Can Day of Silence Protests Still Work Under Trump?

After more than two decades of surprisingly impactful LGBTQ activism, organizers plan next steps.
April 20, 2017, 10:12pm

When I was 14, my friend Mikey started our Denver high school's first Gay-Straight Alliance. I joined as a "straight ally," on the cusp of "questioning"—still years away from fully embracing my bisexuality. That year, in April 2002, our school was one of many nationwide that took part in the first national Day of Silence—a day on which LGBTQ students and their allies refrain from speaking for an entire school day, in order to call attention to the way bullying silences them throughout the year.

Over the course of my high school years, our school's Day of Silence blossomed from something Mikey and I did alongside a half dozen of our friends into a major school-wide event. Something similar was happening on a national scale. The year 2002, "it became much, much bigger," said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). Byard's first day on staff at GLSEN, in 2001, happened to be the day the organization officially became the national sponsor of the Day of Silence. GLSEN tasked itself with amplifying the scope of Day of Silence—bringing a protest originally created by and for college students to middle and high schools across the country—and as the protest grew, it transformed into arguably the largest yearly adolescent LGBTQ protests of the past few decades.

Day of Silence was first conceived in 1996 by undergraduates at the University of Virginia. Jesse Gilliam, one of the event's founders, recalled that co-founder Maria Pulzetti was "inspired to make visible the silence LGBT youth often faced when choosing between living as themselves and being able to stay physically safe, housed, employed, and educated." By 2001, the event had spread to some 300 college campuses, but when GLSEN began efforts to introduce the concept to middle and high schools, it gained unforeseen traction. Byard remembers being amazed by the "pent-up energy and interest" in American adolescents who were waiting for exactly the kind of outlet Day of Silence offered.

LGBTQ people have seen incredible gains in political rights and social acceptance since then; today, coming out is easier and safer than ever, which could be why a recent GLAAD study found that a full 20 percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ. According to Byard, nearly half of American middle and high schools now have a Gay-Straight Alliance, Gender, and Sexuality Alliance, or similar student group. The transgender tipping point has come and passed; by many measures, life has been getting better and better for LGBTQ people.

Rather than diminishing the importance of Day of Silence, though, those gains have only bolstered it—highlighting how far we've come only reminds us of how far we have left to go. And with many of those political and social gains endangered by Trump, protest actions like Day of Silence, which particularly resonate among young people, are more vital and radical than ever.

For queer teenager Reece Pierce, who is helping to organize a Day of Silence at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colorado, this year, the protest is as much about highlighting discrimination faced by LGBTQ students as it is about making their presence (and that of their allies) explicit. Even at their relatively affirming high school, Pierce said straight students "tend to forget that not all of their classmates are straight or cis, and try to turn things like marriage and gender equality into fun debate topics, when it really isn't all that fun for most of us." Visibility in this way has always been a major goal of the Day of Silence; Byard notes that when GLSEN first sponsored the protest, "there was still an incredible invisibility of LGBTQ youth—this was not an issue on everyone's radar the way it has become, in part because of Day of Silence."

Today, Pierce says, the future is frightening. "I worry that casual hate speech and possible violent acts will be more normalized under an administration like this, which could lead to even worse things being normalized and increase the struggles the community already faces," they said. For young people, Day of Silence offers an opportunity to rally allies and spread awareness in preparation for political battles to come.

But it's not just about defending the rights and safety of LGBTQ people. For many, participating in the Day of Silence is a doorway to a broader sense of civic responsibility. "I've had hundreds of people younger than me come up to me over the past 20 years to tell them that the first protest event they ever engaged in was the Day of Silence—and now they're running for office, launching a career as an out LGBT person, leading an LGBT organizing movement locally," said Gilliam.

Byard noted that students involved with Day of Silence often branch out into other forms of activism, like ongoing efforts with gay-straight alliances and other school pride clubs. Following the 2016 election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) collected information about overtures of inclusion and affirmation. Maureen Costello, director of SPLC's Teaching Tolerance program, noted that many of these nationally relevant gestures of inclusivity were spearheaded by LGBTQ student groups. "Over and over again," she says, "teachers shared that their GSA had started a safety pin campaign, or gone to the principal to ask for a school wide meeting or joined with another group to promote inclusion."

But that activism is moot if the next four years prove as challenging as Trump's administration has thus far.

"Everything we've won is on the table right now," said Byard. "It means the world that this day is available to us in this moment."

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