Early on the day before the event, I was approached by a friend asking me about this. As a gay young man, I was aware of the project, but I hadn't realized it was going to happen the next day
until she spoke with me. Thanking her for serving as my reminder, I pulled up the website, looked over the content, and thought a bit. The Day of Silence began in 1996 at the University of Virgina
. Garnering national coverage and praise, the program was extended to colleges across the country. Volunteers got involved to serve as coodinators, bringing the program to high schools in 1998. By 2002, over 1,900 schools were involved with the participation of an estimated 100,000 students¹.
The intention of the project, as I see it, is to bring to the surface what normally lies beneath. Across the country there are hundreds of thousands of people whose sexual orientation, in one way or another, differs from the norm. Since the days of Stonewall and AIDS harassment, much has improved. Mainstream media has included increasingly positive depictions of characters with non-standard sexual orientations, popular shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Six Feet Under being examples. This progress must be commended and celebrated. Nonetheless, teenagers everywhere still face the threat of verbal, emotional, and physical reprisals for admitting to being queer. They still must agonize over the rejection of their parents, friends, and adult figures they respect for speaking honestly. Adults must worry about work-place consequences. Those who would be more than willing to support them may not be able to express this because of pressures around them to conform with the majority opinion. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and allied people are silenced. It is an easy matter to pretend this doesn't happen. Out of sight, out of mind. The Day of Silence is intended to remind people that, yes, it does happen, and it's not right. The project abstracts the silence endured by people everywhere over this issue to a total silence. We cannot speak. You are not allowing us to speak. Do you understand?
There are plenty of reasonable objections to the concept behind this day. Everyone must bite their tongues once and awhile. You are silent about the major hangover you have today. You are silent that this morning you danced naked in front of the mirror to Björk on the radio. You are silent that you just took a huge dump and feel quite satisfied now, thankyouverymuch. Certain silences need to be maintained to allow for the smooth functioning of society. The dictates of etiquette. Why should silence about a topic that makes many people frankly uncomfortable be any different?
But it is different. One's sexual orientation is not something inconsequential. It can't be cordoned off from one's personality, placed in its own separate quarantined realm. It takes difficult, concerted effort to remove all references to it from one's conversation. Even little things, totally unrelated things can give away too many hints if one is not careful. It takes some artful lying. Consistent, considered dishonesty. And the consequences are different as well. Making a conversational faux pas is unlikely to get you ostracized. You won't unjustly lose your job over a slip of the tongue. No one is disowned for causing an awkward silence. No one is murdered. But these are all things that could still happen if one accidentally admits being homosexual, transgendered, or hell, even supportive! Less likely than they used to be? Yes, of course. So unlikely as to be unworthy of concern? No.
Some may also object that maintaining a Day of Silence is rather remiscent of the radical feminists who cut out their tongues in 'solidarity' with a raped girl from The World According to Garp. It is putting all of one's energy firmly in the wrong direction, more interested in the gimmick than the real issue at hand. For some participants, perhaps this is true. Perhaps they really don't care, they just want to make a spectacle of themselves for the fun of it. But there are people to whom this day means something more. I am a closeted homosexual. Not to my parents, not to some of my friends, but to my school in general and to many people whom I respect. I attend a conservative, Catholic institution, servicing the white-flight suburbs surrounding my otherwise decidedly liberal community. Admitting that I am anything other than a typical, straight teenager would entail consequences from the student body. An unfortunately vocal minority would feel it's acceptable to harass me. Perhaps physically. The administration would be less than enthusiastic about my decision to speak up. I fear my prospects for college might be damaged. For all these reasons, I must choose to be silent. I am not blameless, for if I had true courage I would be willing to stand up for what I believe and accept whatever may come as a result. That failure on my part does not, however, absolve those who have influenced me to make the decision.
This leads to my most personal motivation for participating. I need to cease running away. Some time ago, I stopped denying the truth to myself, but this still is not reflected in my outward conduct. I'm gay. I will never be attracted to anyone other than men. Sometimes I have interests or disinterests that could be considered 'feminine', and dammit, there's nothing wrong with that. It is unacceptable that I'm sacraficing truth out of a masochistic desire for acceptance from those who will never be able to accept me as I am. This is a first step. To acknowledge that, yes, I care about this. It might just be something I don't experience only today, but every day of my life. The path to true openness lays before me, starting here.
Silence, total silence, takes more effort than one might suspect. There are alot of things one says without thinking, automatic responses that are just part of the daily routine. I had to make a conscious effort to halt those routines, which kept the whole reason for doing this fresh in my mind throughout the day. New, unfamiliar considerations crop up. I became more aware of my facial expressions, the most viable means I had with which to communicate lacking words. For the purposes of getting through the day, alot of nodding and shaking was required. A few times it was simply impossible to communicate through these rudimentary methods, but something couldn't go unsaid, so I wrote notes. My teachers were accomodating to this for which I'm grateful. They could have easily interpreted it as disruptive, childish behavior if they were unwilling to examine the reasons behind my conduct. As for the students, most either took it with puzzlement and not much consideration, or made a joke out of it, trying all sorts of ways to get me to talk. Some seemed to actually think about what I was trying to do as I handed them the card and watched silently on. A blessed few expressed their support and respect. That was a pleasant surprise. Overall things went smoothly, although my expectations hadn't been particularly high. How much visible impact can perhaps three or four students make with their silence in a school of hundreds?
An interesting bit of irony struck around midday. I had just come to sit at the computer next to that of a friend who was also participating. He, like me, is a closeted homosexual, in a somewhat worse situation. His parents are devout Christians, and currently have him locked up in counseling sessions to cure him of this moral deformity. They've threatened to cut him off completely if he doesn't 'get better'. It's taking a toll on him. In any case, he was having a one-sided conversation with another student trying to ask him what music he was playing. I came for only the last bit.
"What track are you listening to?"
"Hey, what track are you listening to?"
"Come on, don't be an ass, I know you can hear me."
He points at the sticker on his backpack explaining. His conversant ignores.
"What, are you a mime or something? Just tell me the track."
"Tell me the fucking track, you faggot!"
He couldn't have known. My friend has been very careful about his silence. It was just a joke, just a euphemism for a friendly insult. It wasn't malicious. Yet, that's exactly the sort of thing this is supposed to stop. Whether it was the Day of Silence or not, my friend would not be able to say, "You know what? I'm gay. I'd prefer if you didn't use my sexual orientation as a substitute for whatever you find mildly distasteful at the moment." Neither would I. After we more forcefully directed him to read the sticker, he apologized, genuinely embarassed.
And there, right there, is the point. Perhaps he'll think about it next time. Maybe that brief period of awkwardness will be enough to get him to examine the harm he may inadvertently be doing, the silence that he's encouraging. To me, that's worth it.
When I came home, I heaved a sigh of relief and started up a pleasant conversation with my mother about the day. It was good to speak again. Staying silent is difficult.
1) Day of Silence Project - http://www.dayofsilence.org/about.html
This write-up was originally posted at April 9, 2003. I removed and modified it to be less time-sensitive before placing it here at the request of an editor.