Queer Voice = Life

In this blog entry, Michael Sadowski, author of In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood, describes the various life experiences that informed his new book.

Like many young gay men coming out in the 1980s, I often wore buttons that proclaimed pride in my newfound gay identity after emerging from the shadowy silence of adolescence.  One button that was common among my contemporaries featured a pink triangle–the Nazi symbol for homosexual—on a black background and the slogan: Silence = Death, a statement of protest against government inaction in the face of mounting death counts that disproportionately fell on the gay male community. It was years before I began to understand more fully the meaning of this equation and its far-reaching and critical corollary for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identifying (LGBTQ) individuals, especially young people: Queer Voice = Life.silence=death

In the 1990s, I taught English and theatre at a high school in Massachusetts. During my tenure, a brave group of students—including “Jake” (pseudonym), the only out gay student I knew of at the school—approached me about starting a gay-straight alliance. After weeks of administrative resistance, the students ultimately prevailed and the GSA was born. It was too late for Jake, though—not long after the founding of the GSA, Jake somewhat mysteriously dropped out of school. I had a hard time finding out details about Jake’s departure, yet I couldn’t help wondering whether the accumulated stress of being the only out gay student, the reluctance of school officials to address LGBTQ issues, and the harassment he experienced were major factors in his decision to leave.

In the year 2000, seeking a wider reach for my work on the issues affecting LGBTQ students, I returned to graduate school to pursue a doctorate.. Sitting in a lecture hall at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, I listened as psychologist Carol Gilligan (author of the feminist classic In a Different Voice) talked about the ways adolescent girls’ voices are silenced in a patriarchal culture, and how they often silence themselves and drive aspects of their true thoughts, knowledge, and feelings “underground” in order to get along in a male-dominated world. The consequences of this silence include  spikes in girls’ depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation (cutting), and other physical and psychological symptoms at the onset of adolescence. Although Gilligan and her colleagues weren’t talking about queer youth, I saw my own past experiences and those of many students I had known as a high school teacher, including Jake, in a startling new light. Hadn’t I silenced myself for years in various ways to survive in a world where heterosexuality was the norm? Might that have been what ultimately happened to Jake?  When his true voice as a queer student wasn’t sufficiently heard or valued in a heterosexually dominated high school culture, did he silence his own voice completely in that culture by simply dropping out? And if so, how did that decision affect his options later in life?Sadowski

During my graduate school years, I also became involved with the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. As a commissioner in this organization, I became deeply immersed in state data that showed dramatically higher incidence of skipping school, suicide attempts, depression, substance abuse, and other risks among queer youth than among their heterosexual peers. To cite just one pair of statistics, queer youth have suicide attempt rates three to four times those of heterosexual youth, and between one-quarter and one-third report that they have attempted suicide. The disparate pieces began to fit together. Did statistics like these represent the ultimate costs of the silencing of LGBTQ young people? And if so, what might happen if they we made it safer for more queer youth to bring their voices out from “underground?”

In a Queer Voice-smThese questions drive the research profiled in In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood. In my in-depth interviews with LGBTQ youth, I heard stories that chronicled how queer youths’ voices were stifled at school, at home, and in society. . But I also heard nascent voices of resistance to these silencing forces, kids who found supportive relationships with peers, teachers, family members, and institutions. Following a few of these young people into adulthood with another set of interviews six years later, I was able to hear the full emergence of unique queer voices—young adults who have a strong belief in themselves and their right to live their lives as they choose.

For these young people, the emergence of a “queer voice” was associated with psychological health and well-being and with the cessation of their risk behaviors. As Lindsay, one of the research participants who had attempted suicide before she felt safe coming out, explained, “I can talk to people now. . . [Before] I never talked to anybody, and that was hard.” For Lindsay and numerous other young people profiled in In a Queer Voice, silence really could kill, and finding a queer voice was a lifeline.

In In a Queer Voice, I describe how voices once silenced in adolescence learned to break free and the lessons their examples can teach us about how to nurture other voices that still go unheard. If applying these lessons has a chance to save even one young life, we are obligated to try.

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