Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival” is a revolutionary poem that confronts the civil and social injustices she has experienced throughout her life. This poem acknowledges the fears I feel moving through the world from the closet. She truly understands these fears and empowers her readers to regain confidence in our survival and our success. Thus, I believe this poem is an essential read for those in the LGBT+ community looking for healing and empowerment.
Why Every Queer Person Should Read “A Litany for Survival”
Normally, one wakes up to an alarm or a tap on the shoulder. I, however, woke up after a light doze on the car ride to school to a surreal fact casually stated by my dad. Our governor is gay.
At 8 pm on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, Democrat Maura Healey was declared the new governor-elect for Massachusetts. Healey has served as the Massachusetts Attorney General since 2015, demonstrating sufficient experience in advocacy and policy. She has tackled powerful institutions, joined numerous efforts to hold Former President Donald Trump accountable for his actions discriminating against Muslims, defended the rights of women’s healthcare, and more. She actively fought her way through the mess of American politics and prejudice to put her name down on the ballot, and she won. Maura Healey is confident, professional, and successful in politics no less while being gay? No, publicly gay. Proudly gay.
Why was this so hard to believe? I’m fully aware that one’s sexuality has no influence over one’s talents. I still strive for excellence and success, while my crush lingers in the back of my mind. But to put yourself so far out into the world–where the knives couldn’t care less about your humanity, where you are more likely to be the issue on trial than the ones debating it–sounds paradoxical. I monotonously responded to my dad with an “oh, that’s cool,” while my mind raced, spiraling through shock, fear, excitement, doubt, and bewilderment; my dad sits next to me oblivious to my dilemma. Is she supposed to be there? Hundreds of thousands of people actually voted for her? For someone like her? The same people I see walking down the street or driving to work walked into their polling station the day before and filled in… the gay bubble.
My hesitancy to embrace her success troubled me until Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival” identified, acknowledged, and detailed my doubt. Lorde’s poem opens up a dialogue about the overwhelming influence of fear within queer people’s lives that is especially present when in the closet. It is an essential read for those of us in battle with an unlabeled fear of coming out. After identifying the secrecy and lack of space for queer people within society, Lorde recognizes the emotional turmoil that arises from the isolation of the closet, which sparks a feeling of connection and acceptance within me.
To begin her poem, Lorde addresses unlabeled readers and connects to them with various oppressive or distressing experiences. She begins, “For those of us who live at the shoreline standing upon the constant edges of decision crucial and alone.” While this vague statement intends to and can refer to a wide range of people, queer people’s continuous experience of coming out time and time again can trigger the isolation Lorde describes. The first time you come out to another person can and often is quite a daunting task, but it does not stop there. Every person you meet is another opportunity to come out. Each person's experience is different; I personally spend an exhausting amount of mental energy wrestling with the question: to come out, or not to come out? The question pushes me onto “the constant edges of decision,” edges that can be quite sharp or dangerous if one falls the wrong way and answers incorrectly. More often than not, the emotional distress occurs solely within my head while I continue to engage in a conversation or activity, creating a desolate experience in which I feel “alone” while not physically lonely. While this question can be taxing and isolating, Lorde’s written call for connection to those who feel similarly builds a sense of recognition and validation.
Lorde also explicitly addresses queer people by describing them as people “who love in doorways coming and going in the hours between dawns.” Doors open and close, free and imprison, reveal and hide. Doorways, specifically, refer to the space between these two states. Love for queer people can become a complicated balance between expressing and repressing. Many people cannot or choose not to be open about their relationships or sexuality due to their marginalization from society. The doorways Lorde describes allude to the idea of “being in the closet.” A closet is a small room that includes doors that open and close and a doorway that indicates the divide. Coming in and out of the closet as you navigate different relationships and spaces can be seen as “coming and going” in the doorways Lorde depicts. If a relationship or identity is hidden, it is not exposed to the light or public view and therefore is hidden “in the hours between dawns,” otherwise known as the concealing darkness of night. It is important to note, for the ease of the reader, that Lorde affirms that love exists in these lives. Despite the chaos and distress of hiding, love persists within the acknowledged reader’s life.
Society is unfortunately a space of extreme heteronormativity that can drastically demoralize queer youth. This heteronormative ideology is imprinted deep within people’s mind starting at a young age through uniform representation. Lorde compares the passing of standards and beliefs through generations to a “faint line in the center of our foreheads.” While society’s rigid definition of what is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ is not always stated explicitly, it persistently influences how we view ourselves and others, no matter how “faint” or subtle these standards may be defined. Fear comes into play when we explore what is outside the norm. Because the standards decide who society deems acceptable, the fear of not conforming is figuratively “imprinted” into people’s minds, especially non-heterosexual individuals as their identity, love, and desired future is often unacceptable or ‘unnatural’ in the eyes of others. Queer youth, unfortunately, frequently grow up fearing who they’ve become, the reactions of those around them, the prospects of their future, and much more. True acceptance and support is hard to come by for many young queer people and is rarely guaranteed. So, many view the closet as an “illusion of some safety.” If they don’t know, they can’t hurt you. They aren’t yet disappointed in you or awkward around you. Their illusion of you may be false, but it can feel safer to play a foreign role than be physically or mentally distressed because of something so personal as your true identity. At times, the risk of coming out is too high for one’s physical or emotional safety, and for some, it can simply be the battle within one’s self that is the greatest influence. Regardless, fear weighs down on us from a young age and is difficult to erase, and this poem’s understanding of the suffocation of fear can ease the pain and minimize the isolation.
Because fear can tunnel one’s view of reality, Lorde exposes the reality of constant worry and alienation. For many queer people, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid.” Due to the exclusion of queer people in places of power and publicity and its prejudiced justifications, the voices of queer people are often ignored or not “welcomed.” The perpetuation of this exclusion can motivate queer people into self-silencing and self-isolation. However, Lorde reveals that the alternative, remaining silent, is just as terrifying. Silence does not rid one’s life of prejudice and judgment. It does not make one feel more included or like they belong in that space; it can often worsen this feeling of isolation or loneliness. By bringing this oxymoron to the attention of the reader, Lorde questions the purpose and effect of self-silencing. Because the act of silencing and speaking up can arise similar fears, one can argue that one might as well speak up, as the experience could be equally distressing, and only speaking up could cause change.
I will not state that speaking up is always the best option. It may not be safe. It may not be accessible. But it will never be easy, comfortable, or without fear. I believe Lorde and I would both agree that isolation and marginalization should never be the acceptable or normalized state for human beings. Coming out can be a terrifying process, and unfortunately, it is still not easy or attainable to do today. Many queer people experience the doubt, fear, and alienation Lorde describes. However, I hope that Lorde’s words and direct address to those who feel marginalized can make the experiences of coming out and navigating life through a queer lens a little less isolating. Hopefully, acceptance and support from the world and our own ability to persevere with confidence increases as we grow. Not all queer people experience these daunting emotions or to the same scale that I described, but for most queer people, the hardships one faces can be discouraging or isolating. For me, Lorde’s words brought a sense of validation to experiences and emotions that are often difficult to describe, and I hope your comfort in your identity grows with mine while you read Lorde’s work.