A crowd of 15 Boston University students gathered at Marsh Plaza on Friday with red tape over their mouths as a symbol of the silence that oppresses many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teenagers today, a silence that they said still exists both on Boston University’s campus and in communities throughout the nation.
College of Communication senior Tyler Sit, co-leader of Marsh Chapel’s LGBTQ organization Outlook, said he participated in the Day of Silence in both high school and college.
“It’s always been a personal practice [for me],” Sit said. “This is the first time I recognized it on an organizational level and on an outreach level.”
The Day of Silence, founded at the University of Virginia in 1996, has grown into a national movement that seeks to “call attention to the silence effect of anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools,” according to the event website. At BU, members of various LGBTQ groups such as Outlook, Q and Spectrum, as well as other supporters, spent two hours at Marsh with their mouths taped shut, passing out flyers about the event.
“It’s about spreading awareness,” Sit said. “It’s about getting people to think about how this underrepresented minority is being silenced.”
College of Arts and Sciences senior Jessy Bartlett, a founder of Q, approached Outlook with the idea to organize the Day of Silence on campus. They also held balloons with messages about their personal struggles, an idea of Sit’s. At the end of the demonstration, they “broke the silence” by removing the tape and popping their balloons.
“That was a symbolic way to demonstrate breaking the silence,” Bartlett said.
For CAS sophomore Dan Mello, a member of Outlook, the demonstration took on personal significance as he dedicated his balloon to the tension between him and his father.
“I got a text from my little sister telling me that my father was mad because he heard I wasn’t speaking that day,” Mello said. “I was actually going home for the weekend, but he didn’t like that I was participating in the Day of Silence event. So I wrote on my balloon ‘my dad hates that I’m here right now.’”
According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey, nine out of 10 LGBTQ students in middle and high school experienced harassment at school over the last year, while two-thirds of students felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. While the figures do not include college students, that is not to say the mistreatment stops after high school.
As expected, the demonstration was met with mixed reactions. A few passersby made remarks at the crowd, Mello said, but most were supportive or at least civil.
“Considering that I had duck tape over my mouth and couldn’t be distracted by anyone, all there was to do was to watch people’s reactions,” said CAS senior and Outlook member Arcangelo Cella. “Some answered with ‘Oh, that’s cool’ or ‘Oh, that’s nice, but I’m not interested’ or ‘Oh, what a silly idea.’ But it was really a well-received demonstration.”
Sit said he found that many students were accepting, but not necessarily encouraging or active themselves. For every flyer handed out, he said, there were about 40 people who walked by and didn’t care.
“I think the negative reactions all of us are fearful of like people becoming violent or yelling, didn’t happen, thank goodness,” he said. “But I do think that there is a worrisome amount of community apathy, and a lack of recognition that we need to organize and put into bringing about LGBT rights. In some ways that’s just as harmful.”
While many participants said BU is accepting of the LGBTQ community, they also said acceptance is not enough to facilitate change. Sit and Mello both called BU a “microcosm” of tolerance, in that it provides students with a false sense of security about how far the country has come in embracing LGBTQ rights. They said the issue lies not only in raising awareness about the silence, but also in gaining support from those who already claim to accept LGBTQ equality.
Others say BU lags behind other schools, in terms of accepting LGBTQ issues on a cultural and academic level.
“I think BU could do a lot better,” said Professor Keith Vincent of the women, gender and sexuality studies program. “Part of it is because the school has a checkered past.”
Vincent said the former administration with John Silber, which lasted until 2002, appeared to be extremely homophobic. Silber banned the Gay-Straight Alliance at the BU Academy at one point.
Although BU now has a gender studies program that also looks into sexuality and queer theory, Vincent said such a program would not have been approved ten years ago.
“The Day of Silence was much needed,” he said. “I think with an event like this, people see it as something LGBTQ people are doing for their own sake, but it is something that is relevant to all of us.”
“We are very fortunate to be one of the only places in this planet where we can be doing things such as the Day of Silence,” Sit said. “Because of that we have a responsibility to act.”