Friday, April 16, 2004

Silence promotes gay awareness

Maggie Downs

Sometimes speaking volumes doesn't require any words at all.

That's what 20-year-old Doug Meredith learned at this time last year.

He didn't shout hello to his peers at Northern Kentucky University. He didn't trade a few words with a professor after class. He didn't order a strong midmorning coffee.

For one day, Meredith remained completely quiet.

Instead of oral communication, he handed out cards that read:

"Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement protesting the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies.

"My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by harassment, prejudice and discrimination. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices.

"Think about the voices you are not hearing today."

The day of activism is a project of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in collaboration with the United States Student Association. The goal is simply to create a safe learning environment for gay students.

School is a time to gain skills, ask questions and establish philosophies. It's a chance to develop, both socially and mentally, into adulthood. It's a place where students' worries shouldn't extend beyond remembering their locker combination or where to sit in the cafeteria.

But some are learning a very different lesson.

A 2003 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN found that four out of five gay students report verbal, sexual or physical harassment at school.

Thirty percent reported missing at least a day of school in the past month in 2003 out of fear for personal safety.

And, according to the same survey, unchecked harassment correlates with poor educational performance: Gay youth who report significant verbal harassment are less likely to say they intend to go to college. Their GPAs are also significantly lower.

This is disgusting and wrong. Coming of age, and especially dealing with budding sexuality, is difficult enough without worrying about the discrimination of peers.

Anyone - straight or gay - who wants to end bigotry against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people can take the daylong vow of silence this year on April 21. (For information,

The hardest part, Meredith said, is handing out the cards.

"It can be intimidating, because sometimes you're giving them to total strangers," he said.

The other hard part, he said? Keeping his mouth shut.

"There are the little things, just saying 'hi' or the little courteous greetings," Meredith said. "It makes you consider how many people aren't comfortable enough to do even that."

Here, at least 10 schools will participate in the innovative activism, including Wyoming, Norwood and Mason high schools, and Northern Kentucky University, where Meredith is a senior.

Most of the participants are students. But Meredith, who organized the effort at NKU through the school's gay-straight alliance, said many professors participate as best they can.

"Really, the day is for anyone who opposes bias because of sexual orientation," Meredith said.

Last year, many who received Day of Silence cards learned the power in having a voice, he said.

"The message did reach some people, and that's the important thing," Meredith said.

Today's lesson: Sometimes silence is worth 1,000 words.


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