Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Day of Silence—a national, historically student-led day of action to call attention to the silencing and harassment of LGBTQ students.
The first Day of Silence was organized in 1996 by then-student Maria Pulzetti and her classmates at the University of Virginia, for a class project on non-violent protests. That April, over 150 LGBTQ students and allies stood quietly together to call attention to the silencing and harassment of LGBTQ students. The movement went national the next year. Over a hundred other universities across the country participated, gathering huge press attention for their deliberate silence. GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network), the national educational organization that works to end discrimination, harassment, and bullying and advocates for full LGBTQ inclusion in schools, officially sponsored it in 2001.
Today, over two decades later, over ten thousand students and educators make the pledge to participate in the Day of Silence. These participants are both members of the LGBTQ community and their allies. They are students at elementary schools, middle schools, and universities. They come from all fifty states; some even participate from communities outside the U.S., internationally. When prompted, many Day of Silence participants choose to hand out cards or hold signs with the following statement:
“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?”
Members of the GSA at North Idaho College stand at the entrance of their Student Union Building with red tape on their mouths and signs explaining their silence, 2015.
Their day-long vow of silence is broken by rallies and events designed for students to reclaim their voices, share their experiences, and draw attention to ways schools and educational communities can become more inclusive for their LGBTQ students.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this year’s Day of Silence will be hosted virtually. Educators are encouraged to pause their teaching for community silence and solidarity for three minutes at 3PM EST/2PM CST/1PM PST/11AM HST. Later on, events for breaking the silence will range from virtual rallies, zine making parties, and online open mics to virtual teach-in events on topics like pronouns, LGBTQ history, and LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. To find out what’s happening in your region, check out your local Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) groups and LGBTQ networks. GLSEN is hosting its National Online Breaking the Silence rally at 5:30PM EST.
With people spending more time online than ever, students and educators are encouraged to speak out through social media. Speaking out can include sharing posts and photos from Breaking the Silence events or using the hashtag #DayofSilence and #BreakingTheSilence to spread the word. GLSEN has created this sign that participants can print and hold to explain why they’re participating in their Day of Silence posts. More of GLSEN’s resources, including this awesome zine from their 2019-20 National Student Council with tips and stories for participants, can be found on their website.
Big news! Friday, advocate & @AMarch4OurLives founder @Emma4Change & @QueerEye‘s @tanfrance will be among the big names joining us to #BreaktheSilence at our virtual rally concluding GLSEN’s #DayofSilence. Join them and thousands more by registering! https://t.co/tskF152ykP pic.twitter.com/ajLkT5Q2EI
— GLSEN (@GLSEN) April 23, 2020
While Day of Silence recognizes and honors the significant changes that have been made over the past few decades, it also strives to recognize the still relevant need for progress. GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey found that 83.7% of transgender and 69.9% of gender non-conforming (GNC) students had been bullied or harassed for their identities. Nearly half of both groups reported they had been prevented from using their preferred name/pronouns or had been required to use the bathroom that does not match their gender identity. Almost all LGBTQ students—98.5%—had heard ‘gay’ being used in a negative way. Studies have shown that supportive and inclusive educational policies can change these numbers drastically. With these in place, LGBTQ students are less likely to be forced to use the wrong bathrooms, prevented from using their chosen names and pronouns, less likely to miss school, drop out, or face harassment.
Day of Silence is a necessary day of protest and mourning for many LGBTQ people. It was only a little over a decade ago that, in 2008, Day of Silence was held in memory for Lawrence ‘Larry’ King. He was an 8th grader from E.O. Green Middle School who had been shot by his classmate for being openly gay, just ten years after the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
Realities like these make many kids feel unsafe in school. Growing up, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out during high school when I realized I was queer. Like many others, the harassment I heard and saw towards the LGBTQ community was part of the reason why I stayed in the closet until I got to college. I never could have imagined that I’d find the community that I have today. I’m extremely grateful for the chance to be able to speak out about my experience, to fight for more than myself.
As schools move online and LGBTQ students away from safe spaces and chosen families and towards potentially unsupportive homes, it’s more important than ever to advocate for them and for us. It’s time to break the silence. Register with GLSEN to let them know you’re participating at this link.
Daniel Camacho is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and senior at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign studying Computer Science and Linguistics. He has been involved with and running intersectional activist groups – specifically for queer and trans people-of-color – for almost all of his undergraduate career. He also strives to advocate for LGBTQ+ representation and rights in the expanding field as a campus ambassador for the O4U Tech Conference and as an active member of OSTEM.