you were told - to speaking your truth when it feels right for you.
You can read more about my experiences of growing up as a queer and genderfluid survivor in my new book chapter - 'Sexual abuse and Surviving with(in) Psychology' published in #Metoo: Counsellors and Psychotherapists Speak about Sexual Violence and Abuse.
*I'm using the term 'secret' here intentionally, to show how the harmful silencing of victims and survivors, both by abusers and rape culture, is often framed in this way - that minimises the violence of that silence as well as putting the blame on the survivor for *doing* something (i.e. keeping a secret) rather than on the abuser (i.e. forcing/threatening a survivor to be silent as a part of the abuse), and the cultural context (i.e. gaslighting and disbelieving survivors when they do speak out).
**I use the term 'speak' to refer to the many ways that such experiences can be communicated. This can include a wide range of different forms of communication, as well as appreciating that survivors may not be able to describe their experience - especially if the trauma occurred when they were very young and/or unconscious (for example). I often refer to voice and speaking in this post specifically, as I am drawing on my own lived experiences, which may be different from those who communicate in other ways.