Hanani, one of my brothers, came there with other Judeans. I asked them about Jerusalem, and about the Jewish remnant, the survivors of the exile. They told me, “The survivors of the captivity who returned to the province are in serious straits and are humbled. The wall is in ruin and its gates are burned down.” When I heard this, I sat down and cried, and mourned for days, fasting and praying to the heavenly God…
It was in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign. When it came time for the ruler’s wine, it was I who brought it to him. Now, I had never been sad in the ruler’s presence before, so he now asked, “Why do you look so ill, and yet are not ill? You must be sad of heart.” I was very afraid, but I answered, “May the ruler live forever! Should I not be sad? The city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, with it gates burned to the ground…”
Nehemiah 1:2-4, 2:1-3
Nehemiah was not closeted. It was known by all that he was an Israelite. There is no hint in the book that carries his name that Nehemiah ever struggled to keep his identity a secret. There is no suggestion that Nehemiah ever clandestinely celebrated his connection to his tribe. Still, no matter how out he was, Nehemiah had to find his voice to address the powers-that-be on behalf of his people.
Many a queer person finds him or herself trying to balance the pull between speaking up and staying quiet. The timing to shout “I am here and I am queer” or more quietly say "Judge me by the content of my character” is not easily discerned. Most of us, if not all of us, have felt the apprehension of celebrating who we are among those who cannot see beyond the label.
The coming out process never ends and includes the crucial ability for us to find our voice. Without our voice we fall mute. In falling mute we become invisible. To be invisible is to die.
Nehemiah’s people are in danger. He cannot remain silent and invisible. Life and death are in the balance. Yet, neither can he readily speak up. He is in need of finding his voice. In need of finding his unique speech which discloses his being both in the world of his people and in the world of the Persian king.
Sometimes like we do, Nehemiah waits for permission from the one in privilege for the right to speak. I would like to jump into the story at this point and censor Nehemiah and dismiss Artaxerxes. I am all for damning a social hierarchy that damns so much of the population. Yet the relation between the royal cupbearer and the king, whose life Nehemiah so values as to lay his own on the line, forbids me from such rash thoughts.
This relation is not defined so much by social norms as it is one of mutual respect and dignity. How else would the king have noticed the distraught nature of Nehemiah? In the end it is not that Artaxerxes gives permission for Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem as it is he blesses his cupbearer. It is in this sharing of mutual concern that Nehemiah finds his voice. In finding his voice Nehemiah claims his pride. In claiming his pride Nehemiah claims his stake with his tribe and his “sadness” turns to joy.