Forcing kids to observe "Day of Silence" is wrong
This essay was originally published in RealClearPolitics.
I love great ideas– especially ideas that help move our world closer to understanding each other's fights for freedom. We all want freedom, but this fact can sometimes be obscured by our differences with other people. For years, this was the main impediment to our society achieving the widespread acceptance of freedom for LGBTQ people. This acceptance finally came when people were able to see that the LGBTQ community only wanted the freedoms that other Americans had. So even though the world feels very divided today, I am encouraged by the increasing awareness and public concern for LGTBQ issues.
This Friday, April 14th, is the national Day of Silence. This day was created for a good reason: to bring awareness to the daily struggles of LGBTQ people, especially bullying and harassment. I think it is important that we teach the next generation about the harms of bullying because I am personally familiar with these harms. When I was a youngster in the seventies, these kinds of days didn’t exist and I remember getting bullied in middle school for being different. I was a tomboy, and that was frowned upon. I was different. I stood out.
But I eventually learned to defend myself against some of this hate, and this has helped me greatly as an adult. Getting bullied is horrible and it sticks with you for a very long time. Weirdly, I also think it is normal. This is not to say it is okay, but just that it is a part of life (heck, adults still do it), and learning to overcome it is an important part of growing up.
So when I see that a program like the Day of Silence is being promoted in schools , my first thought is, “Wow! Awesome idea!” I think of how it can bring awareness to all kids that LGBTQ people exist, and that there might even be one or two in your class. I think of how kids will learn to accept and even embrace others for their differences.
But I also believe in free speech and free thought. If, for whatever reason, some kids do not want to participate, they should all be able to comfortably make that choice. Instead, what is often happening is that kids are pressured into participating by their peers and their school. The Day of Silence consists of kids being told to wear all black and to stay silent throughout the school day—it’s easy to see how any kids who choose not to participate will stand out.
What message does this send to kids? Does pressuring them to signal their belief in something they do not actually believe in go against the American idea that we all have the freedom to express ourselves? Not only do I think this is the wrong message to be sending, I believe this is a different kind of bullying.
As a transsexual man and a member of the LGBTQ community for more than half my life, I have dealt with tremendous hate and intolerance. What I learned from being bullied is that not everyone agrees with everything you do, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stay true to who you are. What if, instead of learning to more strongly embrace my own identity, I reacted to my bullies by letting them pressure me to change who I was and how I behaved? This probably wouldn’t have stopped the bullying, and it wouldn’t have even mattered, because I would have been sacrificing who I was. My point is that I do not ever think forcing anyone to take on your beliefs is a good idea. I do not want to be forced to participate in anything I do not choose to be a part of because I am told I have to or else.
Recently, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) received an anonymous report alleging that some students at Felix Festa Achievement Middle School in West Nyack, New York, had been harassed for choosing to not participate in the National Day of Silence. The report stated that “Many children stayed home from school that day so they aren't frowned upon for participating in the classroom.” This sounds so backwards to me. The Day of Silence was created to stop harassment and bullying, yet if someone doesn’t want to participate, they themselves are bullied.
The solution here is simple: schools can make the event open to everyone, make clear that students who don’t want to be involved should never be bullied for their choice, and ensure that the kids who choose not to participate are being respectful of those who do participate. We can let LGBTQ supporters do their thing without shaming everyone else. This way, we can give them the space to hopefully decide to support LGBTQ people on their own terms. And if they don’t, that’s okay too. This is just how the world works, and teaching our kids how to navigate it will help them grow into stronger, healthy adults.
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