If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine thousands of chatty teenagers in as many as 500 high schools, colleges, and universities taking a nine-hour vow of silence to demonstrate how discrimination can silence the voices of so many other youths.
This organized act of civil disobedience, which is slated for April 10, is called the National Day of Silence. And thanks to recent sponsorship from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the event will likely be lowering the volume at a school near you.
"I don't like hearing `faggot' and `dyke,' but that level of discrimination is acceptable [at schools today]," says Jared Phillips, a 16-year-old student at Kestrel High School in Prescott, Ariz. "I'd hate to think that I would have doors closed because I'm gay. By not standing up and saying this is wrong, you can bet this is going to come around to you someday."
That's why Phillips and thousands of other young people are betting that they'll speak loudest by not saying a word. The idea is to turn silence, a tool that has often deprived people of their power, into an intentional group activity. Instead of explaining themselves when approached, participants will hand out cards [shown on page 34] that read, in part, "Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am ... protesting the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their allies. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by harassment, prejudice, and discrimination. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices.... What are you going to do to end the silence?"
The event was born in 1996, when Maria Pulzetti, then an 18-year-old student at the University of Virginia, planned a day of silence after writing a paper on nonviolent protest and grassroots organizing. The following year, Pulzetti and Jessie Gilliam, then 19, developed the project so it could be used in schools across the country. It was named the National Day of Silence, and that year nearly 100 colleges and universities participated. In 2001 the project grew to include more than 300 high schools with the help of volunteers led by Chloe Palenchar, then 18.
GLSEN got involved after Gilliam and Palenchar submitted a proposal seeking more funding, staff, and volunteers for the project. Now planning for the national event includes an organizing manual that is sent to more than 3,000 student organizers and gay-straight alliance advisers. GLSEN also trains a seven-member student leadership team so they can guide other activists around the country.
"Being silent for a day is not easy," says GLSEN deputy executive director Eliza Byard. "But that's what makes this so powerful. There are over 18,000 high schools in the United States, and most of them have no organized system of support for LGBT youth. Many kids who aren't ready to speak up may not realize how much support exists for them. We have a chance to amplify the sound of silence."
In practice, all student organizers must first get their school administrators' approval before hitting MUTE. From there, anything goes. Some participants wear T-shirts that spell out what they can't say. …