What may not be spoken about is always very important. This truism is known to writers who have surprised themselves with having written something controversial while believing that they were merely depicting unusual human predicaments, some unknown section of society, or simply their own everyday life. Of course, every now and then art seeks conflict and aims to provoke; naturally writers sometimes want to shock and irritate the readers – this is part of the essence of modern culture. Literature, however, becomes really threatening when writers simply reflect a reality that is taboo to talk about or simply one that may not be revealed. The questions that unfailingly arise are: why may this particular issue not be addressed? What is at stake here?
When one begins to speak of things that have been regarded as out of bounds the reaction seems to follow a set course that is the same disregarding the particular topic. Whether one has written about slavery, women’s rights, or LGBT issues – no matter the topic, the reaction to it seems to follow the same trajectory. The first reaction is usually to downplay the topic: it is not important and we need not look into it. The second reaction is one of ridicule: just imagine the consequences if we were to free all the slaves! And what would happen if women were given the right to vote? It is so obviously impossible and it is against the laws of nature. Then comes the more dangerous phase: the violence, the imprisonments, and the threats. These do not come immediately but rather at a time when freedom is usually already beyond reach.
The above is perhaps a rather roundabout way of framing one of the major issues at this year’s PEN Congress in September in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. During a few precious hours PEN’s involvement in LGBT* issues was debated. Is it really PEN’s duty to defend people’s different sexual identities? This question generates a positive response for several reasons. The person who phrased the best response was the Russian writer Masha Gessen when she summed up the discussion at the congress by saying: “We are actually not discussing LGBT issues here even if that had been appropriate. We are instead talking about laws that restrict the freedom of speech and that curtail the access to information, and these are classic PEN issues.”
Gessen of course pinpoints something crucial. When governments, security services, or totalitarian groups want to stop texts about specific issues – when they want to silence certain kinds of experiences – then that is of course the point at which the freedom of expression and ultimately democracy is being threatened. That is exactly the place where PEN should be. The risk is otherwise that the same forces will simply move on to the next domain and begin to curtail some other group’s right to be seen and heard – even to exist – in society. For this very reason PEN agreed on a declaration concerning the freedom of speech as regards LGBT questions – a declaration that you can find in its entirety in this issue.
For this current issue of PEN/Opp we have asked writers from different parts of the world to describe the ways in which LGBT issues are used today in order to curtail the freedom of speech by means of laws, threats, or outright violence. Welcome to Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Russia, and Greece. Welcome to reality.
*LGBT is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender.