Day of Silence is an annual LGBTQ event designed to draw attention to hurtful treatment of LGBTQ individuals in American schools. Activists do not speak during the course of the day, and present flyers concerning homophobia when asked why. The philosophy behind the event stems from the idea that discrimination has the power to silence its victims. Once a year – usually in April – millions of college and high school students participate in the event by engaging in some degree of silence during the school day.
The first Day of Silence was held at the University of Virginia in 1996. The concept originated with Maria Pulzetti, and the event was designed to coincide with the University’s Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Union’s (LGBU) annual awareness week. Pulzetti created the Day of Silence as a means to educate those outside of the LGBU about issues pertinent to the LGBTQ community. Pulzetti also wanted to include Straight allies. The event was a huge success, involving over 150 university students, and garnered national media attention.
Pulzetti and her partner, Jessie Gilliam, took the event to the national level after the first year. Through internet contact with other LGBTQ student organizations around the country, Pulzetti and Gilliam brought the protest to national attention. The National Day of Silence had participants at over 100 schools by its second year.
In 2001, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) became the official organizational sponsor of the National Day of Silence. In 2002, Congress passed House Congressional Resolution 346, introduced by Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), which gave congressional support of the goals and ideals of the National Day of Silence (H. Con. Res. 346 [107th]). As a result of the success of the National Day of Silence, H. R. 346 and subsequent resolutions have brought federal legislative attention to the conditions faced by LGBTQ students in American schools.
Participating students typically carry around handbills explaining the reasoning behind their silence. The official “Speaking Cards” promoted by the National Day of Silence organization read as follows.
Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies in schools. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by name-calling, bullying and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices. Think about the voices you are not hearing today. What are you going to do to end the silence?
Interpretations vary as to how silent a participant should be. Some participants conduct zero verbal communication for the entire day. Others refrain from social communication, but will participate in necessary classroom verbal exchange. Acceptance of silent protest against the treatment of LGBTQ individuals also varies, particularly at the secondary level, with some schools actively banning the practice and others emphatically protecting students’ rights to be silent. Teachers sympathetic to the Day of Silence plan discussion-free activities for that day, such as video screenings, whereas others use the day as an opportunity to focus on diversity issues.
The success of Day of Silence has inspired homophobic Christian groups to promote Day of Truth, a counter-protest detailing the harmfulness of homosexuality to society.
Two activist movements have taken some of the tactics of Day of Silence. NOH8, an organization to change California law forbidding marriage equality (code for “Say no to Proposition 8,” a bill that successfully ended same-sex marriages in California in 2008. Prop 8 was overturned in 2013),
and “Sexual Assault=Silence,” part of the 1 in 9 campaign at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, started in 2005. “1 in 9″ refers to the number of sexual assaults that are reported to authorities. NOH8 and 1 in 9 both feature public protests in which some activists have tape over their mouths, indicating the ways in which society ignores or silences the call for both LGBTQ rights and people’s (primarily but not exclusively women’s) personal safety with regards to sexual assault.
Gay, Kathlyn. Cultural Diversity: Conflicts and Challenges: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2003.
Goldman, Linda. Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well-Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society. New York: Routledge, 2007.
H. Con. Res. 346 [107th]
H. Con. Res 86 [108th]