LGBT Day of Silence Isn't About Us, It's About You

In Depth

Today is the LGBT Day of Silence in the United States and many other parts of the world. It’s supposed to be symbolic of the silence in which LGBT youth suffer their hidden sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Specifically it is supposed to draw attention to bullying’s ability to silence self expression. In some circles it has gained greater meaning, referring to those who have been the victims of homophobic and transphobic attacks. And as usual, I’m ambivalent about the whole damn thing.

The organising group, the “Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network,” describes the LGBT Day of Silence as “a student-led national event that brings attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools. Students from middle school to college take a vow of silence in an effort to encourage schools and classmates to address the problem of anti-LGBT behavior by illustrating the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on LGBT students and those perceived to be LGBT.”

As much as I respect the work of GLSEN… I’m not sold.

I am old enough to remember a time when the LGBT Day of Silence was completely unknown. The practice only started in 1996. I was already nearing the end of private Catholic junior high school education, readying to enter the big leagues of a public high school. In my time at the high school, I would try unsuccessfully to start a Gay Straight Alliance years before I was to actually understand my own identity. I received the support of one chemistry teacher, a man whom I still rely on to mentor me. My principal shot the idea down. My high school community was not ready.

However, there were certainly other causes for which people claimed the need to observe a day of silence. These causes were all great causes, don’t get me wrong, yet few of the students I knew observed them in order to actually do anything. For my classmates, these days of silence allowed them (those unaffected by whatever they were being silent about, to be clear) to feel good about themselves for “making a difference” while at the same time just coincidentally having a recognised excuse to avoid class participation. I never walked away from these days of silence believing they did a damn thing to “raise awareness” or “change the culture.” As soon as the trendy day of silence was over, it was right back to business as usual.

Yet, there is a way in which the LGBT Day of Silence (and any other days of silence which center around oppressed minorities) can be fruitful: be silent, but also listen. Can you imagine if instead of being called the LGBT Day of Silence, it was instead called the LGBT Day of Voicing? Instead of everyone just being silent, it is the allies who would choose to be silent while the movement encouraged LGBT youth to, for one day out of the year, dominate conversations in classrooms, in seminars, at the lunch tables, at student council meetings, and in school assemblies. Imagine if on that day school administrators met with LGBT students and had to just sit there, silent, as these students explained how they were repeatedly being failed?

The LGBT Day of Silence isn’t about us as LGBT people. It’s supposed to be. It’s described as if it is. But it isn’t and it never has been. It has been about allies, patting themselves on the back and feeling good about themselves while LGBT youth remain silent on the one day that is supposed to be about them. It doesn’t have to be this way, because when everyone else is willing to remain silent while LGBT youth lift their voices and share their stories, then a whole lot more progress will be made.

So, cisgender, straight folks, this day is about you. Which is it going to be—your warm and fuzzy ally feelings or actually learning about the lived experiences of LGBT individuals? Your call.

Image via Cameron Whitman/Shutterstock.

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