Youths Break Silencing Effect of Bullying

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“Love is love!” yelled teens as cars honked in solidarity. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth and allies gathered to share their experiences of oppression and progress.

“Breaking the Silence,” a rally held last Friday at the downtown Santa Cruz Town Clock, expanded awareness of the national Day of Silence, an annual event formed in 1996 by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) during which students across the country vow to stay quiet for a whole day to symbolize the silencing effects of harassment and bullying on LGBTQ students.

Santa Cruz Diversity Center executive director Sharon Papo said the Day of Silence gives people the chance to share what it means and has meant to be LGBTQ.

“A lot of people don’t know how often our [LGBTQ] community has been silenced and how historically our people have been oppressed and afraid to share their truths out of fear of violent retribution,” Papo said.

“Breaking the Silence” was sponsored by queer alliance organizations STRANGE, Delta Gay-Straight Alliance, Queer Youth Task Force and Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). While the Day of Silence brings awareness to LGBTQ bullying, Friday’s event created a platform on which students could express themselves through slam poetry, music and stories of their own experiences as LGBTQ youth.

“The rally is where we come together after being silent all day to empower the youth to find their voices and share their experiences around this crucial issue,” said Santa Cruz Diversity Center youth programs coordinator Rory Diller.

As heterosexuality is perceived to be more acceptable in many communities around the nation, LGBTQ youth often confront their peers who are not always accepting of their identified gender or sexual orientation. In the face of animosity, Diller said it’s important for LGBTQ youth to find support and encouragement to be who they are.

“Many of the youth we support are kind of isolated from one another, so giving them an opportunity to meet, connect and share experiences with other people just like them is, from my perspective, such a relief to them. They are able to reaffirm that being LGBTQ is completely healthy, normal and awesome,” Diller said.

“‘Breaking the Silence’ opens people’s eyes to show, ‘Okay, this is happening.’ We have to make a change because we know this is going to continue and a lot of people are going to lose their lives because they don’t feel safe,” rallier Gladys Olvera said.

In a national study conducted by GLSEN in 2009, 61.1 percent of 7,261 students between the ages of 13 and 21 were more likely to feel unsafe or uncomfortable because of their sexual orientation. As a result, LGBTQ students reported lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression and anxiety.

The Santa Cruz Diversity Center and PFLAG stressed the importance of surrounding the youth with a safe space both in their school and their families.

“We want [the LGBTQ] youth to know that PFLAG is here for their families,” said PFLAG’s Santa Cruz County chapter president Neal Savage. “We provide a safe, comfortable and nurturing environment for families to ask the questions on their minds that may not be easy to discuss, either within the family or among their circle of friends.”

Along with PFLAG and other queer alliance organizations, California state legislators have recently focused on protecting LGBTQ youth. Twenty-ninth district field representative Kieran Kelly emphasized August 2013’s passage of Assembly Bill (AB) 1266, which “guarantees you can use the bathroom of your choice depending on whatever gender you identify with,” Kelly said.

AB 1266 also ensures that students can participate in any sex-segregated school program and activity with the gender they identify with, not the gender written on their school record.

With the support from state legislators and LGBTQ-inspired organizations, the importance of being an ally was a central theme of the rally.

“The actions people take as allies are unique to each individual,” Savage said. “But being an ally lets members of the LGBTQ community know that there are people supporting them that don’t fall into one of those letters. We’re sort of the ‘A’ letter, the ally.”