On April 16 thousands of university and high school students will attend classes without a word. No socializing in hallways or on the quad, no joking in the cafeteria, no participating in classrooms. When asked why they remain silent, their only response will be a card containing an explanation of the Day of Silence.
The Day brings attention to the silence endured by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students when facing bullying and harassment in school. The card explains that students’ "deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by name-calling, bullying and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices."
The event has become the largest student-led action addressing school safety for all students, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The day began in 1996 at the University of Virginia. Undergraduate Maria Pulzetti wanted an event that would be visible on campus and involve straight allies.
"I wanted to do something for BGLAD week that would impact many people at the school and that would be very visible," Pulzetti said in an interview for Oasis magazine. "I knew that if we held panel discussions and events like that, the only people who would come would be the people who already were fairly aware."
The first Day of Silence was a success among students at the UVA and garnered some press attention. The next year the event grew to include 200 UVA students and over 100 colleges and universities across the US. Pulzetti and fellow student Jesse Gilliam worked hard to develop the project for schools coast to coast. Two years later high schools became involved, and in 2000 the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) became the official sponsor of the event. In 2008 over 8,000 high schools, colleges and universities took part in the action.
Participating students are both gay and straight. Their silence seeks to raise an awareness of the harassment and bullying that many LGBT students face daily from their peers. It is not only LGBT students who are being abused, a fact that GLSEN also wants to bring awareness to this year. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself because of peers who harassed him, calling him gay even though he was straight. On the 2009 Day of Silence Carl would have turned 12.
"As was the case with Carl, you do not have to identify as gay to be attacked with anti-LGBT language," GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said in a press release. "From their earliest years on the school playground, students learn to use anti-LGBT language as the ultimate weapon to degrade their peers."
The Day of Silence also provides resources to schools on how they can take simple steps to stop harassment within their own walls, such as adopting an anti-bullying policy, curriculum that addresses LGBT issues and tolerance and training teachers and staff to better deal with bullying when they see it.
Of course, a day like this doesn’t come without its critics. Several family advocacy groups say the Day of Silence is politicizing the classroom and indoctrinating students. One of the most outspoken groups is the American Family Association, who is calling on parents to pull their children from school on the Day of Silence, apparently in support of bullying and harassment. A coalition of groups support the Day of Silence "walk-out." Exodus International, a religious organization that supports "conversion therapy," has organized the first, counter Day of Truth on the day after the Day of Silence. Their slogan is "Get The Conversation Started" about biblical sexuality.
To find out more, visit GLSEN’s Day of Silence Web site.