By Marcel Salas
Originally published on Advocate.com April 17 2009 12:00 AM ET
Thursday night last
week, markers and sticky name badges with the words
"Silent" and "Vocal Supporter" were strewn
across my kitchen table.
Each year my
school's gay-straight alliance participates in the National
Day of Silence by distributing stickers to students in the
morning with messages that address the many ways in which LGBT
students and their allies are silenced due to their sexual
identity or their support for equal treatment of
LGBT-identified peers. As I drew in colorful block letters,
"What will you do to end the silence?" on a name
sticker, I heard a news report that caused me to drop my marker
and run to the television.
Carl Walker-Hoover, an
11-year-old boy from Springfield, Mass., had hanged himself
after school due to constant bullying by classmates who taunted
him by calling him "gay," despite Hoover's repeated
assertions that he was not. His mother stated that students
claimed her son acted "feminine" and
"flamboyant." As the reporter began to recount
statistics of the alarming suicide rates among LGBT youths due
to bullying, a picture of a smiling Carl in a football uniform
appeared on the screen.
As I looked into his
eyes, I felt my chest tighten up with anguish, confusion, and
frustration. I attempted to wrap my mind around the deep pain
of an 11-year-old boy who was convinced that he had nothing
more in this world to live for. Why do people perpetuate the
idea that being identified as LGBT is a disparaging insult
instead of accepting it as another aspect of a person's
Carl, like millions of
other students who stray outside of the gender-binary
stereotypes of our society, often had to go to great lengths to
debunk any doubts of his heterosexuality. Despite whether or
not Carl truly identified as gay, the fact that being called
"gay" was treated like a disrespectful accusation
rather than just stating a simple fact about a person's
sexual orientation is what most disturbed me.
Sadly, LGBT people
continue to be stigmatized and made to feel ashamed of their
identity and/or gender expression.
The tragic ending of
Carl Walker-Hoover's life is yet another example of how we
too often underestimate the power that our words have on the
lives of others. Although physical violence inflicts pain and
injuries that are visible and tangible, the turmoil that
violent language induces on the human soul is not as easy to
see or understand. Both the wound from a punch and the wound
from a derogatory remark sting in the same way.
When a person
constantly hears that he or she is weird, and unworthy of
respect by classmates, the internalization of such negativity
often has adverse effects, as evidenced by the nearly nine out
of 10 LGBT students who have reported being verbally harassed
because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
Anti-LGBT language -- such as using "gay" in
reference to something stupid, weird, or useless -- has been
enculturated into the everyday vernacular of a large portion of
America's youths. The popularity and frequency of words and
phrases like "that's so gay" or "no
homo" in most of our nation's schools create unsafe
and volatile learning environments that thwart the academic
achievement of thousands of LGBT youths.
How can one possibly
want to learn if he or she feels in danger at school? When
bigoted language goes unchallenged by school administration, a
school climate is created where words are used as hurtful
weapons rather than respectful modes of intellectual growth,
which ultimately harms all students.
Walker-Hoover's birthday eerily falling on this year's
Day of Silence, we all must honor his life and the lives of all
people silenced by anti-LGBT harassment. As a straight ally, I
know that I will never be able to understand how it must feel
to have to be made ashamed because of my sexual orientation.
Although I have the societal privilege for my sexual
orientation to be seen as the "norm," I also know the
repercussions that hurtful words have on the lives of people
directly and indirectly, regardless of whom they choose to
love. On that day, my silence along with the silence of
thousands of participating high school and college students
will not be that of fear or indifference. Our silence will
impel vocal activism for LGBT safe-school organizing across the
On Friday, April 17th,
my silence will be deafening.