National Day of Silence important

We at Williams do not always take the time to reflect on the forms of oppression experienced by those around us. This is why events such as this past Thursday’s National Day of Silence are so vital; they bring home the extent of the injustices inflicted on our fellow students at Williams, in the U.S. and in the world at large.

The National Day of Silence asks people to refrain from talking for a day in solidarity with the many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LBGTQ) people worldwide who, due to homophobic oppression, are forced to conceal their sexual orientation. Such oppression is more widespread than one might think, and not only in countries which are well known for their violations of human rights.

In the United States, a number of states retain anti-sodomy laws, leading to invasion of privacy and persecution of those convicted of engaging in homosexual sex. Others have passed Defense of Marriage Acts, making it illegal for same-sex couples to receive any of the legal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

But worse than legal discrimination is the persistent violence and verbal abuse that LGBTQ people experience on a regular basis. Most of us know about the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, but many people don’t realize that violent persecution is common.

LGBTQ youth under 25 are disproportionately affected by homelessness; an estimated 25-40percent (depending on the city) of homeless youths in the U.S. are LGBTQ, and many became homeless when their parent or guardian discovered their sexual orientation and refused to continue housing them. Such youths are at elevated risk for mental illness and suicide, as well as drug abuse, AIDS, prostitution and sexual assault. Homophobia in shelters and other service agencies further complicates matters by making it difficult for youths to receive the help they need. Their fear of encountering homophobic responses often makes them invisible to statistics, making it difficult to obtain funding for LGBTQ-specific agencies.

Homophobic abuse exists off the streets, too. LGBTQ teens in high school often face bullying not only from other students, but also from teachers and administrators. Students I have met have reported everything from verbal taunts to being dragged across a school playground by the hair. Efforts to avoid such bullying can lead to depression, suicide, dropping out of school, drug abuse and running away from home. In light of this, it is easily understandable why many LGBTQ youths prefer silence to the risk of coming out. And the secrets, hiding and lies involved in concealing one’s sexual identity can damage self-esteem and hinder self-acceptance.

Even at Williams, which most people consider a safe and accepting school, students are afraid to be fully ‘out.’ Last fall, for example, a series of homophobic slurs on one of the WSO forums lead WSO to change their policy regarding postings to the forum.

Still, many LGBTQ people here felt threatened by the violent language and content of the postings. I personally have had queer pride stickers torn off my door and a pride pin stolen from my backpack, and I know others who have been victims of verbal abuse. Homophobia at Williams may be more under wraps than it is elsewhere, but it remains a pervasive force. Members of the QSU, probably the most ‘out’ cross section of the LGBTQ population here, frequently mention changing pronouns when mentioning someone they might be interested in, worrying that friends will ostracize them or feeling that they would be unwelcome in a particular group were they to disclose their sexual orientation.

Even for those who are ‘out’ to the general public, there is the feeling that homosexuality is not something to be talked about, and that to mention it is to be unnecessarily pushy, to “shove it in peoples’ faces.” While these forms of silencing and oppressing may not be as extreme as the violence and verbal abuse experienced by LGBTQ people elsewhere, the fact that people don’t feel safe at a small, liberal arts school like Williams speaks to the persistent nature of homophobia worldwide.

The National Day of Silence echoes the silencing experienced by LGBTQ people. It is a chance to reflect on the reasons that silence exists, and on the steps we can take towards ending it. I want to thank all who participated. I hope that others will take time to reflect as we move into Pride Days this week and next. As more people become aware of the dangers of silence, we will come closer to ending it for good.