Guest Post: Prepare for the Day of Silence: Support Student-Activists

Day of Silence, April 15, 2011

To help support educators sponsoring the Day of Silence in their schools, I asked Elizabeth J. Meyer to write a guest post providing advice for this Friday’s national event. Meyer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She is the author of two books: Gender, bullying, and harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools (2009) and Gender and sexual diversity in schools (2010). She blogs regularly for Psychology Today and the Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy.

I was excited to get the invitation to write this guest post about the upcoming Day of Silence (DOS) on Friday, April 15, 2011. This is an important event that is taking place in high schools and universities across the country and I was asked to offer some suggestions for educators on how best to support students who have decided to participate in this event.

What is the Day of Silence?

This somewhat controversial event began in 1996 at the University of Virginia when a group of students chose to remain silent for one day to call attention to the anti-LGBT name-calling and harassment at their school.  In 2008, over 8,000 middle and high schools registered with GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) to participate. Although it was originally a grassroots, student-initiated event, GLSEN has provided their infrastructure to create educational resources and organizing ideas to their network of chapters and via their website to support widespread participation. There has been backlash in some communities against this event, but students and teachers who have participated indicate that it is a non-confrontational, yet empowering way to highlight these issues in a school community.

What is the controversy?

The Alliance Defense Fund, supported by the Southern Baptist Convention Press promotes a Day of Truth, now the Day of Dialogue, in response to the “homosexual agenda” of public schools participating in DOS activities. In Day of Truth/Day of Dialogue activities, generally scheduled for the day after DOS programs, students are encouraged to express an opposing viewpoint. In 2006, ADF claims students in over 700 schools, participated in Day of Truth activities (Janofsky, 2005). One of the more popular tee-shirts includes the message “Homosexuality is Shameful” along with other religious based anti-gay messages. Some school leaders’ response to this show of intolerance is to ban the shirts from school grounds.

The American Liberties Institute supported the efforts of James Nixon against a middle school for not allowing his son to wear a tee-shirt stating, among other things, “Homosexuality is a sin!” (Nixon v. Northern Local School District Board of Education, 2005).  The Southern District Court of Ohio granted an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the tee-shirt ban.

In a similar case, Tyler Harper was suspended for wearing a “Homosexuality is Shameful” tee-shirt (Harper v. Poway, 2006). The principal considered Tyler’s message to be “inflammatory.” Poway High School has been the scene of several altercations and incidents surrounding DOS events. In fact, Tyler admitted that he had been confronted by a group of students protesting the shirt that very morning. Further, a San Diego Superior Court jury had recently awarded damages of $175,000 and $125,000 to two former Poway High School students because of a failure to protect them from peer sexual orientation harassment (Littlefield, 2005). The 9th Circuit Court concluded that Tyler’s tee-shirt did collide with the rights of other students. As such, it was proper for the district to ban the wearing of the tee-shirt.

Balancing law and pedagogy: What are educators to do?

Although there are contradictory legal precedents on how to address these situations in schools, the DOS can provide great teachable moments for educators. Teachers, counselors, and administrators can use it as an opportunity to promote dialogue around civic engagement, the role of allies in promoting equality rights, as well as bullying and harassment related to homophobia and transphobia. I wrote a blog post about stopping bullying based on gender and sexuality that can provide some talking points for teachers.

In a democratic nation, it is very important for schools to teach and promote civic engagement. One important element of this is to be able to understand the issues in your community, draw conclusions based on your knowledge and experiences, and then take action to improve the issues identified. The DOS is a wonderful example of students participating in democracy and expressing their concern in a respectful and relevant way in order to encourage change in their school communities. For more information on students’ legal rights, you should read this guide from Lambda Legal.

Issues of solidarity are also important in social change movements. It is valuable for students to learn about ally work and what it means to help advocate for the needs of a silenced minority group.

5 Ways Educators can teach through the “Day of Silence”

  1. Make an announcement at the beginning of each class that you are aware of the event, and that you will ask students participating to contribute to class in other ways (writing on the board, yes/no signs, reflective writing piece, etc.).
  2. Break the silence around LGBT issues in the curriculum. Find some relevant way to address LGBT invisibility in your course content. Either discuss the absence of the topic in your course texts, or prepare a lesson that explicitly addresses issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity, LGBT rights, or notable contributions by LGBT people in history (arts, sports, literature, math, science, etc.).
  3. Show your support by wearing a “Day of Silence” T-shirt. You can make your own or order one online. Although you may not be able to maintain your silence all day long, the visible show of solidarity with the students can be a powerful one. I did this when I was working at the University of New Hampshire in 2003, and many students expressed their appreciation for this gesture.
  4. Ask your students to write a reflection essay on the reasons they chose or chose not to participate. This can help teach critical thinking, logical reasoning, and encourage them to consider their position on bullying and harassment as well as LGBT equality rights and the role that each individual can play in maintaining or challenging the status-quo.
  5. Work together with the student council and the administration at your school to plan a post-Day of Silence assembly and debrief. Invite outside speakers to be on a panel that can address topics such as: bullying and harassment, the invisibility of LGBT individuals and history from the curriculum, current local issues related to safety and equality for LGBT people, legal issues related to freedom of expression in the school community, and/or separation of church and state (particularly if Day of Truth/Day of Dialogue events are planned).

    Elizabeth J. Meyer

I hope you find these ideas helpful – please post questions or responses about how things went at your schools and universities on the Day of Silence this Friday.

Readers can visit Meyers’s webpage, follow her on Twitter, and read her blog posts at Psychology Today.


One thought on “Guest Post: Prepare for the Day of Silence: Support Student-Activists

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