Photo Credit: George Sakkestad, Los Gatos Weekly Times.
There’s not really any easy way for a queer kid to say this, but nevertheless, I somehow ended up admitting it (repeatedly) today. So, here we go again. My name is Willendork, I’m a proud member of the LGBT community, and… well… I basically hate the Day of Silence.
“Hate” may not be the appropriate word. Maybe something softer, like “disagree with” or “question” would suffice. I certainly don’t align myself with the actual hate-groups, the ones pressuring school boards to mandate GSAs not participate in the Day of Silence and refusing to acknowledge the bullying and other acts of marginalization with which LGBT students must contend. I’ve participated, however hesitantly, in the Day of Silence for the past two years, (although my actual silence has not yet lasted past midday). And I’ll admit that last year, my sense was that this silence, taken up by a community to draw attention to a cause, felt very different than other, less liberating brands of silence to which I’ve been accustomed. However, this year, my reservations around the Day have returned, and developed further, and as I’ve started voicing them, I’ve come to realize that others — perhaps many others — share my perspective.
Here’s the short version of my problem: I view silence as the enemy. Silence is a byproduct of marginalization, an outcome of oppression; it’s a characteristic of the closet, a key tool in sweeping groups of people out of public discourse. It’s disempowering. In the context of my ridiculously conservative university, silence is the norm. Here, if the LGBT-identified persons and their allies fall silent for a day, one of two things happens. Either no one notices, or they notice only long enough to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The overall sense, at my school, when students commit to the Day of Silence is not “OMG, crazy radical protest, how can we allow this?!1!!1” but rather, “Oh, thank heaven, we don’t have to listen to them today.” Far too many days pass here without anyone challenging heterosexism, homophobia, and LGBT invisibility (or inaudibility). Given this environment, queers who embrace silence aren’t particularly radical. We’re simply maintaining the status quo.
Now, I understand the arguments. I understand that silence a group takes on by choice differs from silence forced, coerced, or created without its conscious consent. I understand that the Day may “take back” silence in much the same way that the community has worked to take back hate-speech like “dyke,” “queer,” or “fag.” I know that the Day recognizes the victims of bullying and other hate crimes, and it’s customary to recognize lives lost (and lives negatively impacted) through a moment (or more) of silence. I understand the vigil-like quality of what we’re doing, the connection to a history of non-violent protests for social justice. I “get” it, or at least — I think I do. But I question it, nevertheless.
On the one hand, the actual silence involved in the Day of Silence is increasingly “supplemented” with other tactics to draw attention and raise awareness. People have begun to sport t-shirts, buttons, and ribbons to identify themselves as participants (or supporters). Groups have added “Breaking the Silence” events that take place at night, balancing out the silence with discussion, with noise. I think these ideas are fantastic (and necessary), but I think they’re effective in part because they do what silence cannot. They speak up. A visual marker says, “Hey, look at me! Stop ignoring me. Take note!” It doesn’t wait for someone else to initiate conversation. It doesn’t fall into the background. It’s actively visible. Silence is an inaudible protest. It requires other people to shut up and listen, without in any way pushing them to do so. It has no inherent means of making itself heard. And when it’s asked why it exists, or called stupid (or, well, “gay”) it can’t explain itself.
All of this can (and is) being worked around, but what I keep returning to this year is a sense that the Day of Silence not only re-creates a fundamental tool of LGBT oppression, but it inherently limits itself to a one-day movement. While people who participate in the Day of Silence may taste the sense of community, and the power involved in taking a stand together, they learn nothing about how to continue fighting for progress. A march, a rally, a day spent lobbying — all of these things teach individuals to stand up and be visible. To insist on being noticed. To, (as Harvey Milk suggested), never take an elevator in city hall. Silence does not. It cannot, on any other day of the year, be replicated to support the cause. An alternate protest, centered on making noise, (verbal or visual), could. It could jumpstart the kind of vocal participation that needs to take place on a daily basis, to make sure homophobia and heterosexism are challenged, and LGBT people are not invisible. If the goal of the Day of Silence is really to raise the question on those buttons — “what are you doing to break the silence?” — then why do we begin by participating in it? Why do we annually pool our energy and contribute to the very thing we’ve decided to fight against?
During the hours I spent silent today, I kept imagining myself making noise. I imagined attaching bells to my clothing, transforming myself into a walking musical instrument. I fantasized about the way even my slightest shift in posture, while sitting in class, would suddenly demand attention. I daydreamed about walking across campus and turning heads.
Turning heads is difficult for me. Attention is complicated, and — in an unsupportive environment — often painful. But it’s also necessary. We can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, and we can’t somehow remodel that house into a livable queer space. (Especially if we’re unwilling to look at how we’re complicit in maintaining it.) If we’re allowing our activism to be non-apparent, we’re allowing ourselves to be swept out of sight. If we take ourselves out of the discourse, we lessen our power to change it. And if we, as a community, are teaching young queers to stay silent, who can we expect to help them find a voice?