Mercedes Allen

When Even Silence Offends; When Silence Fails

Filed By Mercedes Allen | April 20, 2012 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: anti-gay bullying, Christian Nationalism, Day of Silence, GLSEN, LGBT youth, religious bullying, silence has failed

Every year, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsors the Day of Silence and encourages students to take a vow of silence for the day, "to bring attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment." It occurs on Friday April 20th, this year - today.

The Day of Silence was started in 1996, at a time bigstock-Young-Woman-Reduce-To-Silence-4071388.jpgwhen silence was really the only permissible way to protest homophobic and transphobic bullying (and is still the only permissible means of protest in countries like Russia and Singapore, where some youth now mark the Day of Silence). In the past couple of years, a series of suicides drew attention to this kind of bullying.

To be clear, bullying is certainly not limited to homophobia and transphobia -- the kinds of conflicts kids face can be centered around body weight, lack of acceptable physical strength, pimples, voice, disability, race, mannerisms... just about anything that can be perceived can get singled out to make someone a target, and should not be lost in any discussion on bullying. But biases based on real or perceived sexual orientation and / or gender identity stand out because they're very often socially sanctioned or at least tacitly tolerated in the don't-ask-don't-tell environment of most schools.

Consequently, there is energy being made to ensure that they're included in the overall anti-bullying approach.

Even Silence Is Not an Option

Focus on the Family holds a countering "Day of Dialogue" (seen by some as a day to relentlessly verbally harass and bully LGBT kids) in answer to the Day of Silence. Because when your opponent has declared their intent to be silent, well, hey, that's a good way to win a dialogue. For the occasion, the organization is encouraging people to evangelize others, and present Christianity as a loving solution to rid people of same-sex attraction -- something that I and many others can attest doesn't actually work, and merely condemns a person to a suffocating cycle of self-oppression and hiding.

Concerned Women for America, Mission America and the Illinois Family Institute are beginning a campaign to undermine the Day of Silence, by encouraging teachers to "plan activities that involve student communications so students are not allowed to do this," and for parents to keep their kids at home so that they won't be indoctrinated into thinking that LGBT people are in any way acceptable. American Family Association, Citizens for Community Values, Faith 2 Action, Liberty Counsel and Save California have all signed on to the effort. In a conference call, Linda Harvey claimed that it's "teaching your children to bow before manipulative, exploitative and deceptive accusations."

Linda Harvey is previously known for making several assertions that gay people don't really exist, that parents should keep their children away from gay teachers and doctors for fear of them becoming infected, and that anti-bullying laws and policies are so dangerous that it's better to fight them even if suicides result than to allow the policies to "promote sexual deviance." Here's Linda Harvey's solution to LGBT bullying:

How about if we tell them the truth, that homosexuality is unsafe, unnatural, and no one needs to go there emotionally or physically?

Here's the gist of the issue. Because for some parents, nothing less than vilification and outright disease-model lies is acceptable. Even silence on the issue aids the evil "homosexual agenda."

How Religion Becomes an Acceptable Reason to Bully Kids

This logic only works if you buy into the idea that sexual orientation is a choice that you can switch on and off like a light, and that giving kids a safe haven encourages them to make a choice that will damn their immortal soul. If you don't completely buy that, the problem becomes apparent.

This is why parents can maintain that their parental right to teach their children their values trumps their kids' right to learn anything different, even if their own child might be gay and need affirmation. To this mindset, affirmation only encourages "bad choices," while in reality, this vilification and rejection (while not present in every case) can often be a leading contributing factor to teen suicide. Think Progress tells us how one school district's "neutrality" policy worked.

Silence Has Failed

Don't get me wrong: when I say that silence has failed, I'm not being critical of the students who participate in the Day of Silence or the organization that sponsors it. Schools and campuses aren't the easiest places for kids to speak out -- in fact, there's no shortage of laws, regulations, policies and adults to discourage teens and kids from saying anything (whether from good intentions or bad). Silence is the only voice many kids have. But the hegemony that asserts policies of silence as some twisted ideal, well, that's another matter. Saying that LGBT kids should not suffer bullying is only meaningless lip service if the solution being offered is that kids should just shut up and suffer it in silence and isolation.

Silence when slurs and homophobic or transphobic pontification are used to justify harassment or even violence seriously fails kids. Silence when people of faith allow a narrow brand of Christian Nationalist hatred of LGBT people present itself as the predominant opinion of Christianity fails kids. Silence and invisibility when the list of youth committing suicide grows because they don't realize that they have someone they can talk to fails kids.

It boils down to affirmation. Beneath all the rhetoric, the issue is not about speech or parental rights, but about fears that affirmation might enable or "encourage" someone to be gay or trans.

When I attended school, there was every reason for me to believe that the core of who I was would make me a target. At that time, we didn't really understand what transsexuality was -- I hadn't even heard the word until I was around twelve, and when I did I ran to my bedroom and wept for hours at the realization that if there was a word for it, then I wasn't the only one. The next day, I went to the library and sought out the "authority" on transsexualism... who at that time was Janice Raymond, so that messed me up for another several years.

Affirmation? Hell, I was alone in a school and a church that taught me that I and everyone like me was pure evil. As much as I tried to "man up" and hide, I was inevitably target -- usually labeled a "fag" or a "gimp" or a "homo" rather than anything about being trans (hey, it was the mid-1980s), but a target nonetheless.

I won't go into the effect it had on me, but do want to emphasize something. Getting pushed around, harassed, intimidated, terrorized, sometimes beaten up... none of these things were the worst part of the bullying. Bill Maher hit the nail on the head about what the worst part was:

"And there's another way that I was bullied that I would like to mention, because I haven't heard people talk about it, but I feel it's just as bad as being beat up. Although that happened to me a couple of times too. And that is bullying by ostracism: when they separate you from the pack, and no one talks to you. And they give you the cold shoulder. And you're suddenly not somebody who is welcome in the group. I remember that hurting me very much. To my core...."

It was the devastation of being so completely alone, isolated and incompatible with the rest of the planet that was the worst of it. Alone-ness. It's the isolating effect of being targeted... and that, more than the bullying itself, is devastating. That's what I couldn't bear. If I had felt I wasn't completely alone, the rest probably wouldn't have mattered as much.

As we've already seen, the U.S. and Canadian far-right see being gay or trans as a choice, that kids aren't any of those things to begin with and that affirmation and support simply encourage sinful decision-making. Yet my own experience showed me that being trans was present in my life right from the beginning, was never something I could switch on or off like a light, and knowing that it was some taboo subject that dare not speak its name was an incredibly isolating and suffocating experience. I wrote previously about the need to affirm LGBT students:

... kids absolutely do have a right to be affirmed as people, no matter how they might identify themselves. I say that as someone who recognizes that children and teens are complex but rational, far from the helpless victims we tend to see them as, and very often far more mature than we give them credit for. I personally do not subscribe to the "heads as empty vessels theory" that postulates that they just accept anything that we put in there. Underlying the fear of orientation and gender identity -inclusive sex education is a belief that kids are vulnerable to "recruiting," which is an argument that only works if you believe that kids have no will of their own and that one's sexuality is entirely a choice - my experience tells me otherwise on both counts.

One thing I do know is that we experience life - and particularly emotion - much more intensely when we're young. And in a society that is still so entirely pervasive with homophobic and transphobic attitudes, disenfranchisements and signals, the absence of affirmation of students' right to seek identity and claim the one that fits them becomes a suffocating vacuum of fear of stepping outside the rules that police gender and orientation, thus inviting wrath. It's a literal hell to live through.

The mere absence of bullying -- assuming that any policy could actually guarantee it in real life -- is not going to accomplish an environment where kids are able to live and breathe and find the freedom to become people functioning at their fullest potential.

That's why support is vital. That's why it's crucial for LGBT and allied kids to be able to form Gay-Straight Alliances and form communities of their own without shame and without the educational institution sanctioning antagonism against their attempts to do so. Especially for those kids who don't have that kind of lifeline at home. In enforcing that No Pro Homo environment, parents are isolating kids, forcing them to withdraw into themselves, instilling into them the belief that they are all alone in their struggles.

Parents will and do teach their kids. They will and do pass on their attitudes about homosexuality and transsexuality (contrary to claims that things like the Day of Silence will silence them). So be it. Speech isn't the issue, here. The issue is whether parents have the right to ensure that their children are sheltered from any and all contradictory beliefs that might allow them to form their own opinions and develop critical thinking for themselves. The issue is whether those parents have the right to prevent school administration from providing safe haven or support from this kind of bullying for LGBT kids, in the name of their religious freedom and their rights as parents.

When even silent protest is seen as "indoctrination, just promoting homosexuality and transgenderism," certainly anything that acknowledges that LGBT people exist and dares to affirm their right to be -- rather than assailing them as aberrant abominations, "sexual deviants" and demon-possessed -- is apparently unacceptable. And this is how the far right (again, not to be confused with all those of any particular faith) does its level best to enforce or at least shelter the practice of bullying LGBT youth, rather than end it.

Because even the slightest silent implication of support for LGBT kids continues to offend.

(This post is part of an extended series on anti-bullying education battles in Canada and how even the Day of Silence is seen to offend - Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3)

(Reduced to Silence art via Bigstock)

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