Friday, April 21st was GLSEN’s annual/national Day of Silence, intended to highlight and bring attention to the bullying (and suicide) of LGBT teens. It started in 1996, and I remember being in middle school and later high school, and my friend from space camp, Heather telling me all about it. I can’t remember now if I participated or not: it’s very possible that I did. But as an adult, working with my colleague in supporting the GSA at my new middle school, it became really important for me to plan a special lesson for Friday, to support the kids in the GSA and the LGBT students at my school.
We started with a writing prompt: four questions about silence. When does it feel good to be silent? When does it feel bad? When might you choose to be silent? When might you be forced? and why for all of them. I gave the students about 10 minutes to write, and then they passed their papers to the right in their groups of 3 or 4. The next student had to read an annotate: either checking off what they agreed with, putting a # next to anything that angered them, an ! next to anything that surprised them and a ? next to anything that confused them.
Then I posed the question, “Why are we silent today?” on the board & revealed the Day of Silence palm card with their explanation of WHY we are silent that day. At the bottom, I posted a green sentence that said “please give me a thumbs up when you’ve read the whole slide” and I waited until everyone was giving me a thumbs up. It was fascinating to see different students’ reading speeds and I used my laser pointer to focus kids who weren’t reading on what they should be doing silently.
The next slide asked “What are the statistics?” Since I teach math to my middle schoolers (and I know they’ve ALL done percents at this point!), I wanted to have them do some percentages and some calculations. I know that just reading statistics like “65% of LGBT students heard homophobic remarks like “fag” or “dyke” frequently or often” doesn’t mean very much to kids – “Ok, so like more than half of them… but what does that mean in terms of actual numbers here, in our community?” So our calculations included predicting about how many students in our middle school probably identified as LGBT (or would someday) – which is about 57 out of 541 students total and comparing it to the 100,000 out of 1.1 million NYC school students. Then we used those two amounts as the basis for how many of the LGBT populations in NYC and our school were bullied or rejected or feared going to school. It obviously wasn’t based on SURVEYED information of OUR specific kids – but it was extrapolated from the GLSEN national school climate survey to apply to our communities. I think it was a great way to raise my students’ awareness, because many of them felt like “Oh, I didn’t know anyone at our school was LGBT” or that there was so much harassment. Now, it’s entirely likely that at our particular school (located in Chelsea, NYC), most of the LGBT students are NOT bullied (since even my kids who wear hats saying “Make America Great Again” wrote that they would stand up for LGBT kids being bullied), but I felt like this was the most concrete way to connect the idea to the students.
After they had about 5 – 8 minutes to work on the calculations, I revealed the amounts so they could see the facts (even though they hadn’t had a chance to finish calculating – but that was ok). I then played for them the Todrick Hall “It gets better” video (which is a music video). It was a great choice, and I’m thankful I chose it instead of some of the “talking heads” It Gets Better videos.
Then I had the students write a reflection: “How did today’s lesson make you feel?” and “How can you help end the silence of LGBT students due to bullying and harassment?” and gave them a few minutes to write. I advanced to the next slide, and I broke my silence (because at this point, I hadn’t spoken AT ALL during the first 30 minutes of class, communicating completely non-verbally with my students – using hand gestures, facial expressions, the projector, and clapping to gain attention and give directions). I said “Now we’re going to break out silence by discussing what we can do to help end the silence of Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students due to bullying and harassment. Talk to your partner,” and I gave them a few minutes to share.
Then I brought the whole class back together with my clap and asked if anything had come up during the class or their conversation that they wanted to share with everyone. In all of my classes, it took a few moments of patience and wait time for someone to feel confident in sharing. I called on about 3 – 5 students to share their ideas (only choosing on volunteers).
And then I ended with my own reasons for why the day of silence was so important to me. I wrote my “script” in advance, but I didn’t want to read it aloud and sound stilted, so I “ad-libbed” it a bit each time. This is what I shared with my students:
“I wanted to share with you why the Day of Silence is so important to me. Silence has played a big role in my life. As a kid, I was silenced by the bullies who harassed me in school. But I was also silenced by a lack of vocabulary to describe how I felt inside. I think at age 11 and 12, you know words that I didn’t learn until I got to college.
“As an adult, I’ve felt silenced in a different way. I’ve felt silenced by my fear of being mis-pronouned, or not being seen as a man. I’ve felt silenced by my fear that a parent might complain to my principal that they didn’t want their child in my class, not because they didn’t like me as a teacher, but because they didn’t want their kid to have a transgender teacher.
“But I realized that by being silent, I have made myself invisible to you. So today, I want to break my silence and share with you that I am a transgender man. What that means is that when I was born, the doctor said “It’s a girl!” – but they were kind of wrong. I was raised by my parents and went to school as a girl, but when I got to college, I met other transgender men and I recognized my own experiences in their stories. I realized that the only way to be truly happy and feel comfortable was to medically and legally transition to living my life as a man.
“I also identify as queer. Now, some of you may have heard that term in a derogatory manner before, and it can be an insult. However, some members of the LGBT community have reclaimed the term to mean that they are attracted to people of more than one gender. Unlike the word bisexual, which implies two genders, queer acknowledges that gender is on a spectrum with many options.
“Today, I’ve broken my silence by sharing this with you so that you are aware that you know someone who is transgender. And I can tell you: it does get better. If you have questions or things you want to talk about, I’m happy to answer them or speak with you.”
And then I opened it up to questions in two of my classes (where we still had class time – the other two classes, I had to dismiss because we were out of time!). A couple of kids asked questions about what it meant or how it felt/how I knew, and I tried to explain as best I could in age-appropriate language. I had one student ask me my birth name, and I told him that was private, and not something I would share with them – but I explained why it could be an insulting question and why I wouldn’t answer (because I don’t want you to call me that name and I’m worried if I told it to you, you might accidentally).
In my two seventh grade classes, some of the students already suspected – which is part of why I decided to come out. I didn’t want my “status” as a transgender person to be something that needed to be discussed behind my back in rumors. I wanted the students to know that I’m not ashamed of being trans, but am in fact, proud of it. I wanted students to know that it’s okay to be LGBT and I wanted to be a role model for them. I wonder how differently my life might’ve been if I’d met a trans man when I was in middle school, and felt comfortable coming out as trans and transitioning as a teenager instead of waiting until adult-hood. I envy the teens who are able to do just that, but I know that I can play an important role in their lives (especially since I feel like even in the public discourse, there are many fewer out trans men than there are trans women – and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I even knew trans men were a “thing” – even though I knew about trans women!).
After class, in both of my seventh grade classes, I had a few of the boys come up to me and shake my hand. A few students thanked me personally for coming out and being brave. One of my students said, “Mr. G, thank you for sharing this with us. I want you to know that this doesn’t mean me or any of the other students think of you as less masculine.” which I thought was really sweet.
It felt so powerful to come out to them, and I’m so glad that I did it. Of course – let’s see what (if any) are the repercussions next week and in the following months. I don’t think there will be too many negative ones – after all, I do live in NYC and the school is in Chelsea (also known as the gayborhood!). But, one never knows. (However, if I helped even one of my students feel more comfortable at exploring their own gender identity or sexuality, then I will know that it was even more worth it!).