It is perhaps the quietest day of the school year: The Day of Silence, a national effort in which students at high schools, colleges and universities across the country take a day-long vow of silence to draw attention to the harassment that many GLBT students face in schools, this year on April 18.
Now a coalition of 15 anti-gay groups from around the country, Not Our Kids, hopes to make the Day of Silence even quieter by encouraging parents to protest the event by keeping their children out of school on April 18. It’s an effort, the group says, to protect ”America’s youth and [educate] parents about the dangers of homosexual activism and indoctrination in America’s public schools.”
”We’re trying to call attention to this event and say… in the guise of protecting kids, you shouldn’t promote what we call the ‘gay agenda’,” says Peter LaBarbera, founder of the anti-gay organization Americans for Truth (AFT), one of the groups in the coalition.
For the past several years, some opponents of the Day of Silence, which is sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), had responded with the Day of Truth, an event ”established to counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda and express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective” by the Alliance Defend Fund (ADF). LaBarbera says the idea for Not Our Kids stems from the work of a Los Angeles woman who organized a ”huge pullout” of students from schools there in response to a gay awareness day several years ago.
”We’re trying to call attention to the political correctness in schools,” he adds. ”This is just one way to do it.”
Eliza Byard, deputy executive director of GLSEN, says it is ”unfortunate” that parents would decide to go along with the Not Our Kids campaign.
”It certainly doesn’t help further [students] in getting an education,” Byard says, ”and I think that students in school really need to learn how to be part of an environment where [they] will encounter ideas in which [they] may take issue.”
Byard says Not Our Kids shows that many people have misunderstood the purpose of the Day of Silence.
”In terms of its fundamental core message, the Day of Silence is about stopping name-calling, bullying and harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity expression. It’s about changing behavior, not necessarily changing beliefs,” Byard says.
”As the national sponsor of this student-led event, that is the task that we put forward as the most important thing to do on the Day of Silence,” she says.
Marianne Vakiener, a Unitarian Universalist mother of two from Fairfax, who serves on the steering committee of GLSEN’s Northern Virginia chapter, echoed Byard’s sentiments.
”I think [Not Our Kids] is misguided,” she says. ”I read some stuff from their Web site and they talk about ‘pro-homosexual speakers’ and videos … and I’ve never heard of a high school doing anything like that.”
Vakiener says her own experience of the Day of Silence at her son’s high school is an administration that is as supportive of the event as they would be of any other student-sponsored activity.
”They don’t treat it any differently and I really believe that somebody who would suggest that parents keep their kids home is somehow misunderstanding something.”
Students at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, organized the first Day of Silence in 1996, which attracted more than 150 participants. The following year, nearly 100 colleges and universities took part in the event. In 2001, GLSEN became the official organizing sponsor of the event, and by 2005 nearly 4,000 high schools had joined in.
Vakiener is not gay, and neither is her 18-year-old son. But 14 years ago, during the controversy over the distribution of a D.C. gay publication, the Washington Blade, inside Fairfax County public libraries, she got involved with gay advocacy.
”That upset me,” Vakiener recalls. ”I thought, my son is 4, he might be gay, and if he’s gay, I don’t want him to grow up in this environment. And I thought, chances are, he’s not gay, but one of these adorable preschoolers in his class is.”
Vakiener credits her religious background with her desire to ”make this world a better place” for those children who may grow up gay.
”[Gay] rights are very important to us,” Vakiener says. ”If it was the ’60s, I would be working for the civil rights movement. It’s who I am.”
Vakiener says she has seen the Day of Silence work even among conservative students, pointing to the experience of two high-school girls in her neighborhood who became involved. Some of their friends questioned why they would do so, given that they were not gay. In the end, even the girls’ very conservative friends participated, not because they believed homosexuality was right, but because they thought discrimination was wrong.
That’s the point of the Day of Silence, says Vakiener. ”To open people’s eyes that there are some people who can’t be open about who they are. And that maybe we want to allow them to be who they are.”