The Wildcat Tribune

Day of Silence highlights GSA’s persistent defense of LGBTQ+ students

Daniel Shen, Managing Editor

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(Left to right) Junior Nikhita Dodla, junior Divya Sharma and freshman Elizabeth Wu discuss Day of Silence experiences and thoughts at an afterschool debrief session.

Over 300 students demonstrated their empathy for LGBTQ+ students during Day of Silence on Friday, Apr. 27 at Dougherty Valley High School as they voluntarily put duct tape over their mouths and refused to speak, a representative gesture of the social censorship that this minority faces on a daily basis.

About half an hour before school started, Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) advisor Allison Gardiner put out various rolls of duct tape and rainbow-colored ribbon pins on tables inside and outside her classroom. Throughout the day, the area was like a bonfire around which students gathered in support of the LGBTQ+ community.

Daniel Shen
Colorful rolls of duct tape are set out on tables inside and outside GSA’s meeting location.

Gardiner understood the plight of the minority. Calling on personal experience from both school and work, she was able to provide insight in pertinent conversations and sympathized with students battling homophobia.

“It’s most one of the most isolating feelings to be among the minority in any way, shape or form … I felt that when I was younger,” she said.

Widely overlooked for decades among American youth is the grave connection between victimization by homophobia and suicide, a consequence of social ostracization. Recent studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that LGB youth are three times as likely to contemplate, and five times as likely to attempt, suicide than their heterosexual peers.

Manifested in the Day of Silence, Dougherty’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance aims to destigmatize and raise awareness of the conditions that LGBTQ+ youth face. As Gardiner put it, being the “invisible minority” sets the greatest challenge to GSA’s mission of bringing “the limelight” to silenced students.

Daniel Shen
Sophomore Minthra Bath, with a rainbow flag draped over her shoulders and black marker covering her arms, takes a stand for the LGBTQ+ community.

Through the rainbow ribbons, buttons that were sold during lunch, and duct tape, however, participants were able to visually present their conceptualized conflict to fellow students. GSA member Minthra Bath went the extra mile, draping herself in a rainbow flag and scrawling various clapbacks and generalizations about LGBTQ+ people — including sarcastic comments about “which sex is better” and misconceptions about bisexuality — in black marker across her arm.

In explaining her attire, she said: “I personally treated the event as a celebration of my sexuality and being flamboyant about it … fashion really speaks for me as a person; it speaks for how bold I want to be and am inside.”

Still, she noted that “people take it differently. People take it on a more solemn level, and I take it, obviously, a lot differently.”

Despite not many students having noticed the writing on her arms, she believed that in drawing attention to herself, she defended her stance regarding the treatment of LGBTQ+ students. As a result, on the overall, she widened understanding and reduced speculation about the LGBTQ+ community.

At a one-hour after-school debrief session, students “broke the silence,” shouting “love” after a countdown by GSA president Riya Gupta. Allowing themselves to speak again, they then shared various thoughts and highlights of their day with other club members.

When participants were asked to describe their experience in one word, a number of adjectives were thrown out. Among them, “empowering,” “relatable,” “compassionate” and “independent, yet united” were applauded, serving well to summarize the general success of the day.

Daniel Shen
Nearly 40 of the over 300 Day of Silence participants attend an after-school debrief session held by GSA.

Elaine Park
In more conservative regions across the world, traditional stigmas continue to trump human rights for LGBTQ+ people. Yemen, Iran and Honduras are three of the 11 countries that impose the death penalty for homosexuality.

Beyond Dougherty, however, opposition to Day of Silence at other schools in the nation continued. And around the world, groups and movements similar to the Gender-Sexuality Alliance still contend for fuller realization of LGBTQ+ rights. Gardiner herself experienced national- and state-institutionalized homophobia prior to moving to Dougherty nine years ago.

Up until 2009, Gardiner taught Spanish language at a high school in Maine. Only four years before then was the term “sexual orientation” added as one of the protected classes under the Maine Human Rights Act. Even then, Gardiner felt that few adjustments in her community were made to accommodate that state-level adaptation.

“There’s still states where people are allowed to be fired if they come out as LGBTQ … it’s like being allowed to be fired for eye color. I don’t think it’s a choice,” she said.

Even in recent years, the institutional battle for LGBTQ+ rights has been relatively stagnant at the national level. Progress made under the Obama administration — the 2015 Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states of this country, for example — has recently been upended by several of President Trump’s policies. On Oct. 4, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated in a letter to all U.S. Attorneys that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not protect bias based on transgender status. Five days later, the Department of Justice reversed the federal government’s long-time approval of gender identity as a Title VII protected class.

Not only is this a national battle, but down at the domestic level, LGBTQ+ students at Dougherty are still fighting for acceptance and understanding in their families. Minthra herself knows several closeted friends and family members — “community members that can’t advocate for themselves” — who are afraid to speak out not only because of associated stigmas, but more importantly, familial norms.

“I feel like it’s a fear that most of the community has; like, my dad already has displayed his beliefs in certain things. One time, I was talking to my sister about the gay community and her friends that were gay, and he literally told us to shut up because he felt uncomfortable about it,” Minthra explained.

While basic human rights for the LGBTQ+ minority is a moral entitlement, finding it difficult or dangerous to indicate change in a family for youth is often a byproduct or consequence of cultural traditions.

“If I introduce dissent to my family, it’s always an uproar. Like, even through fashion when I express myself, my dad’s always telling me, ‘you’re showing your shoulders too much,’ all that stereotypical stuff that Indian girls like me shouldn’t do,” Minthra said.

While the amount of progress that pro-LGBTQ+ advocates have made against homophobia-induced censorship varies from Washington, D.C., to Maine and to San Ramon homes, in the school community, overall progress throughout the past decade and a half has been trending upwards.

15 years ago, pro-LGBTQ+ activism in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District saw its first breakthrough after a teacher was severely harassed by students, which Gardiner said “necessitated heightened awareness of challenges and protections for LGBTQ+ students, staff and community members.”

Increasing local empathy over the past decade, however, has not always implied the complete absence of conflict. On numerous occasions, Day of Silence events at SRVUSD high schools have evoked misunderstandings from community members; in 2011, the San Ramon Patch’s coverage of GSA’s second annual Day of Silence at Dougherty was met with antagonistic comments founded upon beliefs of school administration organizing the activity or students involuntarily being compelled to participate.

One misguided comment on the article stated: “This is shocking, disgusting, and disturbing to hear that children were encouraged or unduly influenced to wear duct tape over their mouths to show support for a progressive agenda for adults. The students did not do anything wrong, it is the adults and school officials that authorized and promoted this weird event.”

For a long time, the SRVUSD Board of Education was also contingent upon the issue. Two years ago, however, the Board declared firm support for students who voluntarily participated in the event, and has since provided annual recognition of it. The first Day of Silence Resolution was passed on Mar. 8, 2016, by unanimous agreement among Board members.

“No one should ever feel unsafe, disgraced or a sense of disrespect simply for being who they are … And I will fight tirelessly … to make sure that our students know that whoever they are, we love them and they deserve happiness, safety and an access to an education,” current Board clerk Denise Jennison stated emotionally as the resolution was ratified.

And hence, the groundwork for future district support for LGBTQ+ youth was set. That day, district-recognized LGBTQ+ advocate leader and Charlotte Woods Middle School fine arts teacher Gary Leveque made the defining statement: “It is not a protest. It is, in fact, a practice of empathy.”

“There’s so much that still needs to be done, but we’ve gotten the district to be encouraging. It’s just monumental, it really is,” Gardiner said.

At a public forum before the next Board meeting on May 22, presidents of the Gay-Straight Alliance and Associated Student Body from each of the SRVUSD high schools — Monte Vista, California, San Ramon Valley, and Dougherty Valley — will tentatively be present to discuss the district’s consideration on constructing an all-gender restroom on each of the four campuses. Members of all eight represented student groups have already voted internally to support the motion.

While struggles still exist in bringing national and domestic equality for LGBTQ+ youth, Day of Silence is a reminder that regardless of whether one supports or opposes same-sex marriage or multi-gender restrooms, at the basis, every teen is still a teen and deserves fair treatment as their peers. With the support of students, teachers, administration and the Board of Education, Day of Silence continues in its mission to nurture a more accepting environment for learning and growth in high schools across the nation.

Minthra reflected upon the end of her day: “As soon as I exited school … I threw on a huge-a** hoodie because I knew my dad was going to pick me up, and I didn’t want him to see [the black paint on my arms]. At the same time, I just want to tell people that you shouldn’t be afraid to express yourself at school, because to be honest, that’s not where your parents are, or whoever you’re afraid of.”

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Day of Silence highlights GSA’s persistent defense of LGBTQ+ students