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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Social Conservatives Take Aim at Day of Silence School Event Focused on Gay Issues

Backers say event focuses on bullying and harassment, while critics say it politicizes the classroom

By Kevin Derby -

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is encouraging students in schools across the nation to be silent for the entire day on Friday to highlight their opposition to bullying and attacks against gays -- but social and religious conservatives are attacking the Day of Silence (DOS) event.

According to organizers, more than 20,000 students from some 7,500 schools registered to participate in the 2010 DOS, while hundreds of thousands actually took part. Students will remain silent all day, except when called on during class, to focus on anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) insults, bullying and harassment.

“The Day of Silence is a symbolic representation of the silencing effect young people across the country experience every day because of anti-LGBT bullying,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN. “For far too long we as a nation have ignored the pervasive problem of anti-LGBT bullying. While we at GLSEN are working to improve the situation in schools for LGBT youth and those perceived to be LGBT, students across the country are coming together on the Day of Silence to say it needs to get better now.”

GLSEN encourages students taking part to pass out cards with the following message:

Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence (DOS), a national youth movement bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by anti-LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward building awareness and making a commitment to address these injustices. Think about the voices you are not hearing today.

The DOS activities won the legal backing of the ACLU and Lambda Legal, an organization that works on same-sex issues.

“The purpose is to silently and peacefully protest anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) bullying, harassment, and name-calling,” noted Christine Sun, a senior counsel working with the ACLU LGBT Project, in a letter sent out to parents and educators. “As evidenced by recent tragedies, awareness and attention to this issue is needed now, more than ever. Because students who are targeted for anti-gay or anti-transgender bullying often do not identify as LGBT, the Day of Silence represents a peaceful protest of a problem that affects all students, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“On April 15, 2011, students will be taking a vow of silence to represent the silence faced by LGBT people and their allies every day,” added Sun. “Typically, on the Day of Silence, rather than speaking, participants hand out ‘speaking cards’ explaining their reasons for remaining silent throughout the day. There are numerous ways in which Day of Silence participants can meet their academic responsibilities without speaking. With the support of teachers, students could lead or take part in a ‘silent lesson’ or complete a written assignment.”

Conservatives took aim at the DOS activities, arguing that they turned the classroom into a political battleground.

David Caton, the executive director of the Florida Family Association (FFA), attacked the event on Wednesday, claiming it “politicizes the classroom for ideological purposes.”

“The explicit purpose of DOS is to encourage sympathy and support for students involved in homosexual and cross-dressing behaviors whose voices have been allegedly silenced by the disapproval of society,” added Caton. “The implicit purpose is to undermine the belief that homosexuality and cross-dressing are immoral. Parents should no longer passively countenance the political usurpation of public school classrooms through student silence.”

Caton encouraged parents to monitor their children’s school to see what would happen on Friday -- and pull their children out of school for the day if necessary.

“Parents should call their children’s middle schools and high schools to ask whether the administration and/or teachers will be permitting students to remain silent during class on the Day of Silence,” advised Caton. “If students will be permitted to remain silent, parents can express their opposition most effectively by calling their children out of school on the Day of Silence and sending letters of explanation to their administrators, their children’s teachers, and all school board members. One reason this is effective is that most school districts lose money for each student absence.

“While it is legitimate to teach students that there exist diverse opinions on this issue, it is not legitimate to imply that one of those opinions is preferable to another,” added Caton. “While it is appropriate to teach acceptance of people, meaning that we should treat all with civility, it is not appropriate to suggest that students need to accept the view that homosexual conduct is moral.”

Caton rejected the idea that the DOS event was promoting safety for gay and lesbian teens.

“The problematic rhetoric of ‘safety’ … substitutes speciously for the more accurate term of  'comfort.’ To suggest that in order for those who self-identify as homosexual or 'transgender' to be 'safe,' no one may disapprove of homosexual conduct, is both absurd and dangerous,” argued Caton. “If this definition of ‘safety’ were to be applied consistently, virtually all statements of disapproval would be prohibited.”

The Florida Family Association is one of many conservative groups opposing the event. The Liberty Counsel organization and several state chapters of the Concerned Women for America, including the one in Florida, have expressed their support of keeping students at home on Friday.

While some social and religious conservative organizations are encouraging children to stay home if schools are promoting the DOS activities, other groups are looking to take advantage of the opportunity to promote their own beliefs.

Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays (PFOX), an organization that believes homosexuality is a choice and not a biological condition, encouraged their supporters to participate in DOS.

“We invite schools to distribute our ex-gay brochures year round, but this Friday is especially important because it is considered a Day of Silence by homosexual school clubs,” said Regina Griggs, the executive director of PFOX. “This means that members of gay student clubs and their allies will purposely remain silent all day in school to protest intolerance against homosexuals and cross-dressers.

“Because homosexual activists try to censor the ex-gay point of view, PFOX asks students to distribute ex-gay literature to their friends in support of equality for the ex-gay community,” added Griggs. “The Day of Silence enables students to distribute ex-gay literature without harassment, since opponents are obligated to remain silent that day.”


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