My Tempered Voice

When my sister and I were little, my parents would drop us off at my grandparent’s house every Thursday while they went and played in a mixed doubles tennis league. Our favorite thing to do on Thursdays was dress up in my grandma’s clothes and costume jewelry, put on old Polish records and dance around the living room in circles. My sister Claire got to pick any clothes and jewelry she liked, while my grandma gave me a few options from older, less special items.

“You are too rough,” she would say to me. “I don’t want you to ruin my things.”

It made me sad, that she didn’t trust me with her very best. But I knew even then that the special dress up outfits were not worth tempering my spirit.

In mid-December, I was at the height of my fall semester exhaustion from writing at an inhumane clip to hit a deadline. In the middle of the fog, I got an email from one of my editors telling me that two chapters I had written for a Catholic publication needed to be changed. They had not passed through the censor. I got immediately defensive, overly dramatic and self-righteous, mostly because I was just too tired to have one more thing put on my plate.

The chapters were about teen identity formation, in terms of gender and sexuality. After working with young people in the classroom about gender and sexuality, I knew what I had written was effective. Young people found freedom and liberation in the conversation. Working together, we had come to some things that I believed to be true. The censor said things like:

Every woman is not a free agent here, nor is every man.

And the ensuing comment that the sex we are born with “does not need to come with strict rules about how to express your gender in the world” is not one that I could sign off with as a censor.

The thesis that one can be born “inter-sexed” is both confusing to me and a red flag to a censor liborum. I don’t know what or whom this term describes exactly, but I am sure that many a bishop—including ours—will not concede that such a phenomenon is a natural one at birth.

This is not my first experience with being censored, written or otherwise. People, mostly older men, have been telling me since I was a girl to use a nicer voice when I speak, to be more gentle and subdued. I have been told that my angry voice is not as effective as my calm voice. Maybe that is true. But I believe there is room for anger in our collective quest for truth. We cannot let our passion for freedom of speech atrophy.

Before earning a name and reputation in the published world, publishing something that is bold is a constant battle of chess-like subtleties in word choice. It is an endless series of small concessions and compromise with the people who hold the power to publish your words. Maybe it is true that I am not yet rhetorically capable of effectively articulating the hatred and systemic oppression I see in the world today. But I do believe it is not enough to be an artist. We live in a political time, where artists need to work against being silenced. The will to silence the truth is always as strong as truth itself.

Being censored, even this little bit, makes me think of the people who really risk to have their voices heard: women on hunger strikes, men writing on prison walls with their own spit, survivors of massacres and genocides who write incessantly, fearing that we will deny history or forget what humans are capable of. I think of the Chorus when Antigone chooses conscience over law, “Isn’t man wonderful? He longed so much to speak his heart that he taught himself language, so that what was inside him could be spoken to the world.”

Some friends, classmates, co-workers continue to passively or actively question my Catholicism, my faith. They flippantly tell me to walk away, and some judge me when I stay. How little they must understand of the feminist nuns, the leftist liberation theologians and the Catholic workers who raised me to speak truth to power. Jesus’ message was subversive and political to his society. It is not that easy to walk away. It is a daily question of jurisdiction. Is my voice more strategic tempered from the inside or raging from the outside?

This time, I chose to speak tempered from the inside. After I rested, I went back to the censor’s comments and my words and made subtle concessions and compromises so that young people may read the truth that still resides in the chapters. Next time, I may decide differently. I find my respite in Paul Monette, “All so precious and fragile. Don’t let anyone tell you that the truth can’t disappear.” I will continue to use my voice however I can. And I will put on my tattered clothes and old costume jewelry and dance to Polish records like there’s no tomorrow.