How A Black Lesbian Poet Helped Me Find My Truth
It was the spring semester of 1992, and I was a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis. I had enrolled in an Introduction to Women’s Studies course, and the professor assigned us an essay by Audre Lorde, self-described as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Little did I know at the time that my life was about to be altered dramatically and irrevocably — for the better — and I would learn first-hand the power of language to shape the world.
In a brief yet profound piece, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Lorde shared what her daughter said about the dangers of speaking: “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 flashed through my mind like a bolt of lightning. After reading them, I uttered to myself for the very first time, “I’m gay.”
The early ’90s were a different era. Public support for the LGBT community (the “Q,” “A”,” and “I” didn’t come until later) was scant. Gay students were losing scholarships from the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and the infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy was just around the corner. Only five years earlier, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court had held that the 14th Amendment in no way protected gays and lesbians from anti-sodomy laws; gay sex was still a criminal act in many states. At the time that “I’m gay” was passing across my lips, the media often whispered homosexuality and AIDS together in the same breath, as if synonymous. It’s hard to convey what it feels like to have never thought of your sexuality without also thinking of AIDS or being arrested by the police. For all those reasons, accepting that I was gay wasn’t easy.
But by sharing her daughter’s powerful message, 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, for which I am eternally grateful. During the next three weeks, I came out to everyone I knew and discovered the freedom and joy, and the occasional pain and rejection, that comes from speaking one’s truth.
Lorde’s impact on my life is a testament to the power of our words to change the lives of others for the better. Her words taught me three powerful lessons about language:
- Your words have power. Your words don’t have to be published as an article or a book. Your words on social media and in everyday conversation have power. The comment you make to your friend or partner or neighbor or a stranger can wield enormous strength. Even the smallest comment can lift someone up or send them spiraling downward. And if you do write, like on Medium, respect the power of your words. Lorde’s essay literally changed my life. What effect might your words have?
- You can never anticipate the impact your words are going to have. Even though I may not have been Lorde’s intended audience, her words still transformed me. She also taught me that when we share our stories, open our hearts, and choose to be vulnerable, we can touch a chord in someone else, regardless of our perceived differences. A key aspect of Lorde’s work was about embracing the complexities of our personal identities. This is an important reminder for readers too, to not close yourself off from potential sources of wisdom; you cannot know whose words will inspire you.
- Choose words to inspire love, not fear. Each of us has the power to use words for good. We create the world with our words, and we can choose to create love, compassion, unity, and forgiveness or we can choose to create fear, anger, jealousy, or hatred. Lorde’s writing made visible the invisible and bridged rather than deepened our differences: “The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an at, tempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” Imagine if Lorde had said that it was better not to speak your truth or that staying in the closet was necessary for one’s survival. I might have embraced that lesson instead, leading to a life of repression.
Just as Lorde’s writing inspired me, I am certain that living life openly as a gay man has helped others. I have uttered the words “I’m gay” countless times as an affirmation of my existence, as a way of saying that this form of being human is real and that you can’t ignore or reject me for it. So much so that I thought that I had mastered coming out of the closet.
In recent years, however, I have learned what it means to come out of the “spiritual” closet.
I spent most of my intellectual life as a professor and a lawyer in a world where reason and science reign supreme and spirituality is routinely disregarded as superstition or stupidity. To speak about my experiences in higher consciousness where I am filled with a blissful light for hours or receive powerful messages from the divine has invited considerable scorn, if not outright charges of mental illness. It was always a lot easier at a dinner party to say that I was an attorney rather than an intuitive and healer. As a close friend, who is also an intuitive, once said to me, “You might as well tell people you can walk through walls.”
Once again, Lorde’s wisdom has served as my touchstone. In that same essay, she writes: “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.”
I have chosen to risk some bruises by embarking on a path of writing and speaking about what it means to be on a spiritual path, with stories of my spiritual awakening, including experiences that might seem embarrassing.
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. I can loudly proclaim, echoing Lorde, that I am a “gay, intuitive, healer, writer.” So I write from my heart and trust the power of my words to awaken someone else to the radical truth of what it means to be a divine spirit in a human body — and to let them know that they are not alone in this world.