Laguna Beach High School junior Selina Lambert decided it was time to speak out with a muted message by organizing students to participate locally in the National Day of Silence sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) on Friday, April 15.
The National Day of Silence is billed by organizers as a day of action on which students across the country take a vow of silence in some form to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) bullying and harassment in schools.
Three out of five LGBT youths report feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, says a much-cited survey commissioned by the network that sponsors the protest as a tool for change.
Selina asked other students to join her in taking a vow of silence for any length of time, from five minutes or several hours, to show their support. “Just enough to where you feel that you’ve made a statement,” she wrote on a Facebook page for the event.
Selina, who describes herself as a devoted gay rights activist, has done other things to support the LGBT community, such as getting involved with a photo shoot for gay awareness last year. She felt compelled to reach out to fellow students this year and her first recruit was sophomore Haley Castuera.
Haley said gay social justice issues matter to her, though she didn’t know anyone else who would want to get involved until she saw Selina’s Facebook page.
Both girls emphasized their desire to maintain an open dialogue about gay harassment and bullying. Selina said homophobic behavior often stems from ignorance and that sometimes people are hurtful without even realizing it, such as using the derogatory put-down, “that’s so gay.”
“It’s something that affects all teenagers regardless of their own sexuality,” Selina said.
To make the Laguna event more visual, Selina handed out pieces of purple duct tape (purple represents “spirit” on the Pride flag), and had markers on hand to write messages on the tape, such as “No Hate,” “Str8 against H8,” and “Equality.” Participants could opt to wear the tape across their mouths (except during class, which the principal prohibited) or on their shirts, arms, etc.
Close to 50 students signed on to the Day of Silence Facebook page, and the two young women estimated that another 10 to 20 students simply joined in on the day of the event, accepting pieces of duct tape. Though some kids sniggered at them, which they shrugged off, others asked serious questions.
Selina and Haley broke their vows of silence in order to explain their goal and field questions such as “Why don’t the gays just stand up for themselves?” Because, said Selina, it doesn’t work if everyone doesn’t get involved. Historically, minorities have needed support from the general public in order to increase their civil rights, she said.
Both girls come from families that support gay rights and seem to have fallen into their activism as a matter of course. Selina’s mother has married gay couples as a reverend for the Universal Life Church, and Haley’s father has united gay couples as a Methodist minister. Both young women are also keenly aware of the harm that can befall young people who are ostracized for their sexual orientation and spoke of cases in the national news where students committed suicide after being ridiculed for being gay.
“Our main goal is to make people stop and think,” said Selina, referring to kids who mimic what they hear without really considering issues for themselves. She didn’t want the protest to be antagonistic or confrontational, but hoped to provoke her peers to consider a different viewpoint.
The pair believe they succeeded. “If we hadn’t organized this today, then the people who did ask us questions and who were interested would not have had that opportunity to become more aware,” said Haley, interviewed at lunch on Friday.
To ensure a smoothly-run event, Selina met with high school principal Don Austin in advance to outline her plan and get his approval. He did, calling Selina’s proposal “thoughtful, insightful, and respectful of others.”
He also alerted the staff to the planned activity, but said they reported no concerns. While students should expect a safe school and positive interactions with others, sometimes students can say or do mean things, he said.
Harassment incidents account for only about two percent of all offenses, he said. Even so, the topic is on administrators’ radar. Four high school staff members recently attended “Beyond Bullying,” bringing back ideas from a conference that they will present to colleagues, Austin said.