Growing up, no one told me that people shouldn’t be gay. My parents didn’t tell me I shouldn’t talk to kids whose parents were lesbian. My neighbors didn’t rant against the horrors of gay rights. Instead, all the people in my life encouraged me to live openly, to take people’s personalities and see the beauty in them, to smile at the adorable young couple clutching each other’s hands, no matter their gender. Love was love. I lived in a world blissfully ignorant about the cruelties of the “real world.”
My first glimpse at those cruelties came in the book Totally Joe. It’s the story of a teenage boy named Joe who lets people at school know that he’s gay. This leads to a daily onslaught of insults. While I was reading, I always had a glimmer of doubt about the story. People weren’t really that mean, I thought. No one really says things that awful, do they?
I came to middle school and learned the reality of Joe’s story. But I realized that I had the chance to do something about it. I gave scathing glares to each utterance of “fag” and “queer,” scolded people who said “that’s so gay” and “you’re a girl.” But as the year moved on, my reprimands slowed. It was easy to simply excuse insults as “middle school” and convince myself that my voice wouldn’t change anything anyway.
On April 15, however, I was reminded of the consequences of silence. Posters in the school hallways announced GLSEN’s Day of Silence, a day on which students nationwide remain silent to bring attention to bullying and harassment.
At first I had no intention of shutting my voice off for a day. But I soon realized something astonishing: I had no idea what it was like to be bullied. I’d never been forced to swallow my words, never been too afraid to open my mouth and be myself. And if I didn’t grasp what that felt like, how could I possibly speak out against it?
So, I donned a sign of silence and spent the next few hours thinking. I started remembering all the comments I’d ever let go—the “fags” and “queers” I’d ignored because the people saying them “were just joking.” I’d excused my growing silence with the idea that, one day, I’d have my moment when I’d stand up to the bully and really change something.
On April 15, though, I realized that we don’t get a single moment to make up for a lifetime of silence. Instead, we owe victims of bullying our voices every day—our voices for speaking out against bullies, our voices for comforting those who are hurt, our voices whispering or shouting or murmuring through the fray. We owe it to those aching to notice to walk up and remind them to follow Joe’s advice and “just be yourself, okay?”
Gwyneth Henke is an eighth-grader in St. Louis.