Speaking Out through Shutting Up

by Jo Crane

High school can be quite a vicious environment in which to spend one’s teenage years, especially for those who fall even slightly outside of the norm. The hallways are lined with intimidating boys, catty girls, intimidating girls, catty boys, whole legions of students ready to tear down anyone who so much as pokes a toe over the invisible line dividing acceptable high school social behavior from the deviant. Such punishments can be handed out by anybody, consciously or not, varying in potency from snickering as another student passes to open hostility. Those entering high school quickly learn to keep their heads down and their thoughts to themselves, lest they be mercilessly attacked for their opinions. But what happens when a student’s instinct to blend into the crowd conflicts with an opportunity to stand up for a cause in which they believe?

Every year, thousands of students across the country face this dilemma on the Day of Silence. This event, always a Friday in April, is partially a protest of the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students in schools and partially a memorial to those who have fallen victim to LGBT bullying. Participants stay silent for a full school day, the idea being that their silence mirrors the silence imposed on students who are forced to live in the fear of what would happen if they chose to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identification. On years that have witnessed specific instances of the tragic results of homophobic bullying, such as the murder of fifteen-year-old Lawrence King in 2008 or the bout of well-publicized suicides of gay students last year, these occurrences are tied into the protest when the mission statement (which is always available on downloadable cards from the event’s website, so participants can explain their aims to confused onlookers without breaking their silence to do so) is updated to mention that the deliberate silence of the participant represents also the lives that were “silenced” as a result of intolerance.

I participated in the Day of Silence in all four of my high school years, but the one which stands out in my mind particularly clearly is the one of my junior year. In the past I had done what I could to show support on that day, aiming to raise awareness of LGBT issues, honor the victims, and perhaps give a little bit of hope to those at my school kept in the closet by fear. In my first two years of participating, I never met much substantial opposition for doing so; the worst I ever received was strange looks and a couple snide comments. In the weeks preceding my junior year’s Day of Silence, however, I began to fear that this year would not go so smoothly as the others had.

On the day the protest fell I would have fifth-period American Sign Language, a class full of people who I had repeatedly run into trouble with before. The students in that class were nearly all failed Spanish students who chose ASL as a last-ditch attempt to fulfill their language requirement, and it showed; none of them had the slightest respect for the teacher or the students who actually cared about the language. They were rowdy and obnoxious and constantly took advantage of the teacher’s Deafness to make rude comments about her when her back was turned. But there were a few incidents I was particularly concerned about: several times I had attempted to stop them from using gay slurs, and every time I was brutally mocked for it. I didn’t want to think about how they would react to my further efforts to stamp out the prejudice they perpetuated.

I had one friend in the class, who was also involved in our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I don’t know if Lee and I would have become as close as we were had we met under different circumstances, but the ordeal that this class period had become had incubated a friendship of necessity. We both intended to participate in the Day of Silence, and we both were worried about the reaction we might get from the rest of the class. There was no way for us to just sit quietly and hope that nobody noticed we weren’t talking, because that would defeat the purpose of the protest. During the Day of Silence, students will often come to school with tape over their mouths, or wearing their explanation card around their necks like signs, or bedecked in impossible-to-ignore gay pride symbols and colors. The action of keeping silent may be intrinsically passive, but the statement that action represents cannot be. Every year I would take a roll of duct tape to school and hand out strips to those wishing to participate, wearing one myself and carrying around my explanatory card. But Lee and I were worried what the price of this outspokenness would be this year.

Finally, the day of the protest came. The first half of the day went smoothly enough, and it was even fun trying to communicate with gestures to my small group of friends who had decided to participate as well. Walking through the halls wearing duct tape over my mouth yielded reactions ranging from supportive smiles to scornful smirks, but nobody actively confronted me. Then fifth period came. Lee and I were the first ones to the classroom, and we sat down and anxiously waited for the others to come. Our classmates entered the room in a sporadic trickle, which I believe is why we endured nothing worse in those first few minutes than a few people laughing at us; many of them hadn’t noticed, and the rest weren’t about to start anything without the power of the group. But something happened at the start of class, before anyone had a chance to give us grief. The teacher noticed me and Lee, with our mouths taped shut and cards explaining the reason for our silence. She read the card, and then went up in front of the class and explained to the entire class what we were doing. She gave a brief speech about the importance of tolerance, referencing some of her gay relatives, and ended with an assurance that if she caught any of them harassing us they would be reported immediately.

I was grateful for her effort, but it only increased my anxiety; the class had proven before, nearly every period, how little respect they held for her, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they would take her seriously. But as the period wore on, we endured very little insults compared to what we had been expecting. There was the occasional snide comment, but we managed to ignore them by writing notes back and forth to each other (we figured that it would be cheating to sign, although I had jokingly been doing it earlier with my friends who didn’t understand ASL at all). Perhaps enough of them had matured since the last time we had heard them gay-bashing that the truly nasty ones didn’t have the support they needed to be outwardly hostile to us. Perhaps the teacher’s speech had gotten through to them, if only the threat to report them if they got out of hand. Perhaps they simply didn’t think we were worth the effort. But for whatever reason, there was relatively little vitriol directed at us for our protest. At the end of the day the GSA held a “Breaking the Silence” party, during which the participants in the Day of Silence came together to share our experiences and eat junk food. Everyone shared stories, laughing at the happy ones and empathizing with the less-than-happy ones.

The effects of the Day of Silence and events like it can seem minimal; the goals of such protests tend to be viewed somewhat remotely from the individual’s own experience. It’s wonderful to support LGBT rights, but it is very easy to disconnect the motions of a protest such as this from the actual effects it aims to accomplish. However, sitting there among people who had suffered the same griefs that we had for trying to put out the same message that we were attempting to spread awakened me to the reality of the purpose of events like the Day of Silence. “Breaking the silence” is neither a snappy slogan nor a tangible goal for the equal rights movement; its definition lies somewhere in between, and is far less easy to explain. It’s more than a simple statement in favor of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights: it’s about unification, creating and strengthening a support system to catch those who fall prey to the unjustified persecution of a society which still has a long way to go on the road to acceptance. It’s about the power of numbers being used not only to spread hatred, but to defend against it as well. It is a microcosm of what we are looking to accomplish in the wider world, a message spread not through violence but through love.

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