Day of Silence

Thursday of that week was Stanford’s Day of Silence (it doesn’t fall on the National Day of Silence because our Admitted Students Weekend is on that day).  It wasn’t very well advertised this year.  I guess that’s one of the things I’ll be in charge of next year with QSA – hope I can do better!

After the Day of Silence, I collected my thoughts and sent an email out.  This Day of Silence got me to think about issues of voice and silencing.  My philosophical revelations and my description of the event:

A few days ago, you may have noticed some people who weren’t talking. 

They were participating in the Day of Silence.  It is often mischaracterized, and on the day when it is in the public eye, the people who most strongly believe in it are not speaking, so I thought I’d take a moment to explain what it means to me.  It is a way to learn about the importance of voice.  Participating let me think about the importance that I place on communication, what it would mean to be denied the ability to communicate, and what my role, as an ally to LGBTQ people, is.

At its most basic level, the Day of Silence is an act of solidarity – silence is a visible signal of being an ally to LGBTQ people – but for me, the Day of Silence is more significant because it teaches its participants a lesson about the meaning of voice.  Thinking about the Day of Silence in this way – that it is about communication and voice rather than just speaking – made me appreciate the Day of Silence much more this year than I did previously.  At my high school, the Gay Straight Alliance passed out note pads to everyone who was participating.  Participants weren’t speaking, but they still had a voice.  I think that this obscures the spirit of the event. 

I participated in the Food Stamps Challenge earlier this week, and the spirit of the Day of Silence is the same: just as the Food Stamps Challenge forces participants to think about issues of hunger by having them live a day on food stamps, the Day of Silence forces participants to think about issues of voice by having them live a day without one.

Communication is important to me: I am a debater, so I am used to my voice being one of my most powerful weapons.  The Day of Silence is fundamentally about people who are denied that ability to communicate.  People without a voice. 

It made me realize that I am in constant communication.  When I was silent, people wondered and asked.  In this sense, I am in a position that the true victims of silencing are not in.  My community gave me every possible opportunity to speak.  My choice not to speak was voluntary. 

With many LGBTQ people, silence is forced on them.  There are policies codified in the law, such as the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, that force LGBTQ people to remain silent about their identities.  There are social norms that force people to remain silent.  Speaking out can mean loss of employment or physical harm.  Even more insidious is the fear.  Because heterosexism is ingrained into our culture, even spaces that are safe (spaces where people will not be discriminated against for expressing themselves) are not open because there is always a chance that the space isn’t safe.  Even if the chance of discrimination is small, when that chance is always present, it is easy to fall into the habit of self-censorship.

Thinking about voice in these terms made me realize the connections with other groups.  LGBTQ people are not the only people that have been silenced.  I read Speak, a book about a rape survivor who was silenced, and the Day of Silence helped me make the connection.  The same psychology of the character in Speak is present in other silenced groups.  During the Day of Silence, that same psychology was present in me.  At the lunch table, or with my roommate, or in just about any other situation, I wanted to talk, but there was a barrier.  I bit my tongue, and I disengaged myself from my surroundings.  In my class sections, my peers were commenting on the reading, and I wanted to voice my ideas, but all I could do was bite my tongue and disengage from academics.  

That was the most significant thing that I learned: the immediate psychological effect of being denied self-expression.  For me, speaking is an organic process.  During the Day of Silence, I had to think through everything that I wanted to say and consciously silence myself.  Rather than being an active participant in my life, I was an observer.

But the chance to observe did make me realize the importance of allies.  Because I denied myself communication, when people asked me why I wasn’t speaking, I relied on my roommate to volunteer an explanation or, when he wasn’t there, I relied on a card that the LGBT center printed out.  The general principle applies to allies in general: Some LGBTQ people (and, as I said earlier, other groups) are silenced, and they need allies and community organizations to speak for them.  One role of an ally is to help those who cannot help themselves. 

This means that not everyone participates in the Day of Silence, and not everyone should participate in it.  A counselor (or an aid worker, or an advocate for rights, or a teacher, etc) should not be silent because their silence would harm others.  That is why the Day of Silence originated as a student movement.  It is a way for students to learn about the value that they and others place on communication, the people that can’t communicate, and the ways to help.  In other words, I did not speak during the Day of Silence in order to realize why it is necessary for me and for other allies to speak out every day.