When the DAY of Silence is observed in a cursory manner, the gay rights movement suffers

    Last Wednesday, a girl stood on the path leading to Student Center, madly text-messaging on her cell phone. It was a normal sight, except she wore a black Day of Silence T-shirt and undoubtedly had a backpack stuffed full of cards explaining how she had taken a vow of silence “to recognize and protest the discrimination and harassment — in effect, the silencing — experienced by LGBT students and their allies,” according to the event’s official mantra on http://dayofsilence.org.

    Marianne Madden

    Props to the girl, and everyone else, who observed the day around campus and across the nation. But — text messaging while observing a day of silence? Does anything seem odd in this picture?

    Replacing one form of communication (verbal speech) with another — say, text messaging or instant messaging or good old-fashioned note-writing — turns the day from a poignant reminder of discrimination to a slight inconvenience.

    Text messaging stems out of a constant need to communicate; that much is obvious. But the fact that it isn’t noisy doesn’t make it an appropriate feature of a day of silence. It completely misses the spirit of the day, cheapens the experience of actually being silenced and does a disservice to all the queer youth around the world who really are intimidated into not speaking up — the very people who need an event like this to bring their plight to the public consciousness. Will a closeted gay student in middle America, bullied into silence and made to feel ashamed of his sexual orientation by everyone in his life, “break the silence” by simply text messaging his classmates, teachers, parents and pastor? Can he send them an e-mail with the subject line, “I know you said homosexuality was an abomination, but …”? Should he write them a note, or make up a batch of posters at Kinko’s?

    Our oppressed student won’t do any of these things. If he did, he wouldn’t be silenced. In reality, the silence and despair wrought upon LGBT youth is — or at least can be — startling in its totality.

    This totality, this complete lack of empowerment, was what the creators of the Day of Silence sought to capture through observance of the event. It’s a shame that on campuses around the country, self-righteous youths instead paraded around in black, keeping their mouths shut but their lines of communication wide, wide open. Surely if these students were asked the point of the event, they would have a long-winded answer, their holier-than-thou attitude shining through. They must have no memory of the days when students who observed the event would live mutely the whole day, isolated from their friends and teachers, grasping what it feels like to be bullied into such an utter silence that your friends and family are completely unaware of a major facet of your identity. Or maybe they just decided that being silent is too hard when they simply must convey to their friends where they’re meeting for lunch.

    Sure, it’s a purist interpretation of how the event should be observed. Anyone who’s enjoyed chocolate eggs on Easter or sitting on Santa’s lap at Christmas can attest that many, if not all, holidays suffer the same fate. Ripped from their original aim and spirit, most American holidays lumber to an uneasy intersection of consumerism and convenience. The Day of Silence has yet to be commercialized (maybe next year someone can sell special duct tape for peoples’ mouths at $5 a pop), but it’s already been downgraded from a major hassle (the point of the whole event) to a minor inconvenience. “Can’t talk today,” countless people must have text messaged to their best buds that morning. “Observing this Day of Silence thing.”

    The cheapening of the event is even more disappointing considering the life-or-death battles the gay rights movement currently faces. The religious right is constantly gaining steam, and they have concrete results to show for their efforts: Supreme Court decisions granting marriage equality for gays and lesbians are now being replaced with state amendments banning gay marriage.

    The gay rights movement takes many of its cues from the civil rights movement, and now is the time to take another one: Fight the battles at the legislative level. Each amendment defining marriage as strictly heterosexual is another nail in the coffin of the gay rights movement and another rallying cry for the opposition. The cries of the entire LGBT movement are being drowned out by loud proclamations that “the sanctity of marriage must be preserved.” Anti-gay-marriage amendments are just like the Jim Crow laws of the civil rights movement: Abolishing these laws is the first step, because equality can’t thrive in a state with legislative discrimination.

    We’ve seen a horrifying spat of discriminatory amendments put on the books in the past few years. Perhaps most disturbingly, these laws were passed on the watch of a gay rights movement that looked so promising throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

    Surely it doesn’t help that, if the Day of Silence is any indication, many supposed “allies” of the gay rights movement supply lip service instead of actual passion. On most college campuses, professing to be for gay rights is cool and it’s hip, and not appearing in support of the cause is seen as backward.

    But fighting for gay rights is, sadly, not as simple as giving up speaking in favor of cell phone text messaging, just like fighting for civil rights gains was not as simple as refusing to give up one’s seat on the bus. It is complicated and messy; it is signing petitions, lobbying representatives, writing letters, embracing collective action, raising money, raising hell. It is behind-the-scenes grunt work, not just trendy, highly visible, minimally taxing protest.

    So if the participants in the Day of Silence want to make a difference, they should consider dropping the holier-than-thou attitudes and the cell phones, band together, and make some noise. Standing aloof and clinging to one’s black T-shirt while the gay rights movement loses ground will doom the entire cause in a few short years.

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