by Jessica Carreras
As thousands of Michigan students prepare to participate in the National Day of Silence, the Gay and Lesbian Straight Education network, faith leaders and educators are asking that they and their allies also speak up.
Recently, GLSEN released a research brief revealing that Michigan schools are among the most unsafe in the nation. According to their research, nearly nine out of 10 Michigan LGBT students experienced verbal harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation, while many others said they had also been physically harassed or assaulted.
Day of Silence marks these students’ inability to speak out about the harassment they experience. With Michigan lagging behind in terms of passing legislation to protect LGBT students, GLSEN and others are taking action to make sure that students feel safe to both speak out – both with their words and with their silence.
“As Michigan students prepare for the National Day of Silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment, we learn just how pervasive the problem is in Michigan schools,” GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said.
“Despite several opportunities to pass a comprehensive anti-bullying law, Michigan has lagged behind other states in taking the simple and effective steps to begin addressing anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. Michigan and all its schools need to commit to making sure that schools are safe for all students.”
The international Quaker group American Friends Service Committee shares the sentiments. This year, their Michigan-based Inclusive Justice Program, in conjunction with the AFSC’s Faith Action Network, is launching its first-ever Day of Silence effort that will reach across the entire state.
While students in schools throughout Michigan will participate with their Gay Straight Alliances and individually, and while places like the Ruth Ellis Center of Highland Park will give youth a safe space to honor the day, the IJP’s effort will unite youth throughout five counties with a slew of events.
Heather Grace, director of the AFSC’s Inclusive Justice Program, said the programming focuses on the intersection of faith and sexuality. “One of the things that we find so important about participating in a National Day of Silence is that silence is a spiritual and peacemaking tool Quakers and other faith traditions have long utilized to transform the world,” she explained. “It’s imperative for people of faith and spirit to support students who are dealing with bullying every day, to listen to youth speak and hold a space for them when they are silent.”
The IJP’s programming plans to oversee both happenings during the next week and a half.
Their events will take place in Kalamazoo, Livingston, Ingham and Wayne Counties, and one was already held in Washtenaw County on April 15. They focus on two programs of the IJP called Lift Every Voice and I Divine, both created within the past few months. The first consists of recordings of LGBTQI and allied people speaking about their experiences with faith and sexuality. I Divine will give 50 youth the chance to express how spirituality and sexuality fit into their life through photos taken by cameras provided at each county’s event.
All videos and photos will be posted on the Faith Action Network Web site, another program of the AFSC.
But more than just offering these opportunities for youth to voice their opinions on religion and LGBT issues, Grace explained that the IJP’s primary goal was to support Michigan students throughout their participation in the Day of Silence.
The need for such support, said Grace, was identified by conversations last year with students who took part in the day. “Last year we were in Huron Valley and we met with 40 students along with the Triangle Foundation who participated in Day of Silence, but they couldn’t even call it that because their board there had prevented them from doing so,” she said. “It’s constantly a challenge working in small communities across the state that kids are even silenced from even trying to identify the silence in the first place.”
As such, this year Grace and her team plan to help students be active and vocal – or, on April 17, not vocal – safely, openly and without fear of harassment or opposition from school officials. Without anti-bullying legislation in place, the need for outside support is crucial. “We’re trying to make sure that students are supported both before and after and at the Day of Silence,” Grace added. “That way the dialogue continues and the students still feel supported.”
However, Grace and other supporters of the Day of Silence recognize that the greatest resistance may come from anti-gay religious groups. Every year, the American Family Association of Michigan sends out e-mails urging parents to pull their kids out of school on Day of Silence to thwart exposure to and participation in the event. Unfortunately, the fear tactics often work.
But Grace said she sees opposition as an opportunity for dialogue. “Backlash is dialogue in and of itself, so I think that essentially, dialogue is what needs to happen,” she said. “…If (backlash) happens, I think that just presents more opportunity for dialogue. …That’s really what our program tries to do, is build peace by understanding.”
As for their own events, Grace said opponents would be welcome at the table, but that the Inclusive Justice Program’s primary responsibility is to the students. “Youth are already being empowered to speak out,” she said. “On the Day of Silence, they’ll be quiet, but both before and after, we want to provide an opportunity for them to speak out.”
To learn more about the AFSC’s events for the Day of Silence, visit http://www.faithactionnetwork.org.