The Most Silent Day of Silence
In my senior year of high school, I ran a transit system for sophomores. My sister and I attended a magnet school across town. Military brats, we had just moved to a new town in the fall. This was my fourth high school. It was the magnet program’s first year, as well. Students had to be able to transport themselves. That’s how I ended up saddled with my little sister and two of her classmates each day on my commute.
Usually, they sat in the back of the little yellow Honda Civic and chatted amongst themselves and I just minded my own business, like a cab driver. One of the girls sometimes came home with us until her mom got off work and swung by our house to pick her up. It was on one of those days that this little tenth grader struck me with a piece of insight that my wise twelfth grade self had been oblivious to. As I drove into my block, having dropped off our other carpooler, she and my sister were going on about something that I was, likely as not, contradicting good naturedly. The conversation, though it may have been argumentative in substance, was amicable enough in spirit. We continued jovially as I rounded the bend to our house. Then it came into a view. A pale green Datsun pickup truck that was rarely parked in front of our house at this hour. My dad was home early.
My sister and I both fell silent. I parked the car, and as we were unbuckling, my sister’s friend asked, “What is it about you guys and your dad?” It seemed an odd question to us and we both looked at her blankly. “You do realize, don’t you, that you both act completely differently when your dad is home, right?” she continued in the relative safety of the car, “Every other day, you walk in, drop your backpacks any old place, grab a snack and kick back. But whenever your dad is home, you sneak in all quiet and duck straight into your rooms.”
She was absolutely right, and now that she mentioned it, I could think of several justifications for why we did that. But until she mentioned it, I hadn’t been aware of it. My dad, a strict Catholic military officer, was resolute in his beliefs and adamant about his expectations. Somehow, without being fully conscious of it, my sibling and I had all found that avoidance was the best option. At that point in my life, I wasn’t out to myself yet, but I already felt his judgment. It was a time in my life when I was exploring progressive new ideas. I was known among my peers for bringing up the tricky conversations about drugs, about racism, about religion, about the death penalty, and in that time when AIDS was a brand-new epidemic, about gay rights. Mostly, I kept these conversations away from my father’s ears. He did intercept my Amnesty International letter writing, and he insisted I cease and desist participation in that communist organization claiming I could damage his top secret clearance. When I told him I got the information about joining Amnesty International from the church bulletin, he looked into it. His investigation revealed AI to be completely non-partisan and he grudgingly allowed me to continue. But he had that ability to sign off or to veto my life choices.
It was a tricky balancing act growing up in a conservative household. I was feeling the drive to find the honest truth of who I was, but I also knew that I needed to protect myself from attacks on my identity. In fact, I internalized a defensive shell so deeply that it took me three years after I left home to come out as queer, even though all my friends already knew. Family values. Expectations. Judgment. These can be buoys and lighthouses that guide you through a stormy sea. But for those of us whose identities do not conform, they can become snipers and watchtowers stationed all around us prepared to enforce themselves upon our psyches and our souls.
Today is Day of Silence. It is the day that queer-identified high school students and their allies would walk the halls and shuttle in and out of classrooms wearing a tag around their necks explaining to teachers and peers that they would not speak today. These students made a silent protest against the damaging effects of homophobia, transphobia, religious sanctions, and just plain ignorance. You can find out more about the national movement on the GLSEN website. I can’t help but wonder how this Covid-19 pandemic changes things. What good is a vow of silence within a stay at home order? If the people you live with need to be educated by this protest, then likely you are already silenced. You need to hide to survive.
The Family Acceptance Project provides guidance for families with LGBTQ-identified youth. Their program is grounded in studies that show the devastating effects that come from parents rejecting their children’s identities. Queer youth whose families reject their identities are more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who experience little to no rejection at home. Young people, even defiant headstrong teens, are so susceptible to their parents’ influence. I remember the fights. I remember the fear. I remember the awful feeling that my parents didn’t understand me, didn’t know me, didn’t accept me for who I am. Who I was at home was a shadow of who I could be outside. It was like switching off a light, switching off a life. My parents, their beliefs and disbeliefs, were like a silencer, muffling me.
The Trevor Project is a national suicide hotline for queer and gender non-conforming youth. I am not at all surprised that they are reporting a spike in crisis calls during this pandemic. As a teacher, I worry about my students. I’m so glad that youth today have Instagram and ways to stay connected across this social distance, but is that enough? I never had a chance to say goodbye to my students before our schools were closed. I have been reaching out by text messages and email to members of our GSA to stay connected, meet on Zoom, keep an open dialog. A few have responded, but many I don’t hear from. Just radio silence. Are they OK? Will a phone call home make matters worse?
I have not been writing during the quarantine. I have been developing online curricula. I have been juggling working and parenting from home at the same time, mapping out schedules of coordinated bandwidth between two teachers, a grade school student and a college student. On Medium, I’ve been silent. But not today, not on this Day of Silence. Now I speak out for those queer youth trapped in what to them is a living hell.