Tomorrow is the National Day of Silence
Read all about it in an essay I wrote in today's newspaper:
Gay Teens Break Their Silence
People joke these days that the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name has become The Love That Won't Shut Up. Gay and lesbian Americans and their allies are finally making themselves heard. Even in some high schools.
It wasn't always this way. I first joined the gay youth movement back in 1989, when I helped establish Oasis, a Tacoma [Washington] support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youths. Only one of our 150 members was "out" at school, and he was receiving death threats.
I knew of no openly gay teachers or administrators. But even then, the teenagers I worked with yearned to be open and honest about who they were. Heterosexuals often ask me why gay teenagers would want to talk about their sexuality in the first place. "Their wanting to talk about sex is just another form of rebellion, right?"
But being openly gay doesn't mean rebellion, and it isn't talking about sex. It just means no longer maintaining the elaborate ruse of pretending to be straight.
I always ask heterosexuals to imagine their teen years if they had had to hide the fact that they were straight. That means no talking about which pop star you thought was cute and definitely no idealized night at the prom. You might have had to date someone you're not emotionally attracted to, even becoming sexuality active in order to keep your lie intact.
In other words, being a closeted gay or lesbian teenager means being silent. And for someone who is itching to forge a self-identity, as all teenagers are, this is a very frustrating way to live.
In 1996, some gay and straight students at the University of Virginia created the Day of Silence, going a whole school day without speaking to protest the silence of most gay students and teachers and the fact that most school curriculums ignored the contributions of gays and lesbians in history and literature.
Since then, the protest has mushroomed. This year, on Wednesday, an estimated 500,000 gay and straight students from at least 4,000 schools, some in the Tacoma area, will participate what is now called the National Day of Silence. In the history of the civil rights movement, there have been few protests this dignified and this exactly appropriate.
American schools have changed a lot since I joined the gay youth movement. Openly gay students are common, at least in urban areas. And many schools now have after-school clubs called gay-straight alliances, where gay and lesbian students and their allies get together with a faculty adviser for support, to socialize or to sponsor events such as the National Day of Silence.
But if some gay students are no longer quite as silent, neither are their opponents. Republican legislators across the country have even tried to ban the existence of gay-straight alliances.
But the federal Equal Access Act, ironically championed by conservatives to ensure that religious clubs have access to school facilities, makes it illegal for schools to favor one club over another. To comply with the law, some school boards have gone so far as to ban all extracurricular clubs rather than allow gay students to meet.
It's hard for me to understand how anyone could be so petty. But then again, such pettiness fits perfectly in the history of the civil rights movement.
Needless to say, the National Day of Silence itself has also been controversial. In 2002, 350 students at Puyallup's Emerald Ridge High School stayed home to protest the event.
The day after this year's event, on Thursday, a conservative Christian group will sponsor the second annual Day of Truth, which, unlike the National Day of Silence, encourages its participants to vocally confront gay students and their supporters in order to "counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda."
It will be difficult for religious conservatives to win their fight against equal access. The tide of history is strongly against them. But they're extremely motivated and very well-financed, and they're supported by a right-wing media and a network of conservative churches that proclaim outrageously misleading jeremiads on gay teen issues.
Part of speaking up is knowing when to remain silent; gay and lesbian teenagers are learning to do both. But for those adults who agree with their goals, this is no time for silence. It's about time we joined our voices with theirs.