On Friday, April 15, members and allies of the LGBT community across the United States participated in the National Day of Silence. In taking a vow of silence for the day, participants intend to highlight the discrimination, bullying and harassment members of the LGBT community endured through the absence of their voice.
In 1996, the first Day of Silence (DOS) was practiced as a non-violent protest against LGBT violence and discrimination by a group of 150 students at the University of Virginia, with the intent to make their presence known through silence.
In years to come, the event exploded across college campuses across the U.S., and was nationalized in the public sphere by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network).
While participants are silent, many wear buttons with the statements: “Silence is loud,” or “what are you doing to end the silence?” Participants who attend school or work on DOS also hand out “speaking cards” to explain their silence.
The card reads, “Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement protesting the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies in schools.
My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by harassment, discrimination, and prejudice. I believe that ending the silence is the first step towards fighting these injustices. Think about the voices you are not hearing today. What are you doing to end the silence?”
While I stand in solidarity with those who chose to participate in the DOS, I no longer choose to participate in the event, because I simply don’t believe silence will end silence.
My lack of participation, of course, does not come stem from an outside perspective, as I am a butch lesbian who has experienced pervasive homophobia; however, because I have experienced this homophobia, silent or loud, I question the effectiveness of the phrase, “What are you doing to end the silence?”
If I am a part of the group being systematically oppressed and silenced, I don’t understand how my silence is in any way a revolutionary tactic to end the oppression I face.
When I did participate in the DOS, two years ago, I do not remember it as a pleasant experience. At the time, I was a high school senior and freshly out of the closet, but I wasn’t out to everyone.
And, considering the tenuous nature of what it is to really be “out,” especially when I would have otherwise not been recognized as such, participating was nerve-wracking.
While far more students participated in the event than I know to have participated at UNCG, a majority of the participants were self-proclaimed allies.
However, the reverse also posed a problem: only the out, loud and proud community members at my high school participated. So, to the not-yet loud, and quietly-proud, the event was scary.
I felt as though I was straddling the line of, “I’m a member of this community, so I should participate in an event about my community;” and, “most people don’t know I’m gay, so, do I say that I am if asked, or do I let people assume I’m an ally?”
As a result, I felt as though, in participating, a spotlight with rainbow lights was thrust upon me, and, needless to say, I wasn’t quite ready for the consequences of being silent.
My fears, as I realized, were absolutely warranted. Throughout the day, I was poked and prodded, and, ironically, I experienced my first tastes of the homophobia I was attempting to raise awareness for.
The problem, I feel, with participating in the Day of Silence, is that it makes participants — especially those who are closeted or not widely known to be out — acutely visible.
And while I can proudly say that I am out and proud now, at the time, I was nowhere near as confident, and felt pressured to participate by straight allies, who were more aggressively advocating for the event.
And, in hindsight, it doesn’t really seem fair for people who have no actual, personal stake in fighting homophobia and transphobia, to be pushing for others to participate, when these people would get little in return beyond “ally” points.
In my experience, as well as many other members of the LGBT community that I know, when one is new to the community, there is a pressure to prove that they are “really” apart of the community.
And consequently, they tend to grasp onto any LGBT related event in an attempt to find that validation. DOS, as it so happens, is a national event, and I, as well as other young and newly out members of the community, grasped onto it without understanding what they were truly signing up to participate in.
Ultimately, DOS can be an awkward experience for those in the closet and in the gray area between “out” and closeted.
And while I believe the motivation behind participating is noble, taking a vow of silence in everyday life, and not at protests, as the original DOS was intended to be, can be a messy and emotionally draining experience.
While I wouldn’t necessarily discourage allies from participating, I think pressing members of the LGBT community, particularly young members, to participate in DOS, is a mistake.
Silence as a form of protest can, of course, be powerful, however, when a vulnerable and oppressed group with less power and autonomy is made to be silent, the results can be caustic.
I regret my silence, as it served as the precursor for a long and arduous road to homophobia.
Knowing what I know now, I believe DOS doesn’t speak for my experiences with homophobia, and it doesn’t speak loud enough.