The sound of silence from nearly 200 East Hampton High School students last Friday punctuated the end of a week-long Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender awareness campaign hosted by the school's Gay Straight Alliance club.
It was the first year the group, consisting of about 40 students, hosted such a week, hinged on the national Day of Silence—a day during which students in schools across the country vow to remain silent to "call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools," according to the website of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which sponsors the event.
Awareness has been a persistent theme in the East Hampton School District following the suicide of junior David H. Hernandez last year—a death that was speculated to be "LGBT related," said club president Joel Johnson. The GSA felt the week would promote a better school atmosphere all around, he added.
"The school's morale is kind of low," said Joel. "We just want to be part of bringing it back up."
Monday was the group's "kickoff day," when club members spent the day getting people excited about the week, he said. Tuesday was "Ask Me Anything Day," when some GSA members wore colorful paper crowns to symbolize that their school peers could approach them with any questions relating to GSA or LGBT issues. On Wednesday, the Reverend Dr. Katrina Foster paid a visit to students, delivering a speech on "the need to support each other as LGBT people," said Barbara Boylan, the school's social worker and the club's adviser. The GSA hosted an open house on Thursday−at which students from the East Hampton Middle School GSA paid a visit. The middle school group was created last year.
Finally, on Friday, the GSA observed the Day of Silence. Most participants this year are from the freshman class, said Joel. Last year, about 300 people signed up to participate in the Day of Silence, according to GSA members. Those who successfully complete a day of silence are rewarded with two hours of community service. The school requires 30 hours to graduate, according to Molly Reynolds, a senior who belongs to the group.
GSA members admit it's pretty hard to stay quiet during the Day of Silence. Matthew Napolillo, a senior who belongs to GSA, said he almost made it through Day of Silence last year until Joel sneezed.
"He sneezed and I said, bless you... Dammit!" recalled Matt.
Matt, who admits he was "kind of shy about the whole subject," was convinced to join the GSA at Joel's urging. It was a "good kind of peer pressure," he said. Molly, the secretary/treasurer of GSA, said Joel also persuaded her to go.
"I forced, by threat of eye gouging, to make all these people go," joked Joel at a recent gathering of some GSA members, which included Joel, Molly, Matt and Thomas Papas, the group's vice president.
Hosting a week of awareness is important in sending a message to interested students that there's a place they can turn to, Joel said.
"For me it's the awareness part," he said. "There's a lot of kids in the school who don't know that this support system is here. There's like, this club that isn't just about like where the gay kids go to escape from bullies. That's not what it's about. It's about a place where you can find people who are accepting and like-minded."