Day of Silence

Youth across the United States today are participating in the Day of Silence to challenge name calling, harassment, and bullying inflicted upon students with genders and sexualities that don’t conform with social norms. As a supporter of youth rights, I feel like the Day of Silence is a very important thing to pay attention to; many youth are working in solidarity with each other today, reaching out to peers or acting against the oppressions they experience, and some of them are going to be harassed for it today and in the future, not just by their peers but also by parents, teachers, and other ‘authority figures,’ the people who are supposed to be providing ‘guidance,’ the people supposedly responsible for making schools safe places to be.

This is a day where many youth are remaining silent in protest. I’m doing just the opposite; I’m taking today as a chance to speak in solidarity with those who are choosing to remain in silence. Since I am not in a school environment, if I remain silent today, it would be rather difficult for participants to see! Participating in the Day of Silence is dangerous and scary, and I want youths taking part in it to know that, as an adult, I support them and I think that what they are doing is important. As an adult, I know that we need to do better, as a society. I want to work in solidarity with youth to make their world a better and safer place now. Not later. I don’t want to tell youth ‘it gets better,’ I want to make it better.

On Twitter yesterday, Katrina Moncure said: ‘#isupportyouthrights because parents and teachers bully kids just as much as, if not more than, their peers do.’ (via @heathercorinna) On the Day of Silence, this is an important thing to address. A lot of the focus on bullying in the media has been peer bullying, which is definitely an issue, but bullying by adults happens too, and it’s one of the reasons that peer bullying persists; if the people who should ‘know better’ are doing it, why should you stop?

Peer bullying can have immediate dangerous consequences; students may be physically abused in addition to emotionally abused, they can experience severe psychological effects of bullying, and, as we know, bullying kills. Rates of suicide and attempted suicide among youth are unacceptably high and peer bullying plays a role in that. But adult bullying also has very serious consequences, whether we’re talking about the lesbian student repeatedly given poor marks by her teacher, or the trans youth kicked out of his house because his parents refuse to accept him; let’s not forget that rates of homelessness are particularly high among trans youth as well as lesbian, gay, queer, and bi peers.

Youth are told their entire lives that they must listen to adults and must comply with adults. This is constantly reinforced with reminders that adults hold all the power; the power to decide if you should be allowed to get a learner’s permit, the power to decide how to grade you in school, the power to make medical decisions on your behalf. The power to decide, in some cases, whether you live or die. Turning children out on the street for their sexuality or gender happens, and it can be fatal, or it may set someone up for a lifetime of disadvantages. How do you complete school, bouncing between homeless shelters? If you end up in foster care, what kind of abuse will you experience because of your gender or sexuality? When the adults, the people who are supposed to be responsible for your wellbeing, fail you, where do you go from there?

Last year, I wrote about being bullied in middle school and how the adults around me failed to act, failed me. How I essentially stopped going to school because it was the only reasonable solution; because I was told to count on adults to help me and they didn’t. I am not the only youth this has happened to. It’s happening right now. Maybe even in your town, or mine. On the one hand, we tell youth we are in charge. On the other, we do not respond when they cry for help.

Part of the preparations for the Day of Silence include briefing students on their First Amendment rights because the organisers are well aware that in some school districts, participants will face considerable pressure from teachers and administrative staff. This pressure is yet another example of adult bullying; that youths who want to resist oppression must prepare for it with lengthy legal briefings is a sign of how little support we accord, socially, to youth. It is a reminder that students in school are at the mercy of the adults in charge and that being, say, gay in high school isn’t just dangerous because of your peers, it’s also dangerous because of the adults around you, the teachers who may casually throw around anti-gay slurs, who may make snide remarks in class, who may exclude you from activities because of your sexuality. It’s a reminder that trans students may be misgendered and abused by their instructors, may be told they’re using the wrong bathroom or they’re not fooling anyone, which paves the way for peers to do the same.

At the same time that we address peer bullying, we also need to talk about the role adult bullying plays in society, because there is a feedback loop here where abusive peers grow up to become abusive adults who encourage the next generation of abusive peers to be abusive, even in the face of antibullying campaigns and outreach. We must break the loop not just with outreach programs to youth, but also with programs to combat bigotry and prejudice in adults, so that when bullying happens, all adults condemn it and work on a resolution.

In some regions, educators are already doing this, and are talking about how to extend their outreach, which is a very positive sign. But this is not happening in other places, places where even getting adults to admit that adult bullying happens is an uphill battle. Those are the places where outreach needs to be making inroads.