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We Have To Speak Up, And We Have To Teach Our Kids To Speak Up Too

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One Thanksgiving a couple of years before I came out as gay at age 39, I was sitting outside on a relative’s patio with a couple of cousins while we waited for the Turkey to finish up. I wasn’t talking much; just listening as one cousin brought up another cousin of ours who had come out as gay several years prior. My gay cousin was there at Thanksgiving with his boyfriend, who certain family members insisted on politely referring to as his “friend.”

So, one cousin asked the other if he would attend our gay cousin’s wedding, were ever such a wedding to occur. The response was a sneered “No,” with a derisive snort for good measure. When asked why not, he said, “Because I firmly believe that God made man and woman to be together, and homosexuality is a sin.”

As I listened, my skin heated up. Did he know he was also talking about me? Would it make any difference? I gritted my teeth but said nothing. My other cousin kept pressing him. She asked why it mattered to him how people love. She told him there’s nothing wrong with it, and that his view of it was messed up.

I wish I had spoken up. Actually, I wish I had spoken up and then left. I won’t ever put myself in the same room with that person again. I know enough about his life to know that his comments about “sin” were intensely hypocritical. I hate that I just sat there stewing in my rage, my heart racing, my hands shaking, and said nothing.

As far as anyone knew at the time, I was straight. I should have spoken up on behalf of my other cousin. He shouldn’t have been expected to show up to a place where his boyfriend couldn’t even be acknowledged as such, and everyone acted as if treating him that way was normal. It’s not normal, and I’m done staying quiet. I’ll be teaching my children the same.

The Problem With Silence

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Bigotry festers in silence. It fills the spaces where we fail to forbid it. As such, our silence is our permission. More than that, it is our complicity. Regarding racial equality, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about his frustration with the white moderate. “The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner,” he wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “But the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Dr. King’s words reverberate for all marginalized, oppressed, and abused groups. When the people who claim to care stand around watching but don’t speak up, they allow bigotry and injustice to persist. We cannot bite our tongues for the sake of keeping the peace. The only peace we keep when we do that is our own. The marginalized person continues to be subjected to emotional, and often physical, violence.

We have to speak up, and we have to teach our kids to speak up too.

I’m telling my son that I expect him to speak up when he witnesses other men talk about women in a problematic way. All parents must expect this. It has to be more than just a few boys speaking up. Our collective expectations must be higher. A TikTok clip, which went viral but has since been deleted, played a brief excerpt from comedian Daniel Sloss’s HBO special, “X.”

Sloss tells the audience, “This isn’t an attack. I’m not accusing you of anything, and more importantly, I’m not accusing your friends of anything. I’m just trying to tell you my experience. I knew this man for eight years and he fucking did it. There are monsters amongst us and they look like us.”

Sloss goes on to talk about the kind of thinking that abdicates responsibility: “Well, I’m not part of the problem, therefore I must be part of the solution.”

This is “moderate” behavior. Behaving well yourself and not demanding the same from your community is the promotion of a negative peace — a peace that applies to your group only but not the marginalized group in question. It is complicity. It is involvement. It is guilt.

“When one in ten men are shit and the other nine do nothing, they might as well not fucking be there,” Sloss says. He adds, “Were there signs in my friend’s behavior over the years towards women that I ignored? The answer is yes. And then he raped my friend. And that’s on me until the day I die.” Here Sloss acknowledges his complicity. He should have spoken up, but he didn’t. He could have prevented his friend’s rape, but he didn’t.

Whatever group you belong to, if you witness problematic behavior in that group and you don’t speak up, you are not innocent. You are not even simply “part of the problem.” You are actively complicit. If you are a Christian and you don’t speak up when your fellow Christians hide behind the Bible to justify their homophobia, you are complicit. If you’re a law enforcement officer and you don’t speak up when you witness fellow cops exhibiting racist behavior, you are complicit. If you are white and don’t speak up when you witness a fellow white person display racism or xenophobia, you are complicit. If you are a thin person and you don’t speak up when you hear another thin person make fatphobic remarks, you are complicit.

When one in ten are shit and the other nine do nothing, they might as well not fucking be there.

Allyship must extend to the system level, too.

It’s important to speak up among our friends, family, and coworkers, but it’s also important to affect change at the system level. Vote for representatives who acknowledge systems of marginalization and oppression and have a clear plan for addressing how to repair those systems. Campaign for those representatives, even if you can only donate 20 or 30 minutes per week. Call and email your senators, your state representatives, your city council, your school board. Speak up. Teach your kids to speak up. Let them see you doing this work. Read your emails aloud to them. Let them overhear the phone calls you make.

We have to speak up. We have to teach our kids to speak up. If we want to create a safer and more equitable world for future generations, we cannot choose our own comfort when it means others will be denied theirs. We have to do the work, both on an individual level and at the system level, or else we are complicit.

When one in ten are shit and the other nine do nothing, they might as well not fucking be there.

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