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The Creators of Day of Silence Reflect on Its Impact Since 1996

This Friday marks a day of silent reflection for LGBTQ youths and those that seek to discriminate against them and take away their voices. Over the past two decades, the Day of Silence has evolved into a worldwide event that raises awareness for queer youth, fighting for inclusion in schools. Through the years, it’s gained momentum among students and notable LGBTQ figures, moving the community toward a more inclusive environment.

This peaceful student-led protest went viral long before social media provided such platforms for millennial-driven causes. It was 1996 at the University of Virginia when undergrad student Maria Pulzetti launched the demonstration at her school. With the help of classmate, Jesse Gilliam, it quickly reached schools all over the country, and eventually the world.

Now sponsored by GLSEN, more than 10,000 students register their participation for Day of Silence every year, with such celebs as Laverne Cox, Jim Parsons, and RuPaul Charles showing support. We recently caught up with Pulzetti and Gilliam to chat about the roots of this silent protest.

What inspired you to start Day of Silence back in 1996?

Maria Pulzetti: I was in my first year of college at the University of Virginia, and I was taking a class on the history of the civil rights movement with Julian Bond, who is unfortunately now deceased. But he was an activist in the ‘60s, and then he became an elected official, and he continued to have a strong civil rights presence for many years. So, I was really inspired by the student-led nonviolent protests during the civil rights movement, and I wanted to create an event at my college that would be visible to the whole community as opposed to just the people who attend. So, that’s where the Day of Silence came from.

Jesse Gilliam: I actually participated that first year when it was local and realized it had so much potential, that we should really see if other schools and other students across the state might be interested. And we found that this storm of visible silent protests was very powerful to many students across the nation. And many students just took it on.

Would you say your school was pretty supportive of the event?

MP: I think people were pretty supportive. That’s kind of how the Day of Silence grew in the beginning, because it was a pretty safe thing for our straight allies to participate in. By participating, you weren’t necessarily coming out at all. You were just protesting homophobia and the silencing of the queer youth experience. So, I do feel like people were ready for it, that’s one of the reasons it was so successful from the beginning at the college level. People were ready for that, and they were very supportive. And that’s how it grew so quickly.

JG: When you’re starting it at a university, it’s a little different than starting it at a high school. You don’t need permission necessarily from the dean or anything like that. It’s a little different issue than what high school and middle school students are facing now. I’d say that the students at University of Virginia’s LGBTQ union definitely saw great potential there. So, we had a number of students that had signed on.

What’s it like seeing how far it’s come now and how it’s still being celebrated by new generations?

MP: It’s really gratifying to see that the Day of Silence continues to be a really powerful organizing tool for young people to combat silencing. And certainly, queer youth and LGBTQ youth face a lot of issues in schools today, and I think for a lot of people, the Day of Silence is still the first sort of LGBTQ-affirmative event that they see happening in a school environment. It’s really powerful to see that.

JG: I think it’s incredible. I work in education now, and so I get the chance to talk with young people who are either leading or participating in the Day of Silence. And seeing the leadership roles they’ve taken on in their schools that has an impact, that’s actively working to stand up against oppression, it’s just really wonderful to see that their passion has ignited a movement, really. So, it’s just great to see that thousands of people across the world have found this to be a meaningful event. But to see that this fight is still relevant 20 years later is a bit frustrating and sad.

Do you feel like it’s begun to have the desired effect on schools and the way LGBTQ students are treated?

MP: I think the world is a very different place for LGBTQ students in schools now than it was in 1996, and I’m really glad for that. But I think there’s a lot of work still to be done. Certainly, high schools and middle schools do the Day of Silence now, but at the time, it was really a college student event. I think that speaks a lot about the fact that there’s the possibility for younger students to organize and protest, and I think that’s really great. It’s just become a tool for students to talk about and draw attention to the issues that are facing youth in their own community, which can be anything from the North Dakota pipeline to gun violence or all sorts of issues that affect LGBTQ youth.

JG: I would say so. The fact that it’s gone down to high schools and middle schools shows that the dialogue about LGBTQ issues is not as silent anymore. I think young people today are really focusing on intersectionality within oppression and thinking about different groups of people within our community that might experience silence in different ways or more, due to their race, class, gender. So, I think young people today are bringing up different and more nuanced issues to address through the Day of Silence that really takes us to the next step in terms of social justice.

Do you still observe Day of Silence in your own way?

MP: Yea, every April, I get this sort of opportunity to see what’s going on in the press. I often talk to people who are teachers or students. And my oldest child is seven years old, so she’s not doing the Day of Silence yet, but I hope there will be a day when she participates. So, it’s definitely a presence in my life every April. I’m glad to see so many people participating.

JG: It depends on where I’m at. I will always send out something on social media, thanking the young people who are participating in the Day of Silence. But honestly, I have an office job now (LAUGHS), so people probably couldn’t tell if I was being silent or not. But I’ve had a good chance to go to some events over the years that young people have put on that are really awesome.

What would you say to young people that might not think they have an impact?

MP: I think we never know what impact our actions are going to have in the long term, and this is a good example of when we planned the first Day of Silence at UVA. When you do something at your own school, you have no idea that it may eventually take on a life of its own. Even if it doesn’t, people who participate or are affected by that event will bring it home and bring it to the world and share the lessons that they learned. I think we’ve seen this year in particular that high school students and young people have a tremendous impact and can have a real voice in actual conversations that are so important to be having.

JG: I think that the events of this year have shown to the United States that young people are the voice that is making a really strong impact. I think we can see that through the Parkland shootings, through the young people that are standing up with Black Lives Matter. I think that the Day of Silence is another example of that. And I think the fact that Maria had an idea and I helped her make it happen, the fact that literally hundreds of thousands of people have done it 20 years later, that’s a pretty good feeling. And I feel like that means that we’ve moved the world forward a bit when it comes to homophobia and transphobia. I would just encourage young people to speak out and say what’s important to them and know that people will listen.

What would you say to people who call things like this social media activism?

MP: I think I would say to them that it’s still risky in a lot of ways for a lot of students and a lot of educators to take a stand on a lot of LGBTQ issues. For someone to take a stand on social media or in their own school or with their family, in their communities beyond school, their neighborhood, their churches and synagogues, I think there’s still a huge impact and a huge risk students and educators are taking. And we should not penalize that ever.

JG: Well the first thing, this didn’t start during the social media era, so that’s the funny part about it. (LAUGHS) But I think back then, we might have called it couch activism or something like that, something easy you can do. I would actually suggest to people who say that to try being silent for a day. In addition to it being just physically hard to do, it allows for some real self-reflection about when you speak up or when you don’t speak up in the world, especially around issues of oppression, LGBTQ issues. And I think when people do that, they really see the significance of having a really visible silence and moving forward.

What have you been up to since starting Day of Silence?

MP: I’ve always been interested in social justice work, and I didn’t end up having a career in LGBTQ rights work, but I am a civil rights lawyer. I was a public defender for a very long time until this month actually. And I just started a new job here in Philadelphia at Community Legal Services, which is a legal organization that serves low-income Philadelphians in civil legal matters. I’ve always been interested in working with marginalized or silenced communities and trying to empower people.

JG: I’ve been working in nonprofits for almost the last 20 years. So right now, I work at a place called Washington STEM, which does STEM education, focusing on technology, engineering, and math. I’m a communications director for them. But up until then, I’d been doing various things. I worked in HIV/AIDS organizations for a while. I’ve worked for elected officials for a bit. I try to do things where I can make an impact on equity and social justice issues, while trying to increase access to education and opportunities for young people.

Day of Silence is Friday, April 27. Students can register and find more info at GLSEN or by texting “LOVE” to 21333.