My heart is heavy after this year’s Day of Silence. It’s a complicated sadness; I don’t feel my familiar righteousness or sense of direction in the face of homophobia. My mind is a puzzle and a knot. When students who are marginalized because of language and culture become silenced by classroom talk to support students who are marginalized because of their gender and sexual identities, what can I do? How can I bridge that silence?
My school district, in a medium-sized university town, holds a diverse mix of families. About 40 percent of our families are white; they are often liberal and wealthy; 60 percent are families of color. My school serves many East African and South Asian immigrant families from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, who often live in subsidized housing. My work as a white, anti-racist teacher centers around creating welcoming and safe spaces for students with different cultural perspectives. I structure my 6th-grade English classes around sharing stories and examining racism. I want my classroom to be a place where all my students are seen and feel heard — not just by me, but by one another.
In the early 2000s, even in our liberal community, it was not an easy decision to be open as a lesbian in the classroom, although the district was supportive. I wondered about students whose families and cultures were less accepting of gay and lesbian issues — I had both Christian and Muslim families, mainly immigrants, who grounded their family values in religious communities that held cultural, language, and gender role expectations that were deeply important to them. Although many of our values overlapped, acceptance of LGBTQ+ people was often explicitly disallowed.
I shared about my family with students, often through modeling writing tasks, or work about identity, and I led a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) group as well. Sometimes it was just rainbow cookies and unicorn bonding. Sometimes it was anger and frustration about gym teachers who divided class into boys and girls. Sometimes it was shy questions and new vocabulary.
The GSA planned and organized our yearly participation in the National Day of Silence. This day, organized in more than 3,000 schools around the country, invites students to be silent for a day in order to raise awareness about homophobia and transphobia in schools. Year after year, students were surprised to find two-thirds of their classmates choosing to participate. The GSA visited homerooms, worked sign-up tables, and participated in the assembly to launch the day. The conversations, mostly between students, opened new understandings. They created a sense that many people believed in LGBTQ+ rights. Many people wanted to be supportive. Students often commented that they felt the tone shift after the Day of Silence. When I asked how many students heard the phrase “that’s so gay” today, this week, this month, fewer and fewer students raised their hands. It was as if it had become uncool to use homophobic slurs. Over the years, more students began to share their queer identities. More students explored their gender identity and pronoun use.
Despite these cultural and school-based shifts, there were places that continued to feel like a knot of intersecting issues. Although my school is more than 50 percent students of color, the GSA has often been unbalanced in terms of race and religion. Students from white upper-middle class families seemed to feel more free to explore their identities than students from strict Muslim or Christian families. White kids from liberal families still described feeling marginalized and frightened about their sexual and gender identities, but it was not comparable to the challenges described by queer students whose identities were affected by multiple forms of oppression — not just homophobia within their religious communities, but racism within the school and GSA community.
For example, a Black trans student from Somalia struggled with his family, but he also struggled with a mainly white GSA that didn’t mirror his experience. “The GSA needs to work on its racism,” he shared in a meeting one day. A boy whose favorite activity was designing and sewing dresses with his grandmother looked at me with hesitation when I asked him if he wanted to participate in the Day of Silence. “I . . . don’t think my dad would like that very much.” I pictured his loving father, who sacrificed so much to immigrate and raise Davide in the United States, and remembered the comments of colleagues at my school who shared his background and expectations around gender, saying that he needed to be more masculine, suggesting that within his family and cultural context, he would need to live a straight and cisgendered life.
“Davide, you don’t have to participate. This is a totally optional activity,” I said gently. Thinking for a moment, I added, “One thing I do know about your dad, though, is that he is an incredibly kind and loving person. Your religion teaches a lot about love and respect.” Davide nodded. “To me, this day is about respecting all kinds of people.” I don’t know if Davide’s dad would have agreed with me, but Davide decided to participate as an ally — he wore a sticker to support the day, although he didn’t try to be silent.
Are 6th graders ready for this kind of tension? They are beginning to see that more than one thing can be true at the same time even when those things seem to be in conflict. “I like my teacher. I like my religion. My teacher is gay. My religion says gay is bad.” Wheels within wheels. The big wheel runs by faith, and the little wheel runs by the grace of God. I love that line from the African American spiritual, partly because I don’t understand it entirely. I don’t think it is wrong to expose students to ideas they can’t square up yet. Kofi, an Ethiopian student, shared in class one day, “I support LGBTQ rights. My religion — well, my family isn’t very religious, my dad is Muslim and my mom is Christian, but it’s complicated — says it’s not for me, like we’re not supposed to be gay. But I want to support my friends who are LGBTQ. I think that’s important.” His ability to hold several complicated stories at one time is a sign of his social flexibility. He, like many of my students, is good at living in multiple worlds.
My Muslim colleague speaks with empathy for both LGBTQ+ people and her child, who is still stuck on the idea of gayness as haram. She says, “He doesn’t understand yet. He sees only one truth. As an adult, I know, I can see how complicated it is. If a group of people are praying in congregation and the one leading the prayer happens to be gay then their prayer is still accepted, even if they aren’t open about it. The whole concept is that it is not our job to search behind people’s private lives. Also, we should not question their choices. I know there are many ways to be Muslim. But he can’t see that yet.” Another colleague speaks about “Lakum deenukum waliya deen,” a verse from the Quran she interprets as “Everyone has their own choices.”
This year, post-remote school and a year online, things feel a lot harder.
This year, I have heard homophobic slurs every day. The divisions between my queer students and my conservative students have become open and hurtful. A recent Haitian immigrant is first shocked, then disgusted, then verbally violent toward a nonbinary teacher. A white trans girl carries a giant rainbow flag through the halls, and a physical fight breaks out as an 8th grader tries to take it from her, shouting f-slurs. My own homeroom group is challenging. I hear six Muslim students quietly talk about how it is “haram.” One of them asks us to use they/them pronouns, and then backs off of their decision. One student active in his Ethiopian Christian church asks me if I want him to pray for me. “Sure! Can I pray for you, too?” I ask. “Anna, you can’t! You know lesbians can’t be Christian.” “Well, they can in my church,” I respond, but he is off on another tangent.
The wider political context weighs on queer students and immigrant students in ways both similar and different. Things feel less safe. Saturated in online chat rooms throughout the pandemic, slurs come easily to students during recess and hallway conversations, and sometimes my voice lands like a Charlie Brown adult. “That hurts!” “Please don’t say that.” “Do you know where the f-slur comes from?” “Stop.” “Stop!” “Stop!” None of my words seem to work.
As in other years, I share about my wife and our children as we discuss identity. I share more in the fiction writing unit, where I ask students to write about social issues that touch their lives. I write a story based on my daughter’s experience, about a girl who doesn’t know how to tell her new classmates about her two moms. When we discuss credible resolutions, the students shrug and shake their heads. They glumly come to consensus: There is no realistic way for a kid to get other kids to stop saying “That’s so gay.” The only credible situation is one in which everyone feels really awkward.
I listen to them and I want to tell them a different story. But they are writing the story with their lives. The changes of the early 2000s are not the changes they are feeling.
When we organized the Day of Silence in the GSA this year, students had worries. “What if you are being silent, but other kids try to make fun of you?” “What if it causes kids to be more homophobic?” “What if it doesn’t make a difference at all?” But, calmed by the activity of making rainbow-laden posters, they moved forward. They designed a slideshow to explain the day and rehearsed their presentations. They worked the sign-up table, where some students created signs they held up for a photo: “I am silent because I want to support my friends.” “I am silent because I believe in LGBTQ rights.” “I am silent because I am nonbinary and it’s awesome!”
On the Day of Silence, like in past years, two-thirds of the students participated as allies or silent participants. At the end of the day, we met in homerooms to talk. Students in my homeroom were quiet.
“What did the Day of Silence make you think about? What did you notice today?” I asked, like I do every year.
“I don’t know,” they answered, one by one. “Nothing.”
“Pass,” said a Muslim student. Earlier in the week, as students from the GSA had presented, he had carefully covered his ears to block their story. “I can’t listen,” he said. “I’m not allowed.”
I felt this disconnect deep in my body. Probably because it touches my life so closely. But also because I feel the conflict on both sides. The messages from families telling their children not to listen to LGBTQ+ stories hurts. But the separation between me and these particular students of color hurts as well. I think about a popular advice columnist who is quick to tell people to cut off their family if they don’t support their sexual or gender identities. And I think of a colleague who interrupts me with a blanket “There is no place for homophobia” when I describe the struggles of a religious student to support queer issues. I understand her desire to fully affirm LGBTQ+ people, but I think of my own experiences, the time it took for my family and my friends’ families to come to new awareness and support. I remember my step-grandfather who started out telling my wife and me that he would come to our ‘Celebration’ (what we called our ‘Wedding’) but that we couldn’t be a family, and who, three years later, was claiming great-grandfather status of our newly born daughter. Homophobia lives in all of us and permeates the society we live in. Like racism, it is not something you can bar at the door, not something that can be outlawed. It is something we have to allow into the conversation in order to transform it. It takes time, and stories, and love. It takes strategic and thoughtful action.
Watching my students, the queer ones and the religiously conservative ones, the ones who are both queer and religious, I felt the silence heavily. The silence of disconnection. The silence of students stuck between worlds. The silence of being different.
What does it mean to be silenced? Who is being silenced in these conversations — queer students? Conservative religious students? Immigrant students? White students? This moment of silence, at the end of the Day of Silence, reminds me that the fight for justice is not always — not ever — a clear and uncomplicated story.
Intersectionality is no buzzword. It means that being queer and white carries a different set of consequences for me, in this cultural moment, than being queer and Black, or queer and Asian. It means that I need to think about my assumptions about LGBTQ+ rights with a continuous awareness of how my connection to power, safety, and cultural capital affect my claiming of those rights. When my in-laws decided to leave the Catholic Church, after years of working within the church to expand acceptance for LGBTQ+ people, they were still in the cultural majority — able to shift communities without loss of language, history, and home.
I was careful to reach out to my conservative religious students in the week following the Day of Silence. I’m still here. I’m still your teacher. I still want to connect with you. Your story matters, and your voice can be heard. But I also mentioned my wife. I also shared about some great books with trans characters. We can listen to one another’s stories. We do not need to be silent.
In the GSA, after the Day of Silence, I asked the students to celebrate something from the day.
“I want to celebrate all the kids who participated. There were a lot!”
“I want to shout out my homeroom. In the fall, when I shared my pronouns, they were like ‘huh?’ but now, six months later, I feel like they really are engaged. They ask questions and have opinions. Like, they needed more information to get comfortable.”
“I guess I want to celebrate that even though it isn’t consistent with the theme of silence, I decided to honor the day by talking to my dad about being nonbinary for the first time. It went well!” We cheered.
“I want to celebrate a kid in my advisory. After the Day of Silence he asked if he could ask about my identity. I never thought he’d want to talk about these ideas, like, really talk. We all know the kinds of things he says in the hallways. But he was actually really cool about it. He listened to my stories about my cousin, and we just connected about it all.”
Their words lift my sadness, even as I read the news from Florida and Texas about banning queerness from classrooms. I have seen transformation, again and again. Fighting all kinds of injustice takes time and work and endless patience. I know that being a strong and open lesbian teacher makes a difference to students struggling with their own identity. I know that having all teachers, no matter their identity, address LGBTQ+ history, literature, and activism throughout the curriculum makes a difference. I know having time to think and process helps all students understand the commonalities as well as the spaces between us.
One student reflected in class, “I like that we can all believe different things, and we can still have conversations about it. We can still respect one another.”
All I can do is commit to having the conversations. All I can do is bring it up, listen, and use connection to bridge the silence.