Silent as the Grave

How do we resist? / Fire and joy.

Silent as the Grave
Photo by Nikolas Gannon / Unsplash

by Audrey T. Carroll

They say the only good queer is a dead queer.

You and I would never say such a thing, of course. We are far too civilized to utter such broad death wishes. The They here is the ambiguous communal kind of They, the kind that can hide such harsh sentiments behind the plural pronoun[1] This is not a story about queer death—at least not in the literal sense. But it is inevitable that this is where we begin.

No one knows when the plague came, or how. It is easy enough to claim it was an overnight phenomenon, but no one was asleep all at once. The music in clubs and the chatter of bars continued until well past midnight, and many of the elder queers[2] rose nearly with the sun to get to work or tend to children. It is difficult even to tell if the plague came all at once or in some other pattern, though most tend to believe the former.

Cassidy Gates noticed something was off when they had been allowed to sleep in until well after the sun shined through the cigarette burn a previous tenant had left in the blinds. They checked their phone and confirmed that it was past seven. A panic seized them, at first, the kind of panic that seizes any parent of a child still in their crib: what if they died during the night? Cassidy was usually the more laid-back one in their marriage, the crystal-collecting tattooed Libra to their wife’s twelve-cups-of-coffee let’s-spend-Saturday-building-a-rocking-chair Aries.

It was a Friday, which meant that their wife had already left for work. Cassidy dragged themself out of bed, down the hall to the baby’s room, and opened the door. The place was a wreck: every book, toy, and knickknack that had been within reach of the crib had been tossed to the floor. Cassidy guessed they hadn’t heard it because of the shag rug. When they looked up, the baby was red in the face, screaming and screaming—except no noise came out. The baby’s curls were glued to dried salty tears that had long since evaporated. Cassidy could see the baby’s pale throat vibrating, could see the intense in-and-out of lungs expanding and compressing in the baby’s little chest.

But no noise came.

Cassidy had a different kind of panic then, cursing themselves for not thinking to bring the phone with them. As Cassidy reached forward and offered words of comfort, the words didn’t come, either. Cassidy cleared their throat, tried again. Nothing. They mouthed what the fuck? as they put their fingers in their ears and wiggled against their eardrums, trying to convince their hearing back. Just then, Cassidy heard some kind of a siren down the street. They headed to the window, parting the curtains enough to witness a cop car zipping by.

It wasn’t a difference in hearing, Cassidy realized. It was something much stranger. Cassidy pressed two fingers to their throat as though checking for a pulse. They tried to scream at the top of their lungs. They could feel their voice—the vibrations pulsing inside of them—but nothing came out still. They wondered if the pair of them had caught some virus that was going around and had lost their voices as a result. Something felt different about this, though. It wasn’t some average laryngitis; Cassidy wasn’t sure how they knew this, but they knew.[3] They rushed to the crib, picking the baby up to comfort them both as they tried to figure out what it was they could do.

How do we resist?[4]
Fire and joy.
How do we resist?
Fire and joy.
How do we resist?

By that night, everybody had heard the news. People who hadn’t showed up to work were assumed to have come down with the sickness, whatever it was. Queer folks wondered if the straights had figured it out yet,[5] but they couldn’t ask without the risk of outing people. It was all over the news, a familiar tension bubbling beneath, waiting for its chance to boil over—some kind of moral panic brewing underneath it all. If the straights hadn’t figured it out yet, they would soon. Of this the queer folks were sure.

Reyes had spent the day in a blur. They had woken up with a killer headache in an empty apartment. The person they’d brought home was long gone, and Reyes couldn’t be bothered to get worked up about it. They had showered and made Poptarts and fed Toñito his kibble like every morning. If they had work to go to, perhaps things would be different. But they didn’t. At best, Reyes did some freelance graphic design here and there, mostly boring business websites that reacted to any sign of creativity like Dracula to garlic. So they chopped an apple in silence; they napped with Toñito in silence; they watched the cars congested in the bowels of the city in silence. Reyes did not think to speak because Reyes did not feel compelled to. That was simply their way.[6]

It wasn’t until a neighbor came by with some zucchini bread that Reyes had cause to speak. They couldn’t, of course. Cursed, like the others. The neighbor said Reyes should check the news.

Reyes took the zucchini bread, thanked the neighbor in sign language[7], and did as told. They couldn’t really remember the actual stories they’d read, not that The New York Times or the Post had much to report besides the obvious silence[8].

Reyes, in a daze, wandered outside, walking down the street aimlessly. What compelled them, it is impossible to say. Reyes was searching for something, but neither they nor anyone else[9] can say what exactly it was. Reyes was alone on this street, but not alone in this mysterious mission. Which is to say: they were not the only one wandering and lost in the silence.

The silence seemed to grow like bread rising, fermentable sugars converting into carbon dioxide and ethanol. And the more the silence seemed to grow, the louder the thoughts of the silenced became. They wrote, of course, on pen and paper, and they typed on phones, and they signed in other languages, and they tried their best to be heard. But it was difficult enough for queers to be heard to begin with, and doubly so without voices to raise. Sometimes, a white gay CEO would be able to silence a room so that they were all like him, and he had PowerPoints to share and a secretary to explain his notes. Sometimes, a passerby would feel bad for a lipstick lesbian who he secretly wanted to fuck and so he would relay her order at the deli counter. But by and large, the silenced began to wonder if they were turning invisible, too, and they just didn’t know it, just couldn’t see it or feel it until it was too late.

It took nearly a week for Lucy Park to work up the courage to call her family. They weren’t related, exactly. They’d all lived in a house together in college that they’d decided to call the Lavender House[10]. Stevie and Erica still lived together as roommates last she’d checked. Jake and Zohan had gotten married a while back. No one had heard from Reyes in a long time, since well before the silence hit. So Lucy decided to call Ollie. He was most likely to pick up. All the others were probably busy. Besides, it was the middle of the day, and Ollie was the most likely of them to work at night.

The phone rang, hollow and tinny in that kind of way that feels like it will go on forever. Lucy almost gave up. She knew what the result of this would be. She didn’t know why she was trying this, what magic she thought would suddenly heal her and return her voice to the way it was. She could have just texted. She could have just…

And then he picked up. Lucy waited. Nothing. She tried to speak. Nothing. Then, after a pause that felt like ages, she heard music on the other end, the electric guitar distorted and chilling: “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, an old favorite of hers. Lucy completely lost track of time then, two minutes feeling like two hours. When it ended, the silence had grown louder. Lucy laughed, she thought, though she couldn’t hear it. She hung up then, and sobbed. The tears were salt-strong, like sharp glass edges against her skin. When she calmed down, Lucy decided she needed to hear some familiar voice, any familiar voice. The people with fake-looking white teeth and coiffed hair on the tv were not enough.

Lucy did something she hadn’t done in a long time: she called home. Her aunt Nari had taken care of her after the accident, but they hadn’t spoken much since she turned 18. Her aunt’s version of helping was to tell her that her hair was prettier when it was longer and here’s a good lipstick shade for you and you can’t wear a suit to prom night don’t be silly. But now, more than anything, Lucy hoped to hear her voice again.

The phone picked up.


Lucy could not break it.

Her aunt would not either.

Lucy heard heavy breathing, like her aunt was trying to say something but she was choking on it.

And then, suddenly, Lucy was aware of the silences she didn’t hear before. Once the initial shock wore off for most people, the political rhetoric began in earnest. Some doctors whose licenses had expired claimed that this plague of silence was airborne and contagious, despite no evidence to back that up. They did not suggest something so sensible as masks or hand sanitizer. Instead, they would go on tv and suggest wild solutions like using emergency powers to fire gay employees and making drag queens shop for groceries online so they didn’t infect anyone else. Then the politicians picked up the baton from them, rallying their bases by calling for book bans and crosses in schools to keep this plague of Egypt at bay.[11] While Lucy reconnected with her past, Oliver St. Fleur was plotting other ways of connection. His first ideas[12] were the ones most likely to land him in prison, especially with racist cops looming as a forever-threat.[13] Oliver liked the idea of the park. It was the kind of place where anything could happen. And they would go unnoticed, too, at least for a little while. No one wanted to make eye contact in Central Park, and if they did, you wanted to get away ASAP. Oliver’s work as a performance artist was mostly on hiatus since his most recent piece that he’d been performing in the Bowery involved a lot of words he could no longer share. If he’d had foresight about the plague, he would have recorded his art and saved it for later. That took some of the spirit out of it, though. There was no way around that.

The first day, Oliver came to the park with one simple sign and sat. The sign said:

Gay as in happy

He got some looks, of course, but Oliver was all too used to ignoring those. In the old days, he might have told them to fuck off, depending on whether or not he’d had his coffee yet.[14] He just sat, threading together flower crowns and passing them out to anyone who stopped close enough. Some refused. Most of the ones who took them put the crown on and sat with him until a circle of over a dozen had formed. It took a week for the cops to decide that this peace-and-love-hippie crap had to go. Oliver could not raise his voice. Instead, he just smiled, which only made them angrier. They started toward him, but looked around. Phones out, recording. One cop talked to the other in hushed tones.[15] Then they left, dissatisfied. Oliver’s park occupation grew and grew. Even with the silence, they knew how to get the word out.

How do we resist?[16]
Fire and joy.
How do we resist?
Fire and joy.
How do we resist?

As the months turned to summer, things only grew more heated. Hate crimes increased by nearly 200%. People who weren’t even queer got attacked because they happened to be Deaf or otherwise nonverbal. Shops were vandalized, city council meetings disrupted. Watts had been working for weeks—analyzing blood samples, DNA, CT scans of vocal chords, MRIs. There was no physical way to detect the silence or why it had come. The work started to feel like the search for the Gay Gene that no one had yet discovered. This whole thing may very well have been something psychological. Watts kept trying to convince the head of the lab to invest time, money, and resources into figuring it out. He would type him furious emails about how much it would mean for the greater good.[17] When Watts did get something back, it was lukewarm emails from his boss’ assistant saying that there wasn’t any money in what Watts was talking about. The last email said that Watts could either stop pushing for something that was above his pay grade, or he could pack his shit and go. Watts could tell that that one was from the man himself.

Watts decided that no one was going to listen.[18]

What Watts did next I cannot[19] condone.

He had set fire to at least four government buildings before they finally tracked him down. One courthouse was barely salvaged. The other courthouse was mostly unharmed. The police station and a branch of some agency or another could not be saved. Watts, through his lawyer, pled not guilty by reason of insanity.[20]

How do we resist?[21]
Fire and joy.
How do we resist?
Fire and joy.
How do we resist?

Dahlia had known silence. She had not moved her entire life halfway across the country[22] to suffer silence again. Nearly every night for three months, she’d go to her usual haunts at gay bars, including the closest place that did drag shows. They tried to keep things alive—music and dancing, glitter and lights that made her head hurt. She was at least ten years older than most of the queers around her, and her tolerance for the bright and shiny had waned over the years. Most of them just sat there and drank or vaped whatever might get them through the next hour. And then they’d leave, and the streets felt like death.[23]

After three months of the same routine, Dahlia was tired. She was tired of the silence. She was tired of carrying a pocketknife on her walk home. And she was tired of the same old narrative that made straights the victors and queers the conquered. So one night, right in the middle of someone’s set[24], Dahlia stood up at the front of the room, stuck her fingers in her mouth, and whistled. Everyone turned to her, standing there in her pink satin dress that reflected all of the lights in every direction. She motioned toward the door of the place, then marched toward it in the heels that pinched her toes too close. Dahlia could hear the clamor of chairs screeching and feet moving behind her. When she finally dared to turn, she found the whole bar of gays and queers out there with her, shoulder-to-shoulder. Even the drag performer she’d interrupted had come, though she looked pissed as hell while doing it.

Someone started some music on their phone, something with a strong carnival beat. And then a few more added to it, some with more recorded music, others hitting whatever they could find to make a racket. Dahlia continued to lead them down the path to somewhere new. Even without their voices, they made their noise.

They did not know where they would go, but it hardly seemed to matter.

  1. Not to be confused with the singular They, a pronoun that seems to, ironically enough, endlessly confound Them. ↩︎

  2. Those past the age of 29 ↩︎

  3. This is something like the sensation you might feel as a viewer when a girl in a horror movie goes down into a dark basement alone: How could she not know enough of the world to know a bad vibe when she felt one? Days later, Cassidy would wonder how the answer hadn’t been obvious from the start. Hindsight, and all that. ↩︎

  4. To be read aloud by at least two people ↩︎

  5. Because, to queer folks, it was obvious who had become afflicted with voicelessness (queers) and who still had a voice in the world (everyone else). ↩︎

  6. Reyes had been accused of being a brooding artist on more than one occasion. They had acted insulted, but took it as a compliment all the same. ↩︎

  7. A leftover gift from a former lover ↩︎

  8. The journalists made sure to talk to everyone they could, though. Reactions happened to be gathered only from cisgender straight people clutching their pearls; this much, at least, came as no shock to Reyes. ↩︎

  9. 9 Not even I ↩︎

  10. Ollie had suggested the name after Lavender Hill when he found an old Xeroxed copy of The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. ↩︎

  11. Coincidentally, these defenses of the straight, gender-normative populace always came with a donation link to campaigns and Super PACs. ↩︎

  12. Idea #1: An orgy in the park. Idea #2: Sending glitter bombs to politicians who wanted to round the silenced up and quarantine them in what amounted to internment camps ↩︎

  13. People had confused Oliver for Reyes and Reyes for Oliver all the time in college. They looked nothing alike, but they both had medium brown skin and spent time together, and that was enough. Once, someone had even mistaken Oliver for Zohan. Oliver was well aware that the cops could spin any narrative they wanted about him and the news would just repeat it like good little parrots—Oliver was an illegal immigrant, or Oliver was homeless and crazy, or Oliver was actually a terrorist and now he was dead (God Bless America). He might not have cared about getting himself into trouble, but then Lucy had called and made him a touch more wary. ↩︎

  14. It did, in fact, occur to Oliver to flip them off; not flipping them off was a choice. ↩︎

  15. They couldn’t really afford to take more time off after what had happened the month before. There was no evidence that they’d followed the man home because he was Black, they’d claimed. And besides, how were they supposed to know he was the mayor’s cousin? ↩︎

  16. To be chanted aloud by at least 12 people ↩︎

  17. Watts, for the first time in his memory, could not get anyone to listen to him. On the advice of a college professor, he mostly kept his personal life out of the lab, but that felt more impossible now. As a semi-closeted white man, he was not used to this level of resistance. ↩︎

  18. Watts was only now coming to the conclusion that no one had listened before, that his professor’s advice had changed the trajectory of his entire professional experience. No one ever listened, not more than what it took to give the bare minimum and shut the queers up. ↩︎

  19. legally ↩︎

  20. A difficult defense these days. Watts didn’t like having to use it. But what other response was there to the world? ↩︎

  21. To be shouted aloud by at least 11.3% of the population ↩︎

  22. To a place where she could wear a dress and worry a little less about getting killed ↩︎

  23. The transition from lights and music into nothingness had that effect. ↩︎

  24. A drag queen named Cynthia Balta had been lip-synching and dancing along to “UK, Hun?” ↩︎

Audrey T. Carroll is the author of the What Blooms in the Dark (ELJ Editions, 2024), Parts of Speech: A Disabled Dictionary (Alien Buddha Press, 2023), and In My Next Queer Life, I Want to Be (kith books, 2023). Her writing has appeared in Lost Balloon, CRAFT, JMWW, Bending Genres, and others. She is a bi/queer/genderqueer and disabled/chronically ill writer. She serves as a Diversity & Inclusion Editor for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies, and as a Fiction Editor for Chaotic Merge Magazine. She can be found at and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter/Instagram.