Language or Silence

September 15, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: I’m old enough to remember when gay was a carefree little word, more innocent even than happy. Children were gay, people said. Flowers were gay. A bright morning in May was gay. One said, “I am gay,” and nobody snickered.

Language is a social event – people talking, making sense of each other talking. Look, all around the city, words passing from person to person to person. The air is filled with nouns and verbs and adjectives – the simplest of conversations cements the entire city. But to describe oneself with a society’s words is to acknowledge oneself as belonging to that society. But what happens when a society doesn’t have the words to describe what I am feeling, or doesn’t want to acknowledge me in words?

The homosexual oppression has always been silence – wanting to say, not being able to say the love that dare not speak its name. No wonder that the language of homosexuality was best expressed through irony, double entendre, and code words. A man I know – elderly now in Florida – when he was a boy went to a public library. There was no place else he thought to go in his early adolescence to find himself in a dictionary. No one he knew – least of all those people he loved best – would have allowed the word he was looking for in the dictionary. Before it became a public word, a defiant political term, “gay” was a code word, a nonsense word spoken in private, in shadows, nothing innocent or carefree about it, but a word coded with irony, a way of saying without having to say, I am homosexual, at a time when it was a criminal offense.

The Castro District of San Francisco today is one of the most striving of the city. The revolution of the 1970’s that made possible these homosexual bars and churches and stores was nothing less than a linguistic revolution. Words made these buildings possible, more than mortar and bricks and steel. Foremost among those words was that little word “gay.”

DEMONSTRATORS: Gay power now. Gay power now.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In the 1970’s, men and women on these streets and in large cities all over America suddenly were inclined to speak, to shout out the absurd little word, to say that they were gay, making the code word public, coming out of the closet with nothing less than a willingness to speak, to tell strangers, tell one’s friends, tell one’s boss, and, hardest of all, to tell one’s family. A counter movement has been forming in recent years, a movement back towards silence.

A few days after President Clinton took office, for example, he met considerable opposition when he proposed changing the U.S. military’s prohibition against gays in the military – a compromise. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was no compromise at all. It was, in fact, a victory for silence. Now, there are signs that a new offensive is being organized by Americans, who are morally offended by homosexuality and consider it a serious offense against God and the natural order. A new candor has sounded lately in the Congress, congressmen speaking bluntly of homosexuality as a sin or as a psychological affliction.

The cultural war ahead will be a war between language and silence, where if gays can be kept from saying aloud that they are gays, then homosexuality in some sense will diminish as a political issue, an employment issue, a civil rights issue, as a reality at all. Both sides seem to recognize the importance of the moment, because language is social. To force a word into currency can be a revolutionary act, or to suppress it, counter-revolutionary. In the end, there is no more central book to any society than a dictionary, the words it admits or omits from its pages.

How do you suppose future editions of this dictionary will define the word “gay?” I say it today. I am gay. I toss the word in the air. I say it in the plain light of day. Brutally, I force this word upon you. I say it in a louder voice: I am gay. It is in your power to accept my sentence as meaningful or appropriate in this public moment, or to resist it, to turn away toward silence, to make me invisible.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.