Q: I’m a high school student, and I want to participate in GLSEN’s National Day of Silence (DOS). I’m out to my friends but am not sure my teachers would approve. Can I get in trouble?
A: First, congratulations on being out to your friends – it’s wonderful to accept yourself and find supportive people! Participating in the Day of Silence is a powerful way to raise awareness of LGBT issues in schools, and to help combat bullying and harassment. For DOS, students across the country vow to take some form of silence during the school day. This year’s event was last month, but students can start planning now if they want to participate next year. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) provides materials to students who wish to participate in the Day of Silence, as well as materials for schools that want to support the day of action.
Lambda Legal’s Help Desk experiences a sharp increase of calls and emails from students every year around the Day of Silence – some are wondering whether they are allowed to participate, and others have actually been told by their schools that they cannot. Last year, Lambda Legal advocated in more than 100 schools around the nation to support students who had initially been blocked from participating in the Day of Silence. Overwhelmingly, the schools responded to our advocacy and allowed the students to proceed.
One student, Maverick Couch, a junior in Ohio, called our Legal Help Desk after repeatedly asking for permission to wear a T-shirt with a rainbow Ichthys, or “sign of the fish,” bearing the slogan “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe.” When Maverick wore the shirt to school on last year’s Day of Silence, the school principal instructed him to turn the T-shirt inside out; Maverick complied. Over the summer, Maverick researched his First Amendment rights, and when school resumed in the fall of 2011, he approached the school principal seeking permission to wear the T-shirt. The principal said he would suspend Maverick if he wore the shirt.
Lambda Legal sent a letter to Maverick’s school explaining his First Amendment right to wear the shirt, but unfortunately, officials didn’t back down. They contended that Maverick’s shirt was “sexual in nature” and “indecent.” On April 3, 2012, Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit against the school district on Maverick’s behalf. The very next day, in a status conference with the judge, the school changed its position and agreed to allow Maverick to wear the shirt on this year’s Day of Silence only. Although that concession is a step in the right direction, it’s obviously not enough. Maverick’s T-shirt contains a message of inclusion and acceptance and is in no way sexual or indecent. And First Amendment rights do not apply on just one day of the year; they apply every day, to every public school student in the country.
Out, Safe and Respected is a toolkit designed to help you know your rights at school and make sure they are respected. You can order a free copy or download it at www.lambdalegal.org/out-safe-respected.
If you have any questions, or feel you have been discriminated against because of your sexual orientation, contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at 1-866-542-8336, or see http://lambdalegal.org/help
Hayley Gorenberg is deputy legal director for Lambda Legal, the national organization that works to secure full civil rights for LGBT people.