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OpEd: Day of Silence

by Mubarak Dahir
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s website, the national “Day of Silence” is the largest single student-led action aimed at drawing attention to the bullying and harassment of gay and lesbian students that remains all too frequent in America’s school system, from elementary school through college.

More than 1,900 schools with more than 100,000 students participated in this year’s “Day of Silence,” held April 13 across the country.

On the “Day of Silence,” students take a vow of silence, refusing to speak the entire day as a way of showing solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students whose voices and identities are squelched on a regular basis.

The idea for the “Day of Silence” got its start back in 1996 at the University of Virginia, where 150 campus students took part in the first-ever event. The impact of the day inspired two students to take the event nationally. They developed a program that could be adopted by middle schools through universities all around the country.

More than 75 percent of the nearly 48 million kids who are in school in America from kindergarten through high school attend an institution that does not protect them from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as they protect other groups, such as those based on race or religion.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between safe school laws, student protection and class attendance. Gay and lesbian students who do not have school policies that protect them from violence and harassment based on their sexual orientation are 40 percent more likely to skip school out of fear for their personal safety than kids who go to schools with such safeguards.

Seven states — Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah — have laws that specifically prohibit positive portrayals of gay and lesbian people, or of gay and lesbian issues in schools.

Nationally, four out of five gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students have reported being harassed because of their sexual orientation.

Of those who have been targets of harassment, 83 percent say that the faculty or staff of their schools rarely or never intervene when they are present and homophobic harassment takes place.

Almost a third of students who self-identify as gay or lesbian report they have skipped at least one day of classes out of fear for personal safety.

Not surprisingly, the lack of protection and safety has a direct affect on gay and lesbian student achievement and learning. Gay and lesbian students who report they are the targets of repeated harassment are twice as likely to report that they do not intend to attend college.

When gay and lesbian students say they cannot identify any supportive faculty members at their schools, 24 percent report no plans for going to college. But in schools where students say they can find supportive teachers and faculty members, the number of gay and lesbian students who say they do not intend to go to college drops to about 10 percent.

Attempts to silence or stifle gay and lesbian students and their achievements are all too common.

Last year, for example, South Carolina Congressman Jim DeMint said gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to teach in public schools.

And while there has been progress, with more than 3000 gay-supportive student groups being formed at schools across the country, other such groups are frequently denied, or schools place obstacles to student membership.

For example, recently the Harrisonburg School Board in Virginia voted that all students had to have parental consent to join any student group. The policy was put in place only after a Gay/Straight Alliance was formed at the school, to much opposition.

The tactic taken in Harrisonburg is a common one employed by schools that do not want to welcome or protect gay kids, or the groups that support them.

Naturally, many school kids are just coming to terms or recognizing their sexuality, and need safe places to talk about it. That’s the purpose of the student groups. Many students cannot tell their parents of their sexual orientation, for fear of disownment or even physical harm.

Requiring parental consent to be in such a group effectively eliminates the support group for a large number of students.

Other schools have gone the way of the White County Board of Education in Cleveland, Ga. There, school administrators are recommending the cutting of all “noncurricular clubs” at the school.

The policy change comes soon after a Gay/Straight Alliance applied for school membership.

This tactic is another one used by many schools to stop gay supportive student groups. In many cases, the schools are afraid of activist or legal action if they simply deny a gay group, and therefore they cut all extracurricular activities rather than let a gay group survive.

This not only deprives gay and lesbian kids of a support network and their own club, it also further demonizes them at school. Other kids see their activities and clubs taken away from them and “Bblame” the gay students.

These examples sadly illustrate that, despite the remarks of Peter LaBarbera and his anti-gay allies all around the country, education experts and advocates need to speak up more, not less, for gay and lesbian students.

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