Homophobic Groups Don’t Want to Hear About ’Day of Silence’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday April 18, 2011

Last Friday, April 15, was the national Day of Silence, an annual occasion on which participating GLBT youth and their straight allies keep quiet outside of the classroom to symbolize the plight of voiceless, powerless teens.

But anti-gay groups didn't want to hear about it.

Well in advance of the day, organizations like Focus on the Family and the Illinois Family Institute were politicizing the event and urging parents to yank their kids out of class for the day, claiming that an even in which hallways are less noisy is "disruptive" and "a waste of tax dollars."

Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute spoke to both the mainstream press and to online fringe publications, characterizing the Day of Silence as an attempt to muzzle conservatives and stop them from giving expression to anti-gay sentiments.

"Actually, what they want to do is eradicate the belief that homosexual behavior is immoral," Higgins told anti-gay religious site OneNewsNow. "Their end goal is not ending bullying; their end goal is the complete normalization of homosexuality and the creation of a social and political environment that makes it impossible for conservatives to speak."

The April 14 posting included a graph that, based on a reader poll, tracked how many schools were expected to participate in the day. The graph showed three bars under the heading "Are any schools in your area participating in the 'Day of Silence?' "One graph was labeled, "Yes--unfortunately," and represented the response of 326 readers.

A second graph, labeled "No--thankfully" was the reply from 713 readers.

The third graph--"Unsure"--was the longest, with 2,738 survey respondents falling into that category.

Higgins spoke with the mainstream conservative press.

"I think that we shouldn't be exploiting public education for this," Higgins told Fox News, going on to imply that the participating students would disrupt classroom lessons.

"There are better ways to use taxpayer money," Higgins told Fox News. "We send our kids there to learn the subject matter, not ... to be unwillingly exposed to political protest during instructional time."

The American Family Institute's Bryan Fischer echoed similar insinuations in the Fox News article.

"Obviously this is intended to make an impact on the educational environment--otherwise they wouldn't be doing it at school," Fischer asserted. "The only impact it could possibly have would be to interfere with class."

Day of Silence proponents were up front about the event's guidelines. "While you DO have a right to participate in the Day of Silence between classes and before and after school, you may NOT have the right to stay silent during instructional time if a teacher requests for you to speak," text at the Day of Silence website noted. "According to Lambda Legal, 'Under the Constitution, public schools must respect students' right to free speech. The right to speak includes the right not to speak, as well as the right to wear buttons or T-shirts expressing support for a cause.'

"However, this right to free speech doesn't extend to classroom time." the text added. "'If a teacher tells a student to answer a question during class, the student generally doesn't have a constitutional right to refuse to answer.' We remind participants that students who talk with their teachers ahead of time are more likely to be able to remain silent during class."

The head of safe schools group the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Eliza Byard, told Fox News that the anti-gay groups raising a fuss against the day were generating disruption, not the students who would remain respectfully silent while not in class.

"Participants in Day of Silence go to school, go to class and answer when called upon," she said. "For a family to decide to take their child out of class, it would disrupt that child's learning and that would be a shame."

GLSEN sponsors the Day of Silence. Text at the event's website noted, "By taking a vow of silence, you're making a powerful statement about the important issue of anti-LGBT bullying." Adds the text, "GLSEN is the nation's leading education organization working to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. GLSEN has been the official sponsor of the National Day of Silence since 2001."

GLSEN surveys have shown that 86% of GLBT students in public schools experience harassment and bullying, Fox news reported. Over half--60%--do not feel that they are safe while at school.

GLSEN's research has also indicated that many GLBT students cut classes--or even drop out, sacrificing their education and future prospects out of fear for their safety.

"The national picture still doesn't look good and the national numbers still remain unacceptably high," Byard told Fox News.

Contrary to the claims of anti-gay groups, the Day of Silence is not subsidized by tax dollars. GLSEN receives no federal money.

Higgins told Fox News that her organization was encouraging parents to yank their kids from classes for the day as a "last-resort option" because anti-gay groups had gained so little traction in protesting the event.

But in years past, homophobic organizations called for kids to be kept home rather than attend school on a day when some of their classmates might not be speaking outside the confines of the classroom. The Illinois Family Institute itself posted a "DOS Walkout" page last year.

The call to yank kids from school during the Day of Silence may have had less to do with the kids themselves--and more to do with the culture wars of the adults. Fischer outlined the deeper, more aggressive strategy behind the call to keep kids at home for the day: To deny funding to schools where the event takes place.

"Most schools get reimbursed on the basis of average daily attendance," Fischer told Fox news. "In other words, they don't get taxpayer dollars for teaching students anything--they get taxpayer dollars for having fannies in the seats. So if you have fewer fannies in the seats that's less dollars for school administrators and that's an incentive for them to do the right thing here."

However, under law, the "right thing" would be illegal if it includes punishing students for not talking outside of class. The Fox News article noted that the Supreme Court has upheld students' First Amendment rights when outside of the classroom--rights that not only cover speech, but refraining from speaking, as well.

Some groups want students to go to school but take with them a different message. Exodus International, which promotes the view that gays can be "cured," launched its own response to last year's Day of Silence. The "ex-gay" group called their alternative the "Day of Truth."

"As an individual who is fighting same sex struggles and submitting this battle daily to Christ, you bring a different and much needed redemptive viewpoint," text at the site read.

At another area, text told the reader, "You may well know that schools are becoming more and more biased when it comes to homosexual issues. Messages about homosexuality are seeping into classroom lectures, and teachers and administrators alike are enforcing one-sided rhetoric."

"You have rejected the world's answer to homosexuality and are experiencing a new-found freedom through Jesus Christ," the text assured its audience. "You are proof that there is another way! By participating in Day of Truth, you can be an advocate for other hurting and struggling students at your school.

"Now, please don't hear us saying that you should broadcast your battle with homosexuality to your whole school. This certainly may not be the time and place for that, but you don't have to share your testimony in order to be effective. You can still be a great influence in helping bring understanding and compassion to this issue without divulging your own personal battle.

"However, if you feel lead to share your story to the DOS participants and/or the student group you're involved in, be bold in your freedom and share the redemption you've experienced through Christ. Be confident that you're not alone and there are thousands of other students battling right alongside you all throughout the world. Your story can plant seeds of life into the hearts of the broken and help other Christians see the grace of God in a new and different way."

An early sponsor of the Day of Truth, which was first launched in 2005, was the anti-gay legal group Alliance Defense Fund, which has worked to deny GLBTs and their families legal equality before the law. The group's website text described the ADF as "a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and direct litigation."

For this year, Focus on the Family has planned an April 18 "Day of Dialogue." Text at the Day of Dialogue asks, "As a high school or college student, do you wish your classmates could hear more of the story-like the truth about God's deep love for us and what the Bible really says about His redemptive design for marriage and sexuality? Wouldn't it be nice if a deeper and freer conversation could happen when controversial sexual topics are brought up in your school?"

Text at the site addresses bullying within a faith-based anti-gay context.

"The Day of Dialogue gives you, as a student, the opportunity to express the true model presented by Jesus Christ in the Bible-who didn't back away from speaking truth, but neither held back in pouring out His incredible, compassionate love for hurting and vulnerable people. His example calls us to stand up for those being harmed or bullied while offering the light of what God's Word says," the text reads. "And the event gives you a chance to express this balanced perspective in a loving and peaceful way."

"School is not the place for political action--at least not political action that interferes with learning in the classroom," Higgins told OneNewsNow. The article at the anti-gay site did not include any commentary from Higgins or others regarding the "Day of Dialogue."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.