Voice. It is one of the single most important things anyone can have. It doesn’t have to be verbal, it can be written, verbal or signed. A person’s voice is as individual to them as their fingerprint. You can recognize a writer’s voice before you are told whom you’re reading. A person’s voice is their power. It is the voice of dissent that becomes the voice of resistance. One becomes many, but rather than blending in, they became a sea of individual voices coming together, like a mosaic of color/pitch/tone. A single voice doesn’t have the power to move giant hurdles, but a sea of voices can break through nearly any barrier. But the thing about the sea is that it always has to begin with one.
Lately I have called upon people to speak. We are living in terrifying, trying times and we need to be vigilant to use our voices to speak out against injustice, to be allies, to take care of ourselves and loved ones. Still, with all this attention to speaking and voices, it is interesting how powerful silence can be. Absolute – nothingness.
Every year, I recognize the Day of Silence (April 21 this year). It is not a time to speak up, but a time to be quiet. To not utter a single syllable. The Day of Silence was started in 1996 by students at the University of Virginia as a form of nonviolent protest. This protest is meant to bring awareness to bullying and harassment of LGBTQI students, and its effects. We take a vow of silence for the day, referencing how LGBTQI students are silenced. Outside of school, it has been broadened to include any LGBT-based discrimination.
I have participated every year since 1998 (when I first heard about it). It’s how I learned that silence can be powerful too.
In high school, most teachers didn’t give me any flack for observing the day of silence. I could still communicate, but it would have to be in writing. With classes of thirty students and forty-two minutes a period, me taking a break from the discussion wasn’t going to be, “OMG, you just can’t!” Of course, some teachers did try to test me. They were the same ones I knew would give me trouble because they argued that Willa Cather wasn’t a lesbian, referred to sexual orientation as a lifestyle and LGBT people as “those people”. They tried to get me to speak, but I refused. They threatened to send me to the principal’s office and I persisted. They sent me to the principal’s office where I waited out the period of class in the main office. I never got in trouble, because school administrators knew better. (I always told teachers in advance I was observing the Day of Silence, so no one was surprised or unwarned.)
It was always interesting to see how people reacted to my silence. Some were unnerved. Some were silent with me. Some tried to trick me into talking. Some were put off, upset and offended. But it is this last group of people that made me think, “This is exactly why I do this.” And then I wished I could do it every day just to “show them”.
I continued observing the day in college and graduate school. None of my professors had issues with that. I purposely did not work the jobs that required me to speak with customers on that day, (Blockbuster) but carried on with those where it didn’t have to matter for a day (tailor at the college’s costume shop, Resident Advisor, etc.). In grad school, my off day was Friday so it just worked (I worked Sundays).
I think of all of my experiences with silence in terms of power. Participating in peaceful protest is powerful in and of itself, but it was when I was faced with opposition that I realized just how powerful it could be.
My sophomore year of college is by far the most powerful example of this. I was outside the Student Union where this horrid preacher was spouting hate rhetoric. What could I do? I couldn’t argue with him, because I refused to let him be the reason I broke my vow. But I also couldn’t let him just stand there without reproach being so nasty.
I took a straight friend’s hand (also a male) and we walked circles around him, making sure to keep a nonthreatening distance of ten feet. Others stopped and watched us, and people started to join in. Within thirty minutes more than four-dozen students crowded around the preacher. People not observing the day of silence did dramatic interpretations of Dr. Seuss. Others blasted boom boxes and several guys started to breakdance. A few girls kissed each other, making sure to catch his eye. I made signs, and others joined me and we held them up, letting our voices be heard without actually speaking.
It wasn’t the first time the preacher came to campus, but it was his last. While I can’t say forever and ever, my dorm room was directly across the street from his regular platform outside the Union. I never saw him again.
By the time the protest ended, the Day of Silence also ended (5:00pm) and hundreds of students had joined in. There were reporters from the school paper and the local news. There were campus police trying to disperse the crowd, but if the preacher had a right to be there, so did we.
Afterwards, people were talking about it for a few days. I was worried about my job as an RA – it wasn’t like working for the college gave me permission to start protests (or as some called it a riot, though no one was harmed, no property damaged, no profanity used, so I really don’t think it qualifies as such). When my Residence Director asked me about the scene I confessed, “I started it. It was an accident, I swear!” She just laughed because I guess starting something like that was “such a Michael thing to do”.
But this reminds me that you don’t have to be loud and verbal to make an impact. Often the things I remember the most is not what people do, but what they don’t do. My grandmother, Mary, was not a loud person, but she has always been my role model. She wielded a sort of profound, reserved power and could move people with such little – anything. I confess, I’m not that gifted. I’m loud and anything but subtle. But my husband is like my grandmother. He has to try to make an impact, but when he does – it blows me away. Just because someone is quiet, doesn’t mean their subtle words/actions aren’t deliberate.
It’s funny because I often say, “Silence equals death.” I still feel this is true 99% of the time. But when silence is being used as a tool of protest, a weapon of justice, it is quite effective. But I shouldn’t be surprised. Like most things in life, everything is one AND the other, not or.
If you want to participate in the National Day of Silence you can get more info about it here. A lot of allies are silent with us, and like pink triangle and safe zone signs, you don’t know just how many people it touches – just how much of a difference you are making to several people just by observing the day. Obviously, if you work retail or jobs where you have to talk to customers, this isn’t doable but to anyone else, I strongly encourage it. How much simpler can it be? You can do it from anywhere in the world without much fuss and yet the statement is powerful, the impact profound.
I hope you’ll observe this year’s Day of Silence, April 21, 2017. But if you don’t, please understand and respect those of us who will. The power of voice and the power of silence are one and the same. Today I used my voice; Friday I will use my silence.