Gretchen Rachel Hammond: Our Stories Will Not Be Silenced
On Monday, The Algemeiner reported that Gretchen Rachel Hammond — the journalist who broke the story of the group of Jewish women ejected from an LGBTQ march in Chicago last month — had been removed from reporting duties at the Windy City Times. The following is a speech Hammond delivered at The Algemeiner’s 6th annual Summer Benefit in New York City on Thursday.
I lost my voice in 1981 when I was 11-years-old. My dad was one of those fellows who thought Britain still had an empire. He didn’t appreciate my more effeminate personality traits so, to cure me of them, he sent me to a posh, all boys school where teachers walked around in black cloaks as if they were each cosplaying Darth Vader with an inferiority complex. You didn’t speak unless spoken to. Dissention, attempts to display a personality or any kind of half-Indian pride were beaten out of me with a cane. My voice was instead hidden in movies I obsessed over like “Masada” and “The Great Escape.”
After I’d finished doing time at school, I fled England because I believed the marketing imported through American TV shows from “The Bionic Woman” to “Dallas” which promised that I could find my voice in a land where anything was possible. But the foreign exchange company screwed up. Instead of sending me to live with Cagney and Lacey in one of the three cities I’d heard of: New York, Los Angeles and Miami (because of “Miami Vice”), they sent me to a family of Mormons in New Albany, Indiana.
When I transitioned in 2007, I tried to find my voice as a woman but it was lost under the noise of a society that was still coming to grips with the people behind a series of letters that kept increasing in number and an LGBTQIACCODODIPO community still coming to grips with itself.
So, for four years as a senior reporter for a small LGBT newspaper, I walked between the silos of that community and gave voice to its stories. Those stories made me wealthier than the dreams of Gates or Buffett.
I can’t just single out any one. The gay couple whose love endured through Alzheimer’s disease and beyond death. There was the black transgender woman who defended herself from an attack and spent four years in the male division of a Cook County Jail. I covered her story for over two of those years before we finally secured her release. I visited her every couple of weeks and despite the terrible conditions in which she was held, she still managed to laugh at my jokes especially the one about the blonde and the rowing oar. She changed my life.
There were the lesbians who showed their love for each other and the world by planting sunflowers across it, the fierce gay men willing to storm an alderman’s office and get arrested to force attention on his disdain for the homeless of his ward, the transgender women who started a suicide hotline and saved countless lives with no money and very little backing, the Japanese gay man who was placed in a concentration camp and teaches others about the dangers of hatred even today, the lesbian college professor who put herself out of a job so her college could survive. I’ll never forget the Jewish lesbian woman who works to bridge gaps between communities and religions, the artists, the leaders, the friends, the activists, the hands lifting each other up. There were hundreds of stories and I remember each one as if it had just been told to me.
I found the landscape in which our silos were placed was vast and beautiful but also capable of great ugliness in no small part because, as Laverne Cox once reminded us, “hurt people hurt people.” Two weeks ago, I ran afoul of that ugliness by reporting on a growing cancer from within the community. Instead of sticking to the narrative that all our issues were the result of far right-wing attackers, I simply wrote about a scene which demonstrated that we are pretty good at causing problems for ourselves.
Any song of freedom has to be belted out with a clear voice. The jarring, discordant racket of voices wailing notes like intersectionality, privilege, systems of oppression, safe spaces and pink-washing may have sounded perfectly logical coming out of the mouth of some semi-stoned professor at CUNY or UIC but when, put into practice, basically had us tearing into each other like shoppers at a Walmart Thanksgiving Day Sale and mud wrestling competition.
The rest of the world shook their heads, some in astonishment, some with a smug, “What did we tell you?,” while the voices of three Jewish girls who went to a Pride march were silenced and then the reporter who told their story.
When you lose your voice, even for two weeks, the isolation is unbearable. Your addiction to telling stories is yanked out of the vein in your arm and you are told to go cold turkey and instead convince some mid-level marketer at Hardees that gay people like to eat s*** too. You write but who’s reading? You cry out but who’s listening?
Ben Cohen did. The Algemeiner did. They called me up and said, “I believe you lost something.”
The brilliance of it was that, even though my words covered the space of a single sentence, they found my voice and amplified it. But that’s because I believe Ben, his colleagues and so many people in this room know what a rare and enviable position we are in — that we don’t have to own the narrative of our community, we just have to see it. If we see the entire landscape and not just a blade of its grass, our breath is stopped by its magnificence.
It is within that landscape that people will leave their political or social silos in defense of the greater good.
One of the outlets which picked up Ben’s story was Breitbart. I am a left-of-center, transgender woman, but I had messages from Breitbart readers saying, “I’d read your stuff on Breitbart any day of the week.” Alright. It might be worth leaving a stack of clippings on Alexander Marlow’s doorstep, ringing the bell and running away.
The point is although we are so much maligned these days that lawyers are coming up with mean jokes about us, as journalists we can do what no one, from politician to pencil pusher is able: we can look over and then demolish the walls people build between themselves.
They say our profession is dying. They say that we are obsolete or fake. But as long as we can see our communities, as long as we are brave enough to amplify their voices and as long as we make sure we never lose our own, our stories will not be silenced.
Thank you for making sure mine never was.
Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist based in Chicago.