How self-censorship put me back in the closet

Every morning I’m up at seven trying to knock out 2,000 words before noon. Some days I’m more successful than others, but I’m persistent, and focused — because the need to express runs deep. What I want is to tell a story, or write a poem, that moves someone the way I’ve been moved by the writers I love. It’s a simple desire in theory, but in reality the most profound challenge I’ve known, and a delicate balance. Any impulse to censor myself or reign in my imagination would run counter to my dreams as a writer and my spirit as a human being. As a lesbian and a writer,  censorship is familiar is to me. I know what it can do — or rather — undo. For years, I’ve considered such oppression far behind me. Until now.

My current education regarding the whole matter of censorship — of the self and of others — began a couple of years ago when I opened a Twitter account. I expected a lively exchange of ideas, interesting connections, updates on books, science, nature. And such things did exist, depending on who I followed. But I also found the lack of civility in certain Twitter exchanges so disturbing that I began to consider deactivating my account every time I logged in. Some of the topics in question mattered to me — issues around women, sexuality, gender, sex-based rights, and freedom of expression — but rather than wade in, or shut the account down, I continued reading, and shut myself down instead.

This self-censorship (I had to admit that’s what it was) continued over months of exposure to the opinions of people who demanded a personal platform, but opposed — if only in their manner of response — granting the same right to others. Those who challenged the vocal status quo — who had concerns, for instance, about the implications of sex-self-identification with regard to the future of women’s sports; or the repercussions of prescribing hormones to children; or the consequences of performing surgery based on what might be half-formed, even temporary, notions of gender identity — were often treated with disdain and insults. Biological fact, science-based reality, studies conducted by scholars over years — all seemed open to ridicule. The candor of those pushing back sometimes put their careers at risk. I found such treatment horrifying, thuggish, and degrading.

My silence added to my desire to close the account, because I felt horrible playing the role of passive spectator or voyeur in regard to debates I found deeply troubling. Most disturbing of all was that this tamping down of personal expression sometimes emanated from a literary and activist community that, as a lesbian and writer, I once considered my own. Literary legend Margaret Atwood, for example, was interrogated and denigrated for expressing her own view of feminism and accountability. There was no room for an exchange of ideas or respectful disagreement. Rather, there was a complete lack of respect, civility, and willingness to engage without bitter rancour. Nothing less than changing one’s point of view would do.

I decided not to close my account just yet, and instead went back into the closet again for a good old stretch of quiet time. I used that time to think about how on earth I’d lost the will to engage. In the 80s, I contributed to a lesbian and gay activist magazine and marched in Toronto’s LGBT parade before it became a corporate opportunity, and when it was still somewhat dicey to “come out” at work. Later, I published a collection of love poems and a novel, all towards claiming my voice as a lesbian and freeing my voice as a writer.

I’m not patting myself on the back — there’s nothing to flaunt. I wasn’t an activist in the efficient, dedicated ways that others were. But I was involved and supportive — a lesbian with feminist principles. So why, all these years later, had I forgotten how to say what I opposed, agreed with, or truly felt? This new closet of mine was darker than any I’ve known.

Then, on October 29, 2019, a protest rally took place in front of the Toronto Public Library (TPL) where feminist and writer Meghan Murphy gave a talk, entitled, “Gender identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law, and Women?”

I admitted to myself and a few friends that if I still lived in Toronto I would have liked to attend. I, too, worry about the loss and safety of women’s private spaces. I am concerned about the rising number of girls who believe they have been born into the wrong body, and the return of gender conformity notions I thought were gone for good, largely as a result of the hard work done within the feminist movement, over decades. I watched the TPL protest online from 3,000 miles away and began to fear that we are not only throwing away that hard work, but that we have begun to erase and revile it. It is heartbreaking and disturbing to see lifelong feminists, women, generally, and lesbians overall, slandered and harassed because they will not — cannot — agree that their ineffable presence is reducible to someone else’s baseless notion of what it means to be — or to love — a woman. Women are not simply a set of stereotypes, a pair of heels, a vague “essence.” And a lesbian is not a man who identifies as a lesbian.

I can only imagine the mental suffering involved when a person feels their biological sex doesn’t match up with their psychological view of themselves. But I wish someone could tell me: what, exactly, does it “feel” like to be a woman? When I ask this question of myself, or the women I know, many of our answers are simply indicative of what it means to be human — the joy of being alive, the pleasures of a good wine, of sex, of friendships, and creative work. But other defining qualities of womanhood are so integral to the fabric of femininity that they leap to mind right away, everything from physical vulnerability while walking alone at night, to the undeniability of monthly hormonal changes. Migraines related to menstruation defined the lives of the women in my family straight through to menopause. Fear of unwanted pregnancy, decisions related to having children (or not), the specific biological issues women face in aging — I could go on. But lately a new feeling has come over me as I see the term “woman” tossed away and replaced with “people,” or pre-fixed with “cis.” What does it feel like to be a woman? More and more the answer has become: erased.

No compassionate person would argue in favour of depriving anyone’s human rights, including those who identify as transgender. Instead, I know people — straight, gay, lesbian, bi — who have been supportive of diverse forms of sexual expression and alternate lifestyles for most of their adult lives, since we actively supported and defended each other’s right to exist (and throw fabulous dance parties) decades ago. For some, this is because we’ve weathered various forms of oppression ourselves. Many of us have dealt with mental health issues. For others, ongoing support is a matter of loyalty and affection for individuals in our own families, or among our friends, who may be struggling with psychological or identity issues of their own. But desiring to support those who identify as transgender should not mean we ignore the fact that women’s sex-based realities and challenges are unique and complex. Women have faced (and continue to face) an ongoing struggle to win, protect, or simply maintain our rights. Those of us who have been accepting and “inclusive” for years, but still wish to discuss and protect women’s rights and needs — only to be met with a violent, oppressive reaction — are justifiably angry.

I’m shocked to realize how precarious it has become to express something so unremarkable as concern for the rights of women and girls without having to consider repercussions, such as those Ms. Murphy, and her audience, endured at the TPL as hecklers chanted, “Walk of shame” in the faces of people who had come to hear an exchange of ideas by a feminist concerned about the rights of women. These scenes were repeated at a public library in Seattle where another feminist panel was said to be proliferating “hate speech” for discussing what is perhaps the most poignant feminist issue of our time.

Speaking of hate speech and shame: how much history would a person have to have forgotten — or never known —  in order to support toting signs with “Fuck TERFs” scrawled across them?

“TERF” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) is a made-up phrase reduced to an acronym that summarily denies the accused the right to her opinion, and worse. To observe an interesting use of public space at another public library, see an “art exhibit” displayed at the San Francisco Public Library in April 2018, featuring a selection of baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire, pink sledgehammers, and tank-tops spattered with red paint. The central message of the “manifesto”? “Punch TERFS.” Let’s be clear who the intended recipients of these beatings are: feminists, lesbians — women.

What has happened to the art of listening in good faith? What has happened to generosity, respect, and grace?

I’ve just finished reading Madeleine Albright’s 2018 book, Fascism, A Warning. I’m strongly opposed to using terms like “fascism” inaccurately, but many aspects of Albright’s book are pertinent to this whole matter of power, oppression, and censorship. Her book is dedicated: “To the victims of fascism, then and now. And to all who fight fascism in others, and in themselves.” Those last three words are both sobering and terrifying to me. Because it turns out that I was right to leave the Twitter account open awhile longer, although I have since thrown in the towel. I needed to be shown how easy it is to ignore your own instincts, to let down your guard in respect to freedom of expression, to leave civil discourse abandoned in the street.

I’ve also come to realize that our libraries and librarians not only house books; they also shelter them. If the library’s public spaces exclude the expression of certain ideas merely because a rally, or crowd, insists they are the wrong ideas, then it’s only a matter of time before libraries aren’t safe for certain books either — or any ideas at all. And when that happens the only place left for a writer, or reader, will be a small, dark room.

Brenda Brooks is a novelist and poet who relies more and more often on a good glass of wine.

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