Students lined the long ramp and leaned against poles in the dining area of Brower Student Center last Wednesday, but they were not just hanging out.
They had gagged themselves with rainbow-striped cloths, or had duct tape with words like “fag” or “queer” written on them across their mouths.
Hung from around their necks or in their hands were signs with stories or statistics about violence against homosexuals.
The students were participating in the National Day of Silence, organized by the Gay Union of Trenton State at The College of New Jersey (GUTS).
The National Day of Silence has many meanings, according to Noel Ramirez, GUTS president.
It represents the silence of gay youth to avoid hatred, bigotry, rejection and harassment, he said. It also represents silence that people employ every day in the face of blatant homophobia.
“The Day of Silence is to take a vow of silence to actually represent or illustrate the severity of silence,” Ramirez said. “I’m not speaking today, but that’s my choice. The whole day was very emotional. It’s one of the most emotional things I’ve had to do as far as activism is concerned, just because it’s something so personal brought to the public.”
Ramirez estimates that somewhere between 40 and 60 people participated after he and other members of GUTS tabled for a couple of days in the student center to sign people up to take the vow of silence. It was a really great turnout, he said.
Nationally, the Day of Silence had “well over 450,000 participants in well over 4,000 middle/high schools, colleges and universities in every single state, (Washington,) D.C. and Puerto Rico” this year, making it “the largest single-day, student-led action on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) issues in history,” according to dayofsilence.org.
The demonstrators met with little resistance. Ramirez said he received no reports from other participants, but encountered some static himself.
A poster Ramirez hung in Wolfe Hall was vandalized on the Day of Silence. The poster stated, “Every six hours a gay youth will attempt suicide. What will you do about the silence of homophobia and discrimination?,” after which the vandal wrote, “I hope they succeed. I hate fags,” as well as a person’s name.
The defacement has since been torn off, and the remaining poster is still hung on the wall next to a billboard with a letter signed by students and residence life professionals declaring their disapproval of the vandalism.
The letter said that the vandalizer’s “words and lack of consideration for GLBT students and their struggle perpetuate a culture of hate,” and how “this intolerance is not welcomed in Wolfe.” According to Ramirez, the whole board was covered with signatures.
“I originally had thought that our school was pretty much, like, all right,” Ramirez said, but he realizes that “there still needs to be a lot of work done here” if things like that happen.
Ramirez stood in the student center in front of an Army recruitment table during his shift with the story of Private Barry Winchell around his neck. In 1999, another soldier killed Winchell in his sleep because someone thought he was gay.
Some of the recruiters approached him, and he said he was happy to have the duct tape over his mouth because he didn’t know how to respond, since he couldn’t gauge their intentions.
GUTS members printed out cards to hand out that explained why they were silent.
When Ramirez handed one to a classmate, she read the card and was struck by the last line: “What will you do to end the silence?”
“And she pointed at the line and she just hugged me. And I was like, that’s so sweet!” Ramirez said.
The incident, as well as support from his friends, made Ramirez realize, “I’ve been silenced, I’ve been hurt, my feelings have been broken … my spirit has been broken, I’ve been assaulted, you know, harassed. But in the end what I also had to realize was that I had people there.”
Being silent all day made Ramirez remember “all the pain that I had when I was in the closet, as well as all the allies that are really there for me.”
“I was very impressed by my friend Dom,” he said. “Um, he’s very … alpha male, you know, very masculine, but also very … supportive.”
Dominick Serra, junior criminology and justice major, said he was more than willing to help out. He said he wanted to bring the phenomenon of silence to light.
“By not saying anything, we’re basically saying its OK,” Serra said.
Serra’s story was of an anonymous 14-year-old whose parents told him the harassment he received was his fault and that his sexuality wasn’t natural.
Serra said he was an atypical participant because he is a heterosexual male. He thought it was important to participate because it was like “the majority trying to help (the minority) out,” he said
“That was really touching,” Ramirez said of Serra’s willingness to involve himself in the Day of Silence.
“The one thing I want to say about GUTS is it’s not a gay thing, it’s not a straight thing, it’s a human thing,” Ramirez said.