HRC Blog

Students Unite to “Break the Silence”

The following post comes from HRC's Candace Gingrich: lbgtyouthalliasToday, April 16, is The Day of Silence – a worldwide event coordinated by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and, on college campuses, the United States Student Association. The day brings together queers and allies alike who are supportive of LGBT rights – all take a vow of silence to acknowledge and bring light to the silence and marginalization that LGBT students face every day. Following the silence many schools host “Break the Silence” events such as speak outs, forums, rallies, and workshops. At schools around the world, students remain silent but can carry palm cards [PDF] to educate those who may question their silence. The cards read:

"Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, 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. Think about the voices you are not hearing today.

GLSEN has been running the program for over a decade now, and offer everything that a student needs to make The Day of Silence a reality – an organizing manual, speech cards, posters and stickers.  Sometimes school staff are unwilling to allow the day to take place. In preparation for that, GLSEN has worked with Lambda Legal to offer a FAQ about legal issues related to the day [PDF], and with the ACLU to offer a letter of support [PDF] that students can present to faculty and administration. Over the years, there have been attempts by anti-LGBT forces to limit students’ ability to have successful Days of Silence and to counter the LGBT-positive message. Exodus International, an anti-gay/pro-ex-gay organization, has created the "Day of Truth" (which, of course, is anything but), while other groups like Concerned Women for America tell parents to keep their kids at home with the "Day of Silence Walkout". An interesting turn of events for this year’s Day of Silence comes from Grove City College Professor Warren Throckmorton. Throckmorton for years had been a darling of the anti-LGBT forces – he has even testified in Congress against pro-LGBT legislation. But it seems that Throckmorton is more reasonable than many of his cohort and he’s come under fire for promoting “The Golden Rule Pledge”. The pledge acknowledges that there are those who feel their faith leads them to oppose LGBT issues but at the same time realize the harassment and violence that many queer students face. The basic message of the pledge is “do to others as you should have them do to you.” While it doesn’t directly address the damage of silence and marginalization on queer students, its message of peace and understanding is a good start. I had the good fortune to speak with Jesse Gilliam, a co-founder of the first Day of Silence in 1996 at the University of Virginia. He’s lived in the Seattle area for over 5 years and currently works for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Puget Sound. I asked if he had any sense, in 1996, that it would grow to become the huge event that it is today.

“I’m not sure I would have said absolutely it would become the largest student-led action in the world. But I knew it was going to grow because of the initial reactions we got. I was responsible for spreading the idea of Day of Silence to other colleges and high schools across the country and the reaction to the idea was astounding. Especially at more conservative schools students were hungry for an action like that. Plus, we knew that the silence we experienced at UVA couldn’t be unique so it makes sense that other students would want to bring visibility to the issue. One of my proudest moments was at a youth conference in the early 2000’s – it wasn’t a queer specific conference but I was speaking with a 14 year old girl who was sharing with me how she helped organize Day of Silence at her school and how powerful that experience was. She had no idea I was one of the original founders – it was just something that had a huge impact on her life. I think that gets lost sometimes – Day of Silence is about education but it’s also a leadership tool helping to create the next generation of queer activists.

I asked Jesse about the counter-events and he believes they are a sure sign that Day of Silence has been successful.

“The fact that the backlash protests themselves have become institutionalized amongst the far-right tells me that Day of Silence is doing everything right.

After speaking with Juin Baize this week, I wanted to ask Jesse specifically about gender-queer youth,

“Anecdotally I can say it is at the same time different and the same. Many trans youth are silenced within the queer community and don’t get to ride the same wave of empowerment with events like Day of Silence. But at the same time when organizers engage gender-queer students as well as LGB ones it allows for even greater participation and education. I’d also like to see greater outreach to include racial and ethnic diversity. Queers of color also experience silencing and marginalization by some in the LGBT community so specifically reaching out to them is important.

I would imagine it may be a similar thing for youth who identifies as bisexual. We were wrapping up and I asked one last question about what changes, if any, he’d like to see with Day of Silence?

“I think the challenge is to develop the day so that instead of being the culmination and end of a movement it is just the beginning. Have it be more of a jumping off point by offering specific tools for ‘Day of Silence is over, what are some next steps to take at your school’ so the momentum can continue.

Day of Silence has the attention and support of Capitol Hill, as well. Last year Rep. Engel (D-NY) and Rep. Baldwin (D-WI) introduced House Resolution 92 to support the goals and ideals of The Day of Silence. This year the Representatives released a joint statement [PDF] urging awareness and participation in the annual National Day of Silence. What are you doing to break the silence?

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