Student Works to End GLBT Harassment

Welcome. Enter this room knowing that we believe all people should be respected. Therefore, we do not tolerate or accept harassment or hate toward others. So, before coming in, please park any prejudices at the door.

Each faculty member at my high school owns a sign with this message printed on it. The signs were made and handed out by the school’s Diversity Council.

Despite this effort at tolerance, though, when I walked into school on my first day, I was greeted with the shock of my life. Everywhere I went, I heard “You fag!” and “That’s so gay!” echoing through the hallways.

I was absolutely amazed at how teens used “fag” and “gay” as substitutes for “stupid” and “weird.” They didn’t understand that using these words carelessly offends those of that sexual orientation.

After a while, I began to hear about other incidents at school. One student threatened a gay student when he said, “I’m going on a killing spree, and you’re number one on my list, fag.” And a student in the lunch line harassed a bisexual girl, calling her a “dyke.” Yet not one adult who was nearby said anything to reprimand the girl’s harasser.

These incidents made the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) community at my school very uncomfortable. A hostile environment makes it difficult for GLBT students to just be themselves.

Before I moved to New Jersey, I went to a school in Virginia that had a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and was tolerant of GLBT students. Moving from this atmosphere to the one at my new school added to my shock. I was so outraged that I knew I needed to do something.

Getting Organized

My first day at school, I met Alex Hilliard, someone I didn’t think I could ever relate to. She seemed like the stereotypical “punk,” but, as fate would have it, we became great friends. Alex felt the same way about students’ misuse of the words “gay” and “fag.” A few months later, I realized why.

One day, she came to lunch with a big grin on her face. I asked her why she was in such a good mood, and she seemed hesitant. Then, out of nowhere, she blurted out, “I’m bisexual!” She was so relieved that the burden of her secret was finally lifted off her shoulders.

The day Alex came out marked the start of our GLBT-rights campaign at school. We wanted to do something about the school’s homophobia problem. We knew many GLBT students who were afraid to come out because of the negative environment. They didn’t want to be subject to the harassment faced by “out” students.

We discussed starting a Gay-Straight Alliance, but were concerned about the administration’s and students’ responses. Every time a GLBT student was harassed, nothing was done to punish the offending student. So, we thought the administration wouldn’t support our endeavor.

But we believed that a GSA would reduce the school’s homophobia, because it would educate “straight” students about GLBT issues and explain that we’re all just people trying to cope with the same everyday challenges. GSAs work to help everyone understand each other, and that’s our goal—understanding.

Turning Point

Finally, something happened that brought about a little bit of change. A new female student called our friend Drew a “fag” in P.E. Drew isn’t gay, but Alex and a few other GLBT students, who were in the class, took offense at the girl’s verbal attack. Drew shrugged it off, but when Alex came into lunch near tears, I knew we needed to do something, and this was the right time to do it.

Alex and I talked to one of our school’s counselors and “tattled” on this new student, explaining that we were trying to discourage discrimination against the GLBT community. The counselor said that she would talk to the student and advise her against any future attacks.

As luck would have it, this counselor was just the woman we needed to get our ideas put into action. I happened to mention that we really wanted to start a GSA, and she not only supported the idea, she helped us find all the information to make it possible. She said she noticed the harassment of GLBT teens at our school. She wanted them to feel they had people to turn to in times of need. She thought a GSA was exactly what we needed to accomplish that.

Taking Steps

First on our list was petitioning. In order to start any new organization at school, you have to have at least 20 students sign a petition stating that they would support and be interested in joining that organization. Our friend Meenah went out in search of signatures.

Students in her physics class harassed and made fun of her for supporting our cause. We calmed her down, reassuring her that, in the end, all efforts would be worth it.

After a few more heated moments and lots of negative responses, we ended up with more than 50 signatures on our petition. (Right now, we’re in the final proposal stages for the GSA. We’ll find out shortly whether we can have it at school, but, so far, it looks like we can.)

In the meantime, we wanted to take further action; we had a new idea that we thought might help raise awareness before we started the GSA: the Day of Silence.

Silent Protest

I participated in a Day of Silence in 2002, and I thought it would be an eye-opener for students. On the national Day of Silence, you don’t speak for nine hours to signify the “silence” that the GLBT community faces every day. You wear a sign on your chest that explains why you’re remaining silent for the school day, but you continue about your regular activities.

Our first conversation about the Day of Silence happened a little while after Alex came out. After a lot of discussion, we finally got the nerve to talk to administrators about holding this demonstration. We looked forward to the Day of Silence so much that we didn’t want our idea to be shot down.

Luckily, our school has a very diverse administration, and one of our vice principals helped grant us permission to participate. Our principal even mentioned in the teachers’ bulletin that students would take part in the event. This was a surprise, as we didn’t think the administration would support the idea, especially since they hadn’t taken much action in the past.

Only having a week to prepare the Day of Silence really made us think about whether or not it was worth the hassle. In the end, we decided to give it a go, even if we didn’t have too many participants. We figured we would have 15 or 20 students participate, a very small thing.

Even so, when the Day of Silence arrived on April 9th, Alex and I armed ourselves with signs to tape to the front of shirts—an extra 30 signs each—and a pad of paper for communication with others.

Then, the unthinkable happened. All day long, students begged for signs, wanting to participate as well. I ran out before third period! They were desperate to support our cause! Some even resorted to copying others’ signs in the library or writing out the message by hand. It was absolutely unbelievable and entirely unexpected that so many students wanted to be part of this silent protest.

More than 100 out of 1,000 students participated in the Day of Silence. There were a few small quarrels and repercussions, but, in general, we had a positive impact.

Alex Hilliard felt the same way.

“Overall, I believe it was a success,” she says. “Yeah, some people didn’t truly understand what it was about, and some people rejected the idea altogether, but, in the end, we made people stop and think. That’s what’s important.”   

After it was over, some students said they should have participated, but were afraid of being harassed. One girl, a junior, had this to say about the Day of Silence: “It was a day where we gave respect to GLBT kids. I regret not participating, because when my friend did it, he stood up against the discrimination and verbal attacks received by the GLBT community.”   

All those who had the opportunity to participate were proud to take a stand to end the “silence” caused by discrimination against GLBT people.

Now I ask, as our signs read that day, “What are you going to do to end the silence?”  

Editors’ Note: The national Day of Silence is held each April. For info, check out the official site. Want to start a GSA at your high school? Check out this info from the "Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network."

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