Why we say silence equals death

*Content note: the following column deals with the topics of suicide and mental health.*

I can still clearly remember the night I killed my cousin Austin Rogers. I remember the sick desperation I felt trying to hide his body. The gut wrenching fear I felt at that time that I would be discovered as a murderer still feels real to me now.

When I woke up the next morning, that fear was still with me.

Most nightmares end instantly when one awakens. At least for me they usually do, I assume that’s true for others. But that morning it took me a while to come back to reality. There was a period of several horrifying moments, while I had to carefully check my inventory of memories for me to fully remember the truth.

My cousin Austin Rogers was dead, but he had died by suicide and not at my hands.

I don’t need to be psychoanalyzed though to understand why that particular nightmare had felt so intensely real or why it had taken me so long that morning to come back to reality. When you lose a loved one to suicide, the guilt never really leaves you. At least that was my experience.

My cousin Austin was a movie buff. Many a family gathering were spent by us talking through the merits of David Lynch or debating what films deserved the accolades they had recieved. He was an excellent guitar player who also loved video games.

My last memory of Austin was of him playing the guitar at his mother’s birthday party. We were outside at Arnold Lake and he was standing on the other side of a fire, strumming along beside his Uncle Todd while his mother was on vocals.

Silence equals death has been a rally cry for the LGBTQ community since ACT UP activists began using it during the AIDS crisis. The origins of the phrase lie in reference to the silence of the government during the AIDS crisis and the refusal of government officials to properly address the HIV pandemic.

But the phrase is in many ways incredibly versatile. Silence for the LGBTQ community is a form of death in so many ways. So many of us are forced into the silence of the closet, which in turn, forces so many of us into quiet death spirals that end with the worst possible outcomes.

Suicide is a problem that particularly affects the LGBTQ community. According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are up to four times more likely than other teens to attempt suicide. Also according to the Trevor Project, more than half of transgender and non-binary youth have “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year”.

Mankato is no stranger to the problem of suicide. In 1999, Minnesota State University Mankato Student Paul E. Spencer III committed suicide at the Rapidan Dam.

I first came across references to Spencer’s passing while going through the LGBT archives in the library. Most of the details I found initially were confusing with contradictory claims about why and how Spencer died. One claim I found was that he had been the victim of a possible hate crime.

Jennifer Heimer was a friend of Spencer and spoke to me about her memories of him and helped clarify a few details.

“Paul was very out. He wore makeup. He was not afraid to be who he was and he was also hilarious, we just really had a great time” said Heimer. “We would hang out, sometimes on the weekends and just do stupid stuff. He was going to college, but had real highs and lows I didn’t know about.”

According to Heimer, the reasons behind Spencer’s suicide were not straightforward and his mothers death when he was about 12 or 13 was an important factor as well.

“I always thought it had more to do with his mom and everything that was going on were her. I do remember that there were some incidents at his house,” said Heimer. “There were people there who were not so accepting.”

Of course, people not being accepting of Spencer did not stop him from being open about who he was.

“When I think of him that’s what I think of, that he was the first outwardly gay person that I was really good friends with,” said Heimer. “We just didn’t talk about it [back then] and Paul did. Paul was fine with it.”

I of course think it’s important that we break the silence around suicide.

Part of breaking the silence obviously must mean better informing ourselves about the world in order to protect ourselves from it, just as ACT UP activists pushed for during the AIDS crisis. It also must mean being more honest about who we are and speaking out against injustices in this world too as well as building community and connecting with one another.

When I last saw my cousin Austin, I wish I had asked him how he was doing. I mean I assume I did ask him in a “wassup” kind of way like people do when the first see each other. But I know I didn’t ask him about the difficulties he was facing like dropping out of college, given how clear his mental health was deteriorating. Instead we just hung out like we usually did at family gatherings.

It’s perhaps arrogant to assume that by really trying to talk to him about the struggles he was having at the time, I might have pulled him back from the ledge he’d been on. It feels hubristic to think that I alone could have saved him.

But I still wish I had asked him, really asked him, how he was doing that night. It might not have succeeded in saving him but it still might have broken the silence just a little bit.

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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