The normally peaceful halls and classrooms in some schools around the nation and Western New York were filled with scenes of protest Wednesday, April 18. Students shouting, chanting, or pushing? Not quite. Utter silence? Yes.
April 18th was the 11th annual National Day of Silence to protest discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. Students vow not to speak for the entire school day to show support for those students who are silenced by fear of harassment, as well as hoping to end their silence.
Founded in 1996 at the University of Virginia, the Day of Silence is the largest student-led action toward creating safer school environments for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. The event has expanded to more than 1,900 middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities throughout the nation.
After reading about the Day of Silence in an issue of Seventeen Magazine, Alden junior Rebecca Thompson was inspired enough to coordinate the event at her school. "I have a lot of gay friends and I remember once I was at the homeless sleepout with my friend Brett, and he's sitting there, and I was kind of half-asleep, and he said, 'If you have any questions about me being a gay guy, you can just ask.' I thought that was horrible that he felt he had to say anything. It shouldn't be an issue."
"I think it's a good way to raise awareness," said City Honors senior Dora Thornton who also vowed not to speak on April 18. "A lot of people can do it, it's not like it's a really big commitment, so it's a good way to get the word out there. You can get a big group of people to do it, and it's an issue that I care about."
Around 25 to 30 students participated in the Day of Silence at Mount St. Mary Academy.
"Most people tend to avoid the issue, but by being silent, we could stand up for our beliefs and make the people around us think," said freshman Laura Rumschik. "I was surprised by how much teacher support we received, and it made our silence easier to keep."
Tell most high school students that they won't be able to speak all day, and you may be met with the silent treatment, or worse. Students involved with the event were disheartened when they witnessed some of their peers laughing at something they feel so strongly about.
"I was telling one of my friends about it next to her locker and this guy next to me said, "What is it?', and I said it was for gay rights, and he said, "Gay rights?,' with a little snort," said Rebecca. "I think that one of the worst things affecting our generation is the fact that we don't care, and especially ignorance and not understanding or caring about people who are different from us."
Even among those who are very supportive of the cause and were excited about participating, many were skeptical whether they'd be able to go an entire day without talking. Most students worried they would slip and begin whispering just out of habit, which Dora explained has happened quite often during City Honors' past participation in the Day of Silence. "I think it's more important that people do it and that people see and that it's a visible movement. Not really whether people really go through with it and never make a mistake once. That's more of a personal thing. The idea is to raise awareness and make it more of a public thing."
Participants realized there are certain things throughout the school day they could not be silent for, such as answering when called on by a teacher. What was decided at Alden and City Honors was that since this "silence" demonstrates a person's inability to express themselves, protesters could give an answer to a question in class, as this reflects even more effectively how silenced students must say and do only what others want them to.
Students at Mount St. Mary Academy showed slips of paper describing the day to teachers at the start of class. "The hardest part was trying to communicate with teachers who didn't understand what was going on," said junior Michele McDonald. "There weren't a lot of us doing it, but it we were standing up for people and a lot of students said they would have done it if they had known about it."
"I did it because people need to be aware what's going on in schools and other places. And people who can't talk about it, aren't being themselves," said freshman Amanda O'Farrell.
Days before the event, Alden students prepared by hanging posters, making announcements, and designing T-shirts they would wear to explain to others why they chose not to speak that day.
Though they were in protest, these students are teenagers first and foremost and must communicate. Participants found ways around talking by writing notes, mouthing words and hilarious impromptu sign language.
"The experience really helped because you got to feel how these people feel. Not being able to say what you really think, it's basically like you're trapped, but you just want to scream it out to the world!" said Alden freshman Laura Borshel, on her participation in the protest.
Due to scheduling and organization conflicts, only a few students participated at Alden on April 18. But because of increased interest, another Day of Silence is planned during Pride Week in May.
"We're just trying to prove, even to people who aren't supportive of gay rights, that different kinds of people can tolerate each other and coexist in the same community, in this case our high school, and not have to come to blows over it," said Rebecca.
A gay student at an area public high school, who did not wish to be quoted by name, said: "I think that anyone who participates in [the Day of Silence] is really brave. The most important thing is to stop spreading hatred and fear."
Find more about the Day of Silence at www.dayofsilence.org.
Carlene Miller is a freshman at Alden. Maria Fahs of Mount St. Mary Academy contributed reporting.