- Silence ≠ Death:On Not-Not Coming Out
The whirlwind of media attention around gay-youth suicide in the past five years provided an opportune moment for gay liberals to self-righteously claim that “it gets better,”1 as though the future depends on the disavowal of the conditions that bring many gay youth to contemplate and follow through with suicide in the first place. After sitting through many of the videos posted on Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” website, one gets a sense that the “It Gets Better” project borrows much of its authority from the promise of happiness activated by the spectacle of coming out of the closet. The foreclosure of tacit relations means it can only get better once you come out as gay.
It seems that in order to participate in the ordered progress the gay- and lesbian-rights movement have attached to the act of coming out—that is, the speech act associated not only with the articulation of one’s sexuality but with riding the affective wave known as pride—one must adhere to the strict binarisms of known/unknown, silence/speech, public/private, and shame/pride. Yet, what if we follow Michel Foucault’s assessment of what counts as a speech act: “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourse.” 2 Here, silence is productive, differentiated, and multiple. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes [End Page 145] in her canonical Epistemology of the Closet (2008), “‘Closetedness’ itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence—not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it.”3 How might we parcel out the different forms of silences that question the impulse to know one’s sexuality through verbal utterances? How does this trouble white gay liberalism’s need to know and its subsequent digestion of knowledge into cultural capital? How does one come to know something explicitly that is already known implicitly? These questions set the background for the release of Carlos Ulises Decena’s Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men. One aim of the book is to articulate ways of not knowing. In doing so, Decena challenges homonormativity’s jackhammering investment in excavating the spectacle of coming out—an event that pretends to cohere the crisis of indeterminacy within homosexuality.
The book is an ethnographic study into the lives of twenty-five queer Dominican immigrant men living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City at the turn of the twenty-first century. Decena’s methodology also encompasses auto-ethnography and participant observation, effectively assembling a rich archive of testimonials and retrospective life stories that will prove useful for Latino and queer scholars alike. Most compelling is Decena’s use of both Spanish and English in his transcription of the interviews and his incorporation of (queer) Dominican vernacular. Tacit Subjects moves with every linkage, slippage, and circuitry between the Spanish transcriptions and the English translations of the interviews; it quickly becomes about what is not being said within the disarticulation of Spanish and English. It is the unsaid that sets the conditions of possibility for an alternative subjectivity to emerge; hence the title of Decena’s text: Tacit Subjects. The subtitle extends his argument into a critique of language and discourse. The analysis situates itself in-between Spanish and English, whereby the sense of belonging felt by Dominican immigrant men experiencing same-sex desire relies on language’s capacity to open up new and exciting possibilities for connecting and recognizing each other outside the normative confines of discourse. To this end, Decena’s archive “captures ‘being’ as a movement without end, an enabling transitivity” (8).
Decena is transparent in his methodology and self-critical of the interview process to the extent that the narratives collected in this study are...