by Mike Peters
IRMA intern

Another Christmas season has come and gone and like most Americans, the season ended for me with a gym membership (that I will admittedly abandon before the end of January) and reflection on the often-awkward gathering of family members that Christmas-time usually drops at our feet.

Christmas-time was a busy season for us this year. Early in December I accepted an internship with IRMA and spent most of the month learning about rectal microbicides in preparation for my January start date. On December 10th, my boyfriend and I announced our engagement to family, friends, and facebook. This also meant that it was time for me to meet his family. Early in the morning on December 22nd, we began the long car trip from Chicago to rural Pennsylvania. As stressful as it was, first impressions went well and my fiancé and I began to prepare for the long string of rather conservative family members that slowly made their way towards his parents’ home. There is a rather significant age gap in between generations in his family so most of our time was spent in the basement with his brothers and sister-in-law.

However, Christmas Eve dinner required our presence upstairs. Family members began to fill in seats, someone said grace, and soon food was being passed around the table. People were beginning to be comfortable enough with me that they started making jokes about what this “skinny vegetarian” was actually going to be able to eat and I started to feel at ease. My fiancé was right, his family liked me and I could stop worrying. Conversation continued to flow in between mouthfuls of stuffing and eventually one of his uncles turned to me and asked, “So Mike, what is it that you do?”

“Oh, I’m a grad student,” I replied.

“And you also started an internship” My fiancé’s mother excitedly added.

I smiled, “yeah, I’m an intern with IRMA at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago”. My fiancé smiled, reminding me that this was going well and that he was happy my confidence was starting to show again.

“So what’s IRMA? What are you going to be doing?” his uncle asked.

“Well, I don’t know all the details yet, but I know that primarily we are advocating for proper lubricants and the development of rectal microbicides that help prevent HIV infections for men and women who receive anal sex. I also know that we’re focusing on international contexts as well.” They remained quiet, so I kept talking, “you know, especially in countries where anal sex is so taboo that people can’t even talk about it. We want to let people know that plenty of women and men, gay, straight, or anything in between have anal sex and it’s completely normal and natural. You know, we want to deconstruct that silence,” I paused to take a drink as my mouth was starting to feel dry “because silence, well you know, sucks. The HIV/AIDS infection rate is rising in so many groups all over the world and if we can’t even talk about anal sex, how can we even stop that trend?”

Then I realized that everyone was staring directly at me. Under the table, I could feel that my nervous fiancé was now gripping my leg. I looked around, smiled awkwardly, and took a drink.

Suddenly I was saved by my fiancé’s mother, “well… that’s… interesting,” she quickly turned to her niece, “so did your son enjoy his Christmas presents?” Conversation began to flow naturally again, my fiancé released his grip on my leg, and my awkward smile became more natural.

I sat back in my chair and observed the conversation. I just openly talked about anal sex to a group of strangers that are soon to be my family. Did I really just do that? As I looked down at the mashed potatoes on my plate I began to worry that I had blown my first (possibly only) chance to get to know these people before the wedding.

As I sat there, slowly eating my remaining food I began to think about why the conversation was so awkward. I mean, I mentioned anal sex to a group of strangers… at the damn Christmas dinner table. But then I began to think more about when it would be appropriate to talk about anal sex to strangers, or family, or friends, or all of the above. And then, some part of me felt like it was not at all appropriate to talk about anal sex. The sex that I have is deeply personal and private, why should I talk about it?

Then I remembered a particular quote that I have always held dear:

“In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live… The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” (Taken from Audre Lorde’s Transformation of Silence into Language and Action)

Was Lorde likely talking directly about anal sex? Well, no. I’m willing to bet that that was not the case. Yet Lorde’s discussion of silence is a necessary part of the dialog for advocacy on anal health. If people are unwilling to speak openly about anal sex for any of the fears that Lorde mentions, then as activists we neglect to confront the struggle that we seek to deconstruct. If we stay silent, then we are passively accepting the status quo; a hegemonic status quo, rigidly entrenched in patriarchy and heterosexism that ignores the gaps in research and advocacy for proper anal health for men and women who engage in anal sex.

For us, silence is dangerous. Silence relegates us to the status of “outsider”, to “unnatural”, and to “immoral” – and most importantly, silence robs us of the ability to live our lives as whole human beings. Silence is a luxury, that as activists, we are not yet able to have. We should continue speaking in an attempt to bridge those differences and deconstruct that status quo. Yeah, it is frightening, but if activism has taught me anything, it is that a fear that petrifies us into silence serves to perpetuate oppression.

So as I sat there, slowly eating my remaining meal, I felt a sense of triumph within myself. I broke a silence, even if it was for a moment. And you know what? It was not that bad. My fiancé’s family apparently finds me fascinating, if not spirited, and his mother appreciates my “spunk”, whatever that means. Oh, and the wedding is still on.

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