Tag Archives: Dan Savage

“The skies are full of them”

Adrienne Rich

The news of Adrienne Rich’s death yesterday leaves me simultaneously heavy-hearted, unfathomably grateful, and with an incrementally widening grin on my face.

Before Dan Savage created “It Gets Better,” Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde were two word warriors whose prose and poetry gave queer people like me a hand out of the hell of  compulsory heterosexuality. Rich and Lorde didn’t write about how it gets better. Their work implored, argued, persuaded, comforted, rallied, and railed in messages that conveyed that to be queer and to live out loud was not only possible, it was essential.

Audre Lorde

The grin that ambles across my face today is the result of contemplating the reunion of these two mighty women in whatever comes after this life (Lorde died of cancer in 1992). No longer weighed down and contained by their human bodies, what sort of poetry might they unleash? What new language will emerge from the unknown that they now inhabit? What constellations are bursting forth from their unfettered and now collaborative energies? The possibilities make a girl downright giddy and tearful all at once.

As Rich wrote in one of her essays:

“…Sisyphus is not, finally, a useful image. You don’t roll some unitary boulder of language or justice uphill; you try with others to assist in cutting and laying many stones, designing a foundation…My work is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold.”

You may not know it, but if you have spent any part of your life rolling the boulder of justice uphill, you have been in the company of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde — master builders and stone cutters.

Look up. The skies are full of them.


By Adrienne Rich

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750—1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses

Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled
in those spaces of the mind

An eye,

                           ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
                             from the mad webs of Uranusborg

                                                        encountering the NOVA

every impulse of light exploding

from the core
as life flies out of us

                  Tycho whispering at last
                 ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’

What we see, we see
and seeing is changing

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body

The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus

            I am bombarded yet                I stand

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep        so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me        And has
taken     I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images        for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

From The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2002)


A Litany for Survival

By Audre Lorde

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

From The Black Unicorn (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1978)

It Gets Better

During my junior year of high school, I started seeing glimmers of my oncoming queerness, and the idea of it made me feel physically ill. This was before the insult of choice was “faggot.” Back then, the most frequent, toxic insult boys hurled at each other was to sneer, “You WOMAN.” Nice, huh? So, I threw myself into other activities, dated the sweetest young man in the world, put a lid on my queerness, topped it off with an anvil, and tried not to think about it. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes.

The following summer, my sweet young man moved across the country leaving no forwarding address or phone number. What better time to spend a month away from home at the Blair Summer School for Journalism (BSSJ), at Blair Academy, in Blairstown, NJ!

The journalism program at my high school in western Missouri was exceptional, and our teacher, Ron Clemons, was on the staff at BSSJ every summer. I had been selected as the editor of our school newspaper, and Mr. Clemons wrangled scholarships at BSSJ for our assistant editor, Cathy, and me. When the end of June rolled around, Cathy and I joined Mr. Clemons in his red Cadillac convertible with white leather seats for the road trip to New Jersey. It was the farthest I had ever travelled with people who weren’t my family, and the longest I’d ever been away from home.

It was exhilarating and agonizing, and it forever altered the fabric of my life.

When Mr. Clemons, Cathy, and I pulled up in front of Blair Academy in that fancy ride, I was nervous and excited for the next phase of this big adventure. An informal welcoming committee of newly arrived students had gathered on the front porch of the main building. I quickly grabbed the empty rocking chair next to a girl who had just let out a completely unselfconscious guffaw. Her name was Mira.

Over the next hour or so, Mira and I giggled, chortled, snorted, and horse laughed almost non-stop. We were like conjoined twin comedians who, having been separated at birth, had recently stumbled upon each other and celebrated the happy accident by ingesting large amounts of laughing gas.

By the end of the first week, Mira and I were self-admitted soul-mates. Did that concept exist in 1976? Whatever. Plain and simple, we understood each other at a deep level, way beyond words. We also cracked each other up in ways that I had never before experienced with someone who was not my younger brother.

By the end of the second week, I began to feel overwhelmed by intermittent bouts of despair, as I sensed that sickening queer thing pushing up against the lid I had thought was secure. One particular evening, we all had a huge paper due for English class. The dorm was abuzz with kids clacking away on their typewriters and occasional outbursts of “Augh, I’m NEVER going to FINISH this!!” My room was relatively silent, because all I could think about was Mira, who was somewhere else in the dorm working on her paper.

I paced around my room, tried to write, and looked for non-Mira friends to distract me from my queer-fear. It was all for naught. Eventually, I walked up to the top of the four-story dorm where most of us lived. I found an unlocked and empty dorm room. I grabbed a wire coat hanger out of the closet, and pried open one of the windows in the room. I climbed up on the windowsill and sat down with my legs dangling out the window.

The trees were sparkling with lightning bugs, the locusts were making that familiar and hypnotic woooo-ahhhhhhhh-ooooooo sound, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I fumbled with the wire hanger while staring at the long drop to the pavement. I suspected that the fall wouldn’t kill me. I looked up to see if there was a higher window, but I was sitting with my legs hanging out of the highest window in the building.

I thought — a lot — about how I had never heard a single positive, or even neutral, thing about a queer person. Not one. I looked at the ground, some 40 feet below. The only way the fall would kill me, I guessed, was to dive head first. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t even bring myself to dive head first into water from a three-meter board at my swimming pool back home. I fumbled some more with the hanger. I thought about the wedding, the husband, and the children I would never have. I listened to the locusts. I watched the insistent twinkling of the fireflies. I felt my heart thudding in my throat.

A much fancier wire hand than the one I made

I don’t know how long I sat there. 15 minutes? 30? An hour? At some point, the reality of the paper I had to write, and the fact that I had an amazing new friend who could make me laugh as much as or more than my younger brother, these intruded on the deep vortex of my despair. I climbed back into the room and closed the window. I looked down and saw that sometime during my fog of despondency and loneliness, I had twisted the wire hanger into the shape of a hand. My own hand.

On my way back to my room, I found Mira in her room, typing furiously. I picked her brain for ideas to move my paper along, and then abruptly held out the wire hand to her. “I made this,” I blurted. “You can have it.” Mira beamed, and took it. “Oh, cool! Thanks!”

Whew, I thought as I walked back to my room. That went about as well as I could have hoped, namely because she seemed oblivious to how completely besotted I was.

Small round crystal

The next week, Mira and I went back to her room to look for something and I saw that she had hung my wire-hanger-hand from a lamp. Dangling in the middle of the hand was a crystal that she had tied to one of the fingers with some fishing line. Little rainbows streamed across the room as the light hit the crystal.

That small rainbow-making crystal, dangling in the middle of an empty hand made from coat hanger wire was my first clue that It Gets Better.

Along the way, it sometimes got worse. It’s hardly news that life is like that. But every time it got worse, I thought of how my best friend, whose name means “wonderful, peace, and prosperous” had hung a crystal in the middle of the outline of my open hand. That crystal was sometimes a window, sometimes a magnifying glass, sometimes a mirror, and sometimes just a little rainbow-shooting crystal, not much bigger than a quarter.

Next summer, Mira and I will celebrate our 35th year of friendship, more than 2/3 of our lives. She has carried that wire hand with her across several continents. We live on opposite coasts. Her daughter carries my name and my daughter carries her name. We are both married, she to a man, and I to a woman. We still make each other laugh, often without even talking.

It Gets Better, ultimately, because love is stronger than death or despair. No matter how alone and isolated I ever felt, I found ways to feel loved, through music, poetry, writing, swimming, or running through the woods.

It Gets Better because I learned that we can make our world bigger, by going to college, by starting over somewhere new, and/or by finding support from people who are struggling, or have struggled, with the same fears and despair.

It Gets Better because I found that every time I revealed my truest self to someone who was important to me, they generally responded with love, sometimes tinged with confusion and worry. My parents started out confused and worried, urging me not to tell anyone, and they grew and moved much in the same way I did. If you’ve read their comments on this blog, you’ll know that they are as open and out as I am. We got there together.

It Gets Better because a little, or a lot of, laughter can go a long way to help mend a broken heart. Mira and I were never a couple, but we have always been a pair. We have loved each other fiercely and unrelentingly, through bumps, scrapes, and bruises, some of which we inadvertently inflicted on each other. We end almost every conversation in laughter.

It Gets Better because, some day, maybe when you least expect it, you will open your hand, and there, in the middle of your outstretched palm, you will find a crystal. Hold it up to the light, and watch how the crystal sends little rainbows swarming across the walls, ceilings, floors, into the darkest corners of wherever you are.

Required viewing:

Required listening – Dar Williams’ song “The One Who Knows” is written from the perspective of a parent to a child, but I think it could just as easily be an anthem for the It Gets Better project.


The Trevor Project – suicide prevention for queer teens

Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project – videos by people from all walks of life telling queer teens all sorts of ways that It Gets Better

Finally, if you’ve been particularly wounded for being queer by religious people, just write to me at joyhowie at gmail dot com. I’m gathering a list of resources for queer people who want to find a way to be religious without being bludgeoned for who we are. If you know of such a resource, please write to me so I can share it.