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Pro-gay Day of Silence met by counterevent

Pro-gay Day of Silence met by counterevent

Wednesday's Day of Silence, in which students at hundreds of high schools and colleges across the country are going through the school day without speaking to draw attention to the isolation and harassment experienced by many gay students, began on a small scale in 1996. Now it has blossomed into a national event observed by tens of thousands of people annually. "Our generation is bringing overdue change," said Nicholas Sakurai, director of the LGBT Student Empowerment Project at the U.S. Student Association, which is coordinating the event at 700 colleges and universities. Irked by the success of the Day of Silence, conservative activists are conducting their own day of protest: a counterevent called the Day of Truth aimed at mobilizing students who believe homosexuality is sinful. Participating students are being offered T-shirts with the slogan "The Truth Cannot Be Silenced" and cards to pass out to classmates Thursday--the day following the Day of Silence--declaring their unwillingness to condone "detrimental personal and social behavior." The driving force behind the Day of Truth is the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group that has opposed same-sex marriage and challenged restrictions on religious expression in public schools. The event is endorsed by several influential conservative organizations, including the Christian ministry Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Mike Johnson, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney from Shreveport, La., said organizers were unsure how many students would participate in the Day of Truth, but he expressed hope it would grow in coming years as more people learned about it. Johnson said the event is meant to be "peaceful and respectful," but he made clear that it is motivated by the belief that homosexuality is wrong. "You can call it sinful or destructive--ultimately it's both," he said. Since 2001, Day of Silence observances have been coordinated by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a New York-based organization that also has worked to support gay-straight alliances at high schools across the country. Kevin Jennings, GLSEN's executive director, said he doubted the Day of Truth would gain a following and stature of any significance. "The Day of Silence was an event conceived of by students themselves in response to a very real problem of bullying and harassment they saw on their campuses," Jennings said. "The Day of Truth is a publicity stunt cooked up by a conservative organization with a political agenda; it's an effort by adults to manipulate some kids." Underlying the dueling events is a fundamental disagreement over the rationale for the Day of Silence. GLSEN and its allies say the silent protest is specifically targeting harassment of gay students, while the Alliance Defense Fund and other conservatives say GLSEN's agenda is to broaden national acceptance of homosexuality. "No one is for bullying and harassment," Johnson said. "But that's cloaking their real message--that homosexuality is good for society." Echoing the stance taken by defense fund lawyers in several court cases, Johnson said teachers and students critical of homosexuality have been pressured to stifle their views while at school. They cite the case of a San Diego-area high school student, Chase Harper, who was disciplined last year for refusing to change out of a T-shirt that read, "Homosexuality Is Shameful." "We wouldn't have come up with the Day of Truth if Christian kids hadn't been silenced in the first place," Johnson said. "The public school is part of the free market of ideas--if the other side is going to advance their point of view, it's only fair for the Christian perspective to present their view too." The Alliance Defense Fund is anticipating that some students who try to participate in the Day of Truth may be admonished by school staff. Its resource kit includes a hotline number, with attorneys on call to provide legal advice about free-speech rights on school grounds. Jennings said GLSEN had no ambitions to keep schools free of all criticism of gays and lesbians. "There always should be a place in our schools for respectful differences of opinion. We don't expect everyone to agree--or even to like each other," he said. But he questioned whether the Alliance Defense Fund and its allies were committed to constructive dialogue. "I don't think they believe in pluralism," he said. "They feel they have the truth and everybody else should buy into it." According to GLSEN, 84% of gay and lesbian high school students experience verbal harassment on a regular basis at school, and 40% experience physical harassment. (AP, with additional reporting by Advocate.com)

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