This was my mother’s declaration after every phone call with my Aunt. Their conversations were riddled with silences, things unsaid, things my mother knew she might never know. If my mother ever got so lucky as to hear the uncensored truth, she was always asked to keep it a secret.
She hated the secrets her sister’s family kept. Their secrets were compounded by religion—a crud mixture of fearing sin and imperfection behind a stained-glass image of the perfect Christian family. My mother and I never took to religion. She always thought “God” was some cruel comedian and I always imagined that a higher being would most likely be a women or genderless at best, so we never understood the advantages to secret-keeping.
As a child, I was a horrible liar. I could never remember the original untruth and my big mouth, equally eager for food and gossip, could hardly keep a secret. I could never remember what I told one person and didn’t tell another. I could never remember what detail in the story I altered to spare someone else’s feelings. I always thought secrets were too messy—the bigger the secret, the larger the silence and the more people continued to suffer.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, right around the time I started writing a memoir, that I realized why our family is manufactured for secret-keeping. Shame, insecurity and silence come to us easier than that queasy feeling we get when we profess the truth—the ugly truth. Now that I am starting to piece together the silences and gather hidden family facts, I’ve discovered our family has suffered from years of domestic and child abuse, alcoholism, untreated mental illnesses and other ongoing destructive behaviors.
Even though these facts are no longer a secret to me, I still find myself saddened, angry and confused every time I put pen to paper to write my memoir. My family, a mighty, intelligent army of woman, must know the harm secret keeping has caused. Yet still, these secrets are kept.
So who I am to disrupt generations of closed mouths by being a brave writer and writing secrets? The same woman who always told me not to keep secrets in our house now questions why I write so openly about queer sex, gay marriage and the scary memories that lay dormant in my childhood.
“I guess I thought you’d be more of a quieter queer writer,” my mother once said.
I’ve responded to this question in many ways and have learned one thing to be true: queer writing is an act of bravery and resistance. In my case, it’s an act of resisting silence. Oddly enough, writing queerness has given me the courage to write family secrets.
If I don’t allow my words to create me into a loud, out, queer writer, my story may never be told. If my story isn’t told, little brown queer girls will be without a reflection and won’t know it’s safe to speak.
If I don’t write a memoir that holds a mirror to my family and asks them to start telling the truth to get closer to healing, no one else will.
There is a risk in being a writer willing to write stories that beg not to be told: maybe one day my mother’s words won’t make me question the volume of my queerness or maybe over time my fear of my family’s backlash will fade. In the meantime, no matter how much my pen trembles, I push through the fear and choose to write brave.
Ashley Young is a black feminist queer dyke; poet, non-fiction writer and teaching artist. She is a non-fiction 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow and a 2010 poetry participant of Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation Retreat for Writers of Color. She is the creator of an online writing project for women of color called Brown Girl Love and her work has been featured in performance spaces throughout New York City, such as Queer Memoir, NYC’s The Inspired Word, Happy Ending Lounge and the Brooklyn Public Library.
She is proud to be featured in Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion edited by Virgie Tobar (to be released November 2012) as well as upcoming publications in Gertrude Press, rkvry.com and Orchard Press’s Black Girl Anthology. Ashley is currently writing a queer erotic memoir. She lives in the West Village with her partner Sara and their four cats.