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Standing With the Silenced
An LGBTQ youth action
Julia Smith
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On Friday, April 17, starting at 8:30 a.m., about 30 kids at Harvest Collegiate High School were silent for the entire school day. We were participating in The Day of Silence sponsored by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. It is a student-led action designed to “raise awareness about the silencing effect of anti-LGBTQ bullying, harassment and discrimination.”

I wanted to participate because I’m asexual and have lots of friends who are in the LGBTQ community. While I haven’t experienced harassment, I know people who have.

The Day of Silence is a national, annual event that pays tribute to LGBTQ youth who feel they can’t speak up for fear of being hurt physically or emotionally. It was created in 1996 by Maria Pulzetti, who was a student at the University of Virginia at the time. She wanted it to include everyone, particularly those who would not normally go to an LGBTQ event. It is now organized by GLSEN. According to GLSEN, in 2015, more than 8,500 students registered to take part.

A few days before, my school’s GSX club (Gender, Sexuality, Xcetera) and Art Club screen-printed T-shirts for us to wear. We were given small dry erase boards with markers to communicate, and little pieces of paper with a paragraph explaining the event to give to anyone who asked why we weren’t talking:

“Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence (DOS), a national youth movement bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by anti-LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward building awareness and making a commitment to address these injustices.”

That morning, I arrived at school wearing my T-shirt. In our daily assembly, GSX played a short video explaining the event. But like most assemblies, it didn’t look like a lot of people were paying attention.

Students’ Mixed Responses

Staying silent was much harder than I expected. There were so many instances when I wanted to say excuse me, or thank you, or respond to a question.

image by YC-Art Dept

For example, in my chemistry class, we were watching an episode of Breaking Bad where a body is dissolved in a powerful acid. It was nauseating, and many of the students were expressing their disgust. I muttered something like, “Well, then,” momentarily forgetting my vow of silence.

Toward the end of the day, another student asked me if I minded if he sat down in the seat next to mine. I said, “Sure, don’t worry about it.” This time I didn’t notice until a few moments later when my other silent friend wrote on a piece of paper that I had just spoken.

When I had questions for the teacher, kids sitting near me would notice me writing and offer to ask my question for me. So some people who didn’t participate were also supportive of the event.

But others used it as a way to stir up trouble. In one class my teacher and I were the only two who were being silent. One student asked my teacher a question, and she was trying to show him that she was writing down an answer. Impatient with her, he said, “What are you doing?” My teacher gave him one of the cards explaining the Day of Silence. After he read it, he nodded with grudging respect, but then said, “I should do that. Then if my teachers ask me a question I can get out of answering by saying I’m being silent.”

Does Silence Help?

My teacher tried to tell him through body language and writing on her dry erase board that his remarks were disrespectful. I’m not sure he got the message, but my teacher had no way to assert her authority, no way to reprimand her students, and no way to defend herself. This was of course the point of the event; our deliberate silence and helplessness mirrored the silence that LGBTQ youth are forced into. It made me more aware of what that kind of isolation and helplessness feels like.

Although I was participating, I thought, “If we’re trying to end silence, how does it help to be silent?” A blogger on Mibba.com answered this for me: “By staying silent for a whole day, we symbolize… the people afraid to come out and speak up about their sexuality, because they’re afraid of the ridicule and violence they would have to endure….” Once I viewed our actions as symbolic it made more sense to me.

Still, I have mixed feelings about The Day of Silence. I think it was a more positive experience for those participating than the observers. While it helped me gain empathy with silenced kids, I’d rather participate in an event that educates students on how they can help LGBTQ youth who are homeless, or discriminated against in the workplace, rather than a day devoted to just saying, “Don’t bully them.”

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(NYC-2016-01-24)

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