Last week Michelle Shocked sat outside the venue of a cancelled show in Santa Cruz, Calif., wearing duct tape across her mouth, with the phrase "Silenced By Fear" on it, and a sign next to her that asked, "Does speech scare you that much?" The singer/songwriter had several bookings cancelled after she encouraged the audience at a San Francisco nightclub to tweet that she had proclaimed, "God hates fags." Clearly Shocked has no idea what it means to be truly silenced by fear. If she did, she would not have made such a dangerous and ugly proclamation from the stage, nor would she have followed up with her "performance art" piece outside Moe's Alley.
What Shocked doesn't understand is that those of us who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) wear invisible duct tape over our mouths every day -- not as a publicity stunt but as a mode a survival. We remain silent to avoid personal and familial rejection, to keep our jobs and our homes and to protect our physical safety. Our fear is real. Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT and cite family rejection as the primary reason that they are living on the street. Over two dozen states still allow employers and landlords to discriminate based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity, leaving the LGBT community economically vulnerable. Between 2009 and 2010 researchers found that violent crimes against the LGBT community rose despite growing public support for the expansion of rights. Suzanna Walters, author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, linked the rise in violent assaults to increased visibility, writing that "the more visible you are as a community the more vulnerable you are, too. ... There is a protection in the closet, as awful as that is."
Shocked clearly never served in our armed forces, where tens of thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual service members were required by law to remain silent or risk discharge, harassment and even death. Shocked obviously didn't know about Seaman Allen Schindler and Pfc. Barry Winchell, who were both killed by men they were serving with because they were gay. She must not have known that Winchell was referred to as a "fucking faggot" by the members of his unit, or that Schindler's killer announced that he "hated homosexuals."
Shocked must be unaware that LGBT youth have one of the highest rates of suicide. She must not have paid attention last year as one gay youth after another chose the silence of death over a young life filled with statements like the one she uttered from the stage in San Francisco. According to GLSEN, over 91 percent of LGBT youth report frequently hearing anti-gay slurs or expressions, and more than 64 percent describe feeling unsafe at school. In 2012 the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects reported that LGBT youth were almost three times as likely to experience physical violence as those 30 or older. And bullying has been identified as a contributing factor in most LGBT youth suicide.
I don't begrudge Shocked or anyone their opinion regarding homosexuality. Indeed, I encourage an open debate on the issues. When opinions like Shocked's are exposed to public scrutiny, they eventually wither and die. We saw this as the proponents of Proposition 8 and DOMA struggled to support their positions in front of the Supreme Court last week. Even Bill O'Reilly, who once worried that marriage equality would lead to support for bestiality, had to admit that their arguments were weak. Nonetheless, once Shocked decided to engage in the debate (as she claims she was trying to do), she needed to do so civilly and with an understanding of the underlying realities. The LGBT community doesn't fear the debate; its members fear the very real threat posed by those who hold opinions like Shocked, a distinction apparently lost on her.