El Estoque

Students show silent support for LGBTQ youth

+Participants+of+the+Day+of+Silence+gather+in+the+academic+court+on+April+11+to+host+a+vigil+acknowledging+silenced+LGBTQ+youth.+The+annual+vigil+is+open+to+all+students+and+allows+them+to+show+respect+for+the+lesbian%2C+gay%2C+bisexual%2C+transgender+and+queer+community.+Photo+by+Kristin+Chang%0D%0A
Back to Article
Back to Article

Students show silent support for LGBTQ youth

 Participants of the Day of Silence gather in the academic court on April 11 to host a vigil acknowledging silenced LGBTQ youth. The annual vigil is open to all students and allows them to show respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Photo by Kristin Chang

Participants of the Day of Silence gather in the academic court on April 11 to host a vigil acknowledging silenced LGBTQ youth. The annual vigil is open to all students and allows them to show respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Photo by Kristin Chang

Participants of the Day of Silence gather in the academic court on April 11 to host a vigil acknowledging silenced LGBTQ youth. The annual vigil is open to all students and allows them to show respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Photo by Kristin Chang

Participants of the Day of Silence gather in the academic court on April 11 to host a vigil acknowledging silenced LGBTQ youth. The annual vigil is open to all students and allows them to show respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Photo by Kristin Chang

Kristin Chang

Gay-Straight Alliance hosts successful Day of Silence on April 11, allowing students to reflect on issues restricting LGBTQ youth.

 Participants of the Day of Silence gather in the academic court on April 11 to host a vigil acknowledging silenced LGBTQ youth. The annual vigil is open to all students and allows them to show respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Photo by Kristin Chang

Participants of the Day of Silence gather in the academic court on April 11 to host a vigil acknowledging silenced LGBTQ youth. The annual vigil is open to all students and allows them to show respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Photo by Kristin Chang

The clothesline is strung up with faces.

Some grinning, some wide-eyed, some young and old and pale and dark and each one disembodied and floating in the Academic Court, captured in faded black-and-white on fraying twine. They are women and men of all types, boys and girls, neither or in-between, but it is neither their gender nor their names nor their skin color that halts students in their lunchtime bustling and scurrying: It is the few brief words typed along the bottom that demands them to squint at the flapping sheets and whisper to their friends. It is the two-and-sometimes-one digit age stamped at the bottom of the paper. It is the four-digit date hovering just above it. It is the seven-letter word just beneath it: suicide.

“Look at that,” freshman Anna Chung said. “Sometimes I just can’t believe it. But then this reminds me that this kind of thing is actually real.”

She points at the caption beneath a portrait of a blonde boy wearing silver stud earrings and an Aeropostale t-shirt.

It reads: “Matthew Shepard. Bullied for being gay…Died June 1998. 21 years old.”

Chung gestures at the five-foot rainbow flag dancing between the black-and-white posters, the juxtaposition between color and monochrome creating the illusion of a central light illuminating two dark paths. On a white cardboard square, “Day of Silence” is etched in black marker, propped against a folding chair. Under the shadow of the sign, a ring of students sits cross-legged in a lopsided circle, some with their mouths taped shut.

They are silent.

“I was really confused at first,” Chung said. “I was thinking, why are there these people sitting here, eating lunch and not even saying anything? But then I saw that it was a vigil, and I really respect that…I could see that their silence was weighty.”

[quote_right]They are silent.[/quote_right]

Chung was not the only confused or curious spectator at the vigil, which was open to all students. A miasma of people weaved among the photos and stared down at the almost monk-like concentration of its participants, many of whom were members of the Gay-Straight Alliance club on campus.

Led by advisor Joyce Fortune, the GSA sponsored a Day of Silence on April 11, a national event used to acknowledge the silence of LGBTQ youth who have passed away due to suicide, hate crimes and other forms of homophobia-induced abuse. The 45 minutes of lunchtime silence was the GSA’s annual Day of Silence vigil, and approximately 30 people occupied the center of the Academic Court among the silenced clothesline faces.

“I think it’s really poetic,” sophomore Peter Lin said. “They’re being silent next to all these people who have died really unfairly, so in that way they are being respectful…They’re sacrificing for people who should still be alive.”

[quote_left]”They’re sacrificing for people who should still be alive.”[/quote_left]

(Dis)respecting the silence

Lin walked along the shadow of the clothesline, bowing his head at each passing face. His friends watched from behind two trees, nudging each other before standing and leaving. One boy lingers a few more seconds and reaches out his arm to steady the clothesline.

[quote_right]One boy lingers a few more seconds and reaches out his arm to steady the clothesline.
[/quote_right]

“I’m not really… embarrassed,” freshman David Lu said. “It’s just that it makes me really sad to see these people and it can be…uncomfortable?”

“That’s sort of the point, dude,” Lin said.

Though Lin was touched by the participants’ willingness to sacrifice their voices in order to honor the past, he was also dismayed by some other bystanders’ lack of respect.

“I noticed that some people here, and also [in class] are like, “Hey, I’ll give you a dollar if you talk,” and that just seems really selfish and pointless,” Lin said.

Another student approached the vigil and quietly dared one of his friends to grab hold of the gay pride flag and tug it. Both left without bothering to read the sign, just as Fortune entered the scene to take pictures and videos of the participants to post on the GSA Facebook page. The ones who chose to stay after the initial hullabaloo and crowd-buzzing conversation were the ones who stayed quiet, even if they weren’t participants. Like laughter, the silence was contagious.

On a humid Friday afternoon, MVHS is usually aroar with squirrelly lunchtime energy. And yet, for those remaining minutes the heart of the court was a sort of safe haven: chatter ebbed away and some students migrated to eat their lunches elsewhere. The compact radius of silence became a bubble, muffling the usual gossip so that even the wind passing through overhead branches was deafening.

The compact radius of silence became a bubble.

“The silence is nice anyway,” Chung said. “It’s really, really hard to have this kind of willpower…and at lunch it’s even more impressive.”

She watched for a few more moments before deciding to prop her backpack at the edge of the circle and squat beneath the photo of a smiling Asian American girl.

“Maybe next year I’ll participate,” Chung said. “Actually, definitely next year.”

A reflection on silence

photo (4)

When the bell rang at last, almost jolting after the padded ambience of whispers, pages flipped and lunchboxes chafed against concrete. The participants gathered their backpacks and adjusted their duct tape. Their classes awaited, and the challenge of becoming voiceless, wordless, powerless versions of themselves became nearly impossible.

“My teacher would ask a general question and the whole class would respond…and that’s when it’s the worst,” sophomore Allegra Ziegler Hunts said at the post-Day of Silence debrief in room A208. “[But now] it seems hard to break the silence.”

[quote_left]Their classes awaited, and the challenge of becoming voiceless versions of themselves became nearly impossible.[/quote_left]

Ziegler Hunts and seven other participants gathered for the after-school debrief in Fortune’s classroom, conversing casually about the difficulties and triumphs of staying silent for the school day. The room was dim, warm and vaguely messianic, and each participant spoke softly at first, as if their silence was never voluntary in the first place. Though some were drowsy and leaned their cheeks against the desks, and others admitted to being ready for break, they were all still willing to spend the half-hour to talk about their impressions: sometimes positive, sometimes negative and always a challenge.

“It’s very profound,” Fortune said. “Once you stop talking it’s hard to start again.”

Just like the millions of LGBTQ youths who feel powerless and marginalized in their own homes and schools, the few dozen Day of Silence participants experienced the isolation of being unheard, unacknowledged, sometimes even unloved.

[quote_right]“It’s very profound. Once you stop talking it’s hard to start again.”[/quote_right]

“It was definitely difficult,” Ziegler-Hunts said. “When nobody is really listening…” she trailed off, thinking. “It’s just hard.”

The students nodded and expressed their relief that the silence was finally over, at least for them. The convenient return to verbal communication was a luxury that not all American teens had, but the GSA hoped that their brief act of empathy had at least proved to others, if not themselves, that the silence is real.

“My teachers were really supportive. And a lot more students than I expected said, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’ or, ‘Oh, I really support that,’” junior Megan Chandler said. Despite the occasional attempted bribe, she believed that the day’s voiceless adventures were overwhelmingly positive.

The day’s voiceless adventures were overwhelmingly positive.

After communicating with other students about The Day of Silence, silently of course, Chandler and her classmates soon realized that it was woven into the fabric of human history. Not only pertaining to the present and the future, but to the past as well.

“I see that it’s really very relevant to U.S. History students,” Chandler said. “Especially with everything we’ve discussed in class.”

Silence across time

As the conversation pivoted toward history and its more restrictive periods, Chandler referenced the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, in which the government attempted to fire all homosexuals from government positions because they were “more susceptible” to blackmail.

“It was really interesting to learn about and compare to current society,” Chandler said. She mentioned other forms of “silencing” homosexuals that were discussed in her history class. Ziegler-Hunts also recalled discussing similar topics in her World Core class.

photo (5)

“History teachers are supposed to mention LGBTQ issues in social studies,” Fortune said. She scribbles a reminder on her notebook. Later in the year, Fortune may plan a survey for social studies teachers about their inclusion of LGBTQ people in the curriculum, as preventing gay “erasure” is a major goal of the GSA.

Similar to the goals of LGBTQ History month, in which GSA members talked to their teachers, the Day of Silence has become a method of acknowledging the hardships of LGBTQ citizens across time.

“History teachers are supposed to mention LGBTQ issues in social studies.”

However, several participants began to report that not all teachers had addressed LGBTQ issues or the Day of Silence in their history classes. They agreed that at least a worksheet and at best a discussion should be implemented somehow.

“Day of Silence is especially timely then,” Fortune said. “It’s important to compare with the times of the past…it’s hard to imagine people reacting the way they did.”

After California passed a bill stating that gay history must be taught in California public schools, with LGBTQ activists using the slogan “History should be honest,” the mention of gay leaders and LGBTQ-related legislations in school became nearly mainstream. In Calif. and Minn., the Gay and Lesbian Action Council produced posters titled, “Unfortunately, history has set the record a little too straight,” displaying photos of authors and politicians who were open or closeted homosexuals.

[quote_right]LGBTQ activists used the slogan “History should be honest.”[/quote_right]

But before the GSA tackles heteronormative history with their rainbow flag and pink tags, they are content today to acknowledge the success of a single day.

Breaking the silence

Though California is known for its liberal political and social views, high school culture does not always align with the state’s self-proclaimed “tolerance.” Especially when tolerance is hardly synonymous with acceptance.

“Day of Silence was really important because a lot of MVHS culture doesn’t include the students’ personal lives,” Chandler said, “So homophobia doesn’t come up, even if there isn’t a lot. Though I’ve heard plenty of bullying, people don’t understand what it’s like to be silenced.”

[quote_left]”Though I’ve heard plenty of bullying, people don’t understand what it’s like to be silenced.”[/quote_left]

For Chandler, the silence allowed her to internalize her emotions and think more deeply in her daily life.

“I was [thinking], we do have gays in our school. You don’t become gay as an adult,” Chandler said. “We need to be more aware of this, and not treat the word like it’s something that shouldn’t be used in school…in [that] way, Day of Silence has been a big success.”

At the end of the day, when the clock ticked toward 3:20 p.m. and soggy green duct tape was tossed into the recycling bin, the students exited with their voices fully restored and re-accustomed to gossiping, questioning and most of all, laughing. Just minutes before, Chandler had recounted the most amusing anecdote of her day:

“It’s the funniest thing,” Chandler said. “I overheard this guy who said ‘What’s LGBT?’ And his friend said, ‘Oh, it’s lesbian, gay, bilingual…’”

The classroom erupted with giggles, fully emerged from post-school Friday fatigue.

“Oh, I see. Lesbian, gay, bilingual…transportation,” Fortune said, as the students laughed even harder.

“I don’t think they weren’t being malicious. Just…uninformed,” Chandler said.

“Yes, exactly,” responded Fortune.