Strength in Silence

I chose the golden duct tape. Silence is, after all, supposedly golden. I held my hair back from my face as a solemn-faced Senior stretched the tape across my mouth, carefully tearing the strip from the rest of the roll before adding the other half of the X. I experimentally worked my mouth, but the tape held. My lips were sealed.

I spent April 15, 2011 with my mouth closed in a silent school for the nation’s 16th annual Day of Silence. Sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) each year, the Day of Silence is a mass protest against widespread bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. The vow of silence taken by participants symbolizes the forced silencing of LGBT youths. Our silence lasted only a day, and when it broke at 3:30 p.m., we tore the tape from our mouths in the school lobby and spoke briefly of recent LGBT suicides widely publicized by the media. But for some LGBT youths overwhelmed by seemingly endless harassment to the point of taking their own lives, the silence will never be broken.

A year later, I sealed my lips again on a new campus in a more optimistic national atmosphere. News on the gay rights front has been largely positive this year, with same sex marriage legalized in several states and fewer prevalent LGBT suicides.

So when, on April 20, students and teachers were invited by the Andover Gay-Straight Alliance to seal their lips from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, the pledge was more hopeful than defiant. This year I donned no tape, choosing to maintain silence entirely through my own willpower.

The typical Day of Silence procedure isn’t airtight. Participants, myself included, still express themselves through gestures or through writing. At my old school, some kids carried pads of paper or even portable whiteboards with them throughout the day to make interaction with others more efficient. Attending classes, and sometimes taking tests or writing in-class essays, would be too impractical without any means of communication. Similarly, as the Day of Silence isn’t universally acknowledged, some participants were forced to break their silence in order to attend official meetings or music or theater practices.

Restraining from speech for any amount of time, however, is an enlightening and powerful experience. I am usually outspoken in social situations, but my vow forced me into the position of a spectator. I was unable to respond to comments made throughout the day about the perceived racism of the Northern United States, the development of what the media is calling the “Republican war on women” and the virtues of the Day of Silence itself. I found myself increasingly frustrated with my inability to make myself heard. As the hours went by I became more withdrawn, finding interaction with others unfulfilling and exasperating.

But I also drew a sort of power from the silence. My refusal to speak when faced with mockery, pointed inquiry or criticism gave me control over myself and the situation. The silence became easier throughout the day, and as three o’clock approached I found myself drawing strength from my ability to uphold the vow.

The silence, though undertaken in solidarity with LGBT youths who feel powerless, is essentially an empowering act. To take something that has been used as a tool of oppression for so long and wield it as a weapon sends a clear message: that oppression won’t be accepted. That the tide is turning. In the midst of a world constantly inundated with speech, song and wordless vocal expression, the sudden absence of sound rings loud.

By making ourselves voiceless, we can make our voices–our silence–heard.

Annika Nekalson is a new Upper from Santa Cruz, CA, and a Columnist for The Phillipian.