It has been a decade since I graduated high school. There are days when it seems like it was yesterday and days when it feels like it’s been a lifetime. So much has changed in the world, and yet we also face some of the same issues that we did when I was still riding the bus and spending my evenings with my theater friends.
I wasn’t a child who took much stock in social structure. I did not grasp the differentiation in sexes until my body began to develop. I didn’t know what this meant for me.
In my teenage years, thoughts soon turned to romance. My best friend took me aside one day and confided that she had a crush on our other best friend — also a girl. In that instant, I realized two things: girls could like other girls (something I had never considered, even after kissing a girl in fourth grade) and I had a crush on my friend. Of course, I helped the two of them get together.
This was an awakening. I wasn’t sure what it meant to be gay, and we weren’t provided with the language and descriptors that are readily available and discussed today in many places. I read the one book with gay characters in our school library, cut my hair, and started attending our Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
More accurately, I started going to RISE meetings. We didn’t have a GSA — supposedly because the school board would not allow it. Instead, we had a “more inclusive” club called Respect for Individuals in a Safe Environment. I was starting to accept myself. It wasn’t smooth or easy, because I was outed before I was even sure of who I was.
Like most members of RISE, I hadn’t made any official declaration of my identity, but people felt compelled to label me. A girl outside of RISE (who ended up coming out as a lesbian after high school) started the rumor that I was a “dyke,” and it spread like wildfire. My friends would constantly say that I was a “gay man trapped in a woman’s body,” and, not realizing what I was saying, I would reply, “No, I’m a bi man trapped in a woman’s body.”
I wouldn’t learn the word “transgender” until much later.
My theater director cast me as a man in our fall play, but I wouldn’t learn about the gender spectrum until years later. At the time, it felt like everyone had an opinion about who I was, even before I had all of the details worked out for myself.
Meanwhile, I wrestled with the idea that I was part of a community that wasn’t accepted by society. I told my closest friends that I was attracted to women. I also told my mother, who was compassionate, but cautious. When I came out to my brother, he told me he’d guessed as soon as I had “gotten the Ellen DeGeneres political activist haircut.”
I felt alone.
Hiding wasn’t working very well. People I barely knew called me names. A senior in class threw a textbook at me before grabbing my wrist and holding a lighter to my sleeve, calling me a faggot. When my mother saw the bruises, she told the principal, who reprimanded the teacher for not watching his students. The result? My teacher failed me in a class I had previously been acing.
I had nothing left to lose. I decided to participate in the Day of Silence with other members of RISE. This was meant to include a day-long vow of silence to represent the silencing of LGBTQIA+ students. We got matching t-shirts, and during a brief morning announcement asked everyone to respect our decision not to speak.
In theater class, I requested my scene partners rehearse without me, but they protested, bringing the director over. He told me that I would be given a zero for participation if I did not break my silence. I cried, but I was afraid of the long-term consequences that might accompany standing by my morals. I broke the silence only for theater class — the one class I had previously felt safe in. It felt more like a punch in the gut than getting punched ever had.
One day of silence didn’t end my experience with high school bullying. I didn’t overcome my challenges in a single grand gesture. No one ever even offered me an apology — and yet I still feel victorious. I am here today in a world moving toward progress. I have found a wide spectrum of friends that understand and love me for who I am, and I have realized that the world is much broader than my close-minded high school in suburban Michigan. It did get better, but I understand why people lose hope. I can’t count the numerous times that I did.
The Day of Silence exists because some of us never get to experience what I have been so fortunate to find. It is a way for those of us with the privilege to speak to use something just as powerful: silence. The silence speaks not only for those who have lost their voice permanently, but also for those who still cannot speak for themselves. For young people who struggle like I did, a gesture of solidarity can make all the difference.