Tag Archives: GLSEN

The power of silence

Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. – Mahatma Gandhi

Your silence will not protect you. – Audre Lorde

To be an activist is to use your voice. To speak up. To take action. Silence, for an activist, is a death knell. It signals complicity with the aggressor. Silence equals death.


These last few weeks, I haven’t posted any blog articles, which marks the longest stretch of inactivity since I started blogging at The Active  Voice. I can cite lots of reasons for this. I’ve been incredibly busy at work. My daughter’s school and social calendar has taken on a life of its own. And lately, I’ve been driving all over the place – Fresno, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – for book signings and presentations. My gas tank was running on empty – and for weeks, when blog-writing time rolled around, I chose instead to rest, regroup, and refuel. I wanted to be still and quiet. And I wasn’t feeling good about it. You’ve got a blog article to write, the nagging voice said. Don’t slack off.

And then, last week, a friend sent me an article that changed my perspective.

That article was titled “10 Important Reasons to Start Making Time for Silence, Rest, and Solitude.” Oh great, I thought to myself. Another fluffy self-help piece. But the article resonated with me, on several levels – and I found myself realizing that silence is not only personally healing, it can be a powerful tool in a social justice activist’s toolkit. In fact, I probably need to utilize silence much more frequently than I do. I won’t talk about all ten reasons outlined in the article, but I’ll focus on a few.

Silence strengthens intention and action. Most of us think of “silence” and “action” as mutually exclusive and incompatible concepts. However, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, says this in the article: “During silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.” I might, for example, be dissatisfied with my job, to the point where it affects my work performance. However,  if I’m constantly in a flutter of activity, I’m not creating any space to process what that dissatisfaction is about – and that step needs to happen before I can identify what actions to take.

Here’s an example: Recently, my daughter came home from school singing a song that I thought had lyrics that were sexist. “Who taught you that song?” I asked her.

“My teacher,” she answered brightly, and then went back to singing it.

My initial reaction was anger. RAGE, really. I was ready to pick up my phone and fire off an e-mail to the teacher. Then I thought, No, it’s better to tell her my concerns after school. I started to write down what I wanted to say to her. Maybe I’ll text one of the other parents and see what they think, I thought. And then, somewhere in the depths of my soul, a tiny voice said, Wait.

I listened. And I’m glad I did. Later that day, after she had some after-school “quiet time,” my daughter was singing that song again. When she got to the offending lyric, she said, “I don’t like that part. I’m going to change it.” And she did – she created a totally different line that was positive and non-sexist. “From now on, I’m going to sing it this way at school,” she announced.

Had my daughter not been quiet, the idea might not have come to her. Had I not been quiet, I would have charged like a bull towards the teacher – and I would have denied my daughter the opportunity to take action. In hindsight, her way was far better than mine.

Silence gives us “a-ha” moments. In his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King talks about how he gets his ideas: “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” But in order to recognize them, you need to slow down, be quiet, and pay attention. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have studied this very phenomenon. When we’re quiet, they say, we’re more likely to daydream, to let our minds wander. Mind-wandering and daydreaming give us what they call an “incubation period,” where we digest our thoughts and let our ideas percolate – and this is where we’re most likely to have that “eureka!” moment. Interestingly, studies indicate that people who are more prone to daydreaming are more likely to score higher on tests of creativity – an essential skill for an activist navigating the rocky terrain of social justice work.

Silence increases our tolerance for discomfort. Try this: Find a comfortable place to sit. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes, sit, and do nothing until the alarm rings.

How was it?

If you’ve never meditated before, I bet it felt like the longest five minutes of your life.

So many people HATE silence. They’ll chatter incessantly just to fill space. They’ll crack a joke after a period of uncomfortable silence in order to break the tension. Even texting or Facebooking on our phones is a way to prevent silence. If I’m in the waiting room, or on the bus, or in line, just sitting quietly might be too much to bear  – so it’s iPhone to the rescue, to keep the mental chatter going.

Several years ago, I participated in the Day of Silence, an annual day of action organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). Participants take a day-long vow of silence as a symbolic representation of the silencing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It’s a powerful experience, and for me, it was profoundly uncomfortable. Every time I nonverbally asserted my right to silence, I felt uncomfortable. Every time I watched other people’s uncomfortable reactions, I felt uncomfortable. The whole thing was just . . . uncomfortable. And that, actually, was the most illuminating part of the whole experience for me. I tolerated a tremendous amount of discomfort throughout the day, and to cope with it, I drew on internal resources I didn’t know I had. At the same time, I witnessed discomfort in others – lots of it. For me, it was an exercise that created a boundary between my discomfort and theirs – and that it’s not my job to rescue people from their feelings. Because the only way to do that, of course, would have been for me to break my silence.

Silence as a regular practice. Think about it.


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Filed under activism, mental health, psychological research, sexism

Sticks and stones may break my bones . . .

Last week, during my commute from work, I heard a segment on the NPR show “Talk of the Nation” that addressed the use of security cameras in public schools. Several administrators participated on the panel, most of whom sang the praises of these cameras, and they noted that the cameras were intended to reduce harassment, violence, gang-related activities, and drug-related issues. Although many thoughtful points were made, and it was a generally well-rounded discussion, not once was LGBTQ-related bullying and harassment addressed. So we’ll address it here.

This past week, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released The 2011 National School Climate Survey, which presents data collected from 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20. Specifically, the survey documented the experiences of LGBT students with regard to (1) indicators of negative school climate, such as verbal or physical harassment; (2) the possible negative effects of a hostile school climate, such as poor academic performance; and (3) the degree to which supportive resources, such as GSAs, were available in schools.

The findings presented in this report are extensive, and not particularly surprising, in my opinion. While things do seem to have gotten better over time, in that more resources are available for LGBTQ students, the school climate for many LGBTQ youth continues to be chilly. What’s interesting to me, though, is that a lot of the harassment that LGBTQ youth experience is the kind that’s unlikely to show up on security cameras. Consider these specific findings, for example:

  • 84.9% of students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school, and 91.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.
  • 61.4% heard negative remarks about gender expression (not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often.
  • 71.3% heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”) frequently or often.
  • 55.2% of LGBT students were victims of electronic harassment sometime in the past year – usually through things like text messages or postings on Facebook.

If someone makes a negative comment under their breath, just within earshot of the target of that comment, it’s unlikely that a teacher will catch it – and it’s unlikely that the security cameras would be sensitive enough to pick it up. And when it comes to cyberbullying, security cameras are useless – which is probably why electronic harassment has escalated in recent years.  One of the panelists on the “Talk of the Nation” segment said it best: “If students who are misbehaving are certain that they’re going to get caught, then they won’t misbehave.” Students who mutter homophobic or gender-phobic comments under their breath, or who wait until they’re in a noisy, crowded hallway to make comments, or who restrict their harassing behavior to cyberspace – those students are pretty certain that they won’t get caught. And thus the culture of anti-LGBT harassment persists.

The effects of what I’ll refer to as “stealth harassment” are powerful. For example, a recent study published in the American Journal of College Health titled “’That’s So Gay!’: Examining the Covariates of Hearing This Expression Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual College Students” found that, among the 114 LGB young adults surveyed, hearing the phrase “that’s so gay” was associated with feelings of isolation, headaches, poor appetite, and eating problems – all of which are classic signs of stress and anxiety. With those anxiety-related symptoms, it’s no wonder that homophobic remarks like this have the potential to mark the beginning of a slippery slope, leading to absenteeism, poor academic performance, continued social isolation, and possible depression and suicidal ideation. All from three simple words.

Students aren’t the only ones who contribute to a chilly climate. In fact, it’s very common to see teachers and other school personnel engaging in what I’ll call “passive homophobia.” When a student says “That’s so gay,” and a teacher says nothing, that’s passive homophobia. If a student tells a joke that makes fun of LGBTQ people, and a teacher laughs, that’s passive homophobia. Failing to challenge the issue perpetuates the problem.

But it’s also common for teachers to engage in “active homophobia.” According to the GLSEN survey, 56.9% of students – more than half – reported hearing homophobic remarks and/or negative remarks about gender expression from their teachers or other school staff. These school employees are making conscious, deliberate statements – and if these are the school employees who are reviewing the security camera footage for anti-LGBTQ harassment, then we’re in trouble. In fact, Neal Conan related this incident on “Talk of the Nation”:

When a dean saw two girls kissing in the hallway, he shared the footage with the parents of one of the girls. They pulled her out of school. 

 Whether the harassment is active or stealth, it’s still clearly woven in the fabric of our schools. And, based on the data, if all we did was eliminate the use of the phrase “That’s so gay,” that alone would have a tremendous impact on our LGBTQ youth. So here’s my call to action: next time someone uses the phrase “That’s so gay,” tell that person to stop.


Filed under anti-gay bullying, covert homophobia, gay suicides, homophobia, LGBTQ youth, mental health, overt homophobia, psychological research, transphobia