[Author's Note: This being summer, we're going to put a few stories from the archive in this space for you dining and dancing pleasure, and this one was from the "Day of Silence" 2008.]
Unless Willie Brown was once your city's mayor, the odds are pretty good that the gay community in your city is not as "out and proud" as they wish they could be.
In my little corner of the world, the plain fact is that it's probably a lot easier to remain closeted than it is to deal daily with the little taunts and jabs that come your way--and of course for some, there's the risk that they might end up like Matthew Shepard...a man who ended up out and dead.
There has been a reaction to that reality in high schools, which is why we are today visiting the public spaces just off the campus of Mt. Si High School in Snoqualmie, Washington (home of the Wildcats), where a local church group will be arriving to protest the school's annual "Day of Silence", an effort to acknowledge the pressures placed on the school's gay population.
Displayed among the various protesters today was fear, ignorance, disingenuousness, and a strange mixture of self-righteousness and homoeroticism...and that was just among the people in the church group.
- Were minds changed?
- Did anyone make a new friend?
- And how do Dr. Martin Luther King and the Pledge of Allegiance fit into the picture?
Follow along, and we shall see.
Today's story, as with so much else, requires background and context. This story actually began in January, when the school invited the Reverend Ken Hutcherson to speak to the assembled students about the King legacy.
Unspoken in the invitation is the fact that the good Reverend is also the local representative of the "God Hates Fags" community, and it is today unclear if that was an intentional slight or a question of ignorance on the part of the school administration. It is a known fact that the Reverend has children attending the school, and that he is part of the African-American experience in this country; these are the explanations commonly given for the invitation.
All of this came to a head during the school assembly on that day, when Kit McCormick, the faculty advisor to the Mt. Si's Gay-Straight Alliance chapter publicly "called out" the Reverend for the apparent hypocrisy of giving a speech on diversity while basing a career on the exclusion of homosexuals from every facet of human life possible.
Apparently feeling the need to "reach out and touch someone" in response, a counter-protest was scheduled by Hutcherson to complain about the school's willingness to allow the "Day of Silence" event to occur during classroom hours.
What is the "Day of Silence", exactly? Conversations with current students describe it as an event that changes from year to year--one year students covered their mouths with duct tape during the school day, another year tie-dye armbands were the means of expression...and in each case, the point is to create an awareness of the plight of those who cannot come out, for fear that they might be victimized--and to symbolize solidarity with fellow students in such a plight.
"I Will Bring 1000 Prayer Warriors"
To generate the noise required to drown out the "Day of Silence", the Reverend had been telling the public of his plans to bring "1000 Prayer Warriors" to the school, which is why on this Friday morning at 9 a.m. more than 40 police vehicles (I counted) are already in the parking lot of the local fire station--a parking lot that typically contains fewer than 10 vehicles, even on a busy day.
I managed to make it to the early morning press availability provided by the school Administration, and the message provided was basically that students are within their rights to protest, the Reverend will do what he is going to do, that the entire exercise is a good learning experience for the student body, and that there will be steps taken to isolate the protest to a location off the campus, which is intended to minimize disruptions to learning.
It was reported that about 1/3 of students would not be in attendance today; and that as with any high school, there will be students who come and go throughout the day, meaning it will be impossible to assure with 100% certainty that students and protest won't come into contact along the way.
I'm also told by current students that there can be considerable social stigma attached to not participating in the otherwise voluntary "Day of Silence", and that may provide an explanation for some of today's high absenteeism.
Considering the number of police vehicles known to be in the immediate area, there are a very small number of visible, uniformed officers. There are one or two marked police vehicles at each entrance, about four uniformed officers and a sergeant in the "designated protest area"...and although I had my suspicions, I could only identify one person as being a plainclothes officer.
(I was told later by a student that there were officers in plain clothes in the back row of her classes, and new "custodians" working today that she had never seen before--which seems to tell its own story.)
It's about 9:30, and the only people around are the police, a group of 10 or so supporting the gay community (my favorite sign: "I Believe In Separation Of Church And Hate"), and a substantial contingent of the local media, including all the local TV network affiliates.
Since the festivities haven't really begun, I chose to take a coffee break (I'm dedicated enough to attend events so I can report on them for you, Gentle Reader, but this is 10 a.m., and that's early for me), and by the time I've returned things are starting to get under way.
There are about 75 to 100 of the Prayer Warriors assembled, and rather than the convoy of busses we were expecting, there's one "school bus" and groups of others who are walking up to the event from the parking places they've found in the surrounding neighborhood.
'They are being met by about 30 counter-protesters, some of whom are suggesting that the Warriors might wish to perform certain acts upon themselves, supplemented by another who questions whether some of the Warriors might have been inappropriately touched as children. A sign questions whether the Reverend is another Larry Craig or Ted Haggard. Most of this is surprisingly good-humored; and the group appears to be mostly of student age or near student age.
Someone in the group has a small boombox...and they're asking the cop that's assigned to face them if he knew he'd be with the dancing group. He and they find that funny, and so do I.
When both sides had achieved their full strength, just about 150 of the Warriors were present, and about 30 or so on the other side.
Who Actually Showed Up?
It's at this point that we need to say a few words about the makeup of the Prayer Warriors' group.
About 20% of the group was of student age, and the remaining 80% seemed to have been accompanying the Reverend. Of the students, my favorites were the "Straight Pride" group (6 people-I counted), all of whom had hand-lettered shirts with their message, front and back. One of the group chose to depart from the pattern of the others and put his own unique message on the back of his shirt...which is how we found the title of today's story:
"Wheres Are Special Day?"
Now it's easy to make fun of the foolish, but the group that the Reverend brought with him was another matter entirely--and by that I mean they were a bit...scary.
For starters, the group just oozed fear--and here's just one example. A woman was carrying a sign that read "My Athlete Is Safe At Home". When I walked up to her and asked what danger her athlete faced that would prompt such a message, the man next to her demanded to know who I was. When I asked him why he might ask such a question, both he and the woman holding the sign refused to say another word.
But the strangest display of paranoia came with the deployment of the Reverend's "fake police". He was surrounded by at least 8 men who were all trying to look exactly like plainclothes officers. It appeared to me that at least one, and maybe two of the "pro-gay" protesters might have been part of his group as well...but then again, that could just be my paranoia at work.
And here's another thing. The Reverend seems to surround himself with what appear to be current or former athletes...and to be honest, they kind of looked like the guys that pat each other on the butt just a bit too hard...and then go find a gay person to bash in order to prove their manhood.
I'm trying to be objective here, but to be completely honest, some of the Reverend's group looked like a pair of assless chaps and a leather baseball cap would be all they need to make the transition from "Prayer Warrior" to "Leather Daddy"...and at least one other gentleman looked like he might have a bit of a "wide stance" himself--if you know what I mean.
Statistics suggest that out of 120 who appeared to have come with the Reverend, more or less a dozen are gay...and in that group, staying in the closet is likely a matter of daily stress and strain.
Fear Of Contagion?
One other thing I found odd was the reluctance of the Reverend's group to remain in the near vicinity of the gay-supporting group. When the Reverend's group was forming they were within 20 feet of the other side, but by the time the whole group had assembled they had moved their core more than 50 feet away--and if I didn't know better, I'd say they did it because they were afraid that by being too close they too might "catch the gay", which, as I understand from their shouts, is apparently some sort of abomination that would instantly doom them to a life of...well, whatever it is, it must be pretty bad.
The requisite speech having been given and media footage having been captured, it was time for the event to end, as was indicated when one of the "fake police" told the group: "That's it, let's go".
And they did.
I saw the Reverend do a media stand-up afterwards, and he told the reporter that he wasn't ant-gay, or against the Day of Silence itself. What upset him, he reports, is that the event distracted from the learning environment (remember "Wheres Are Special Day"? I'd suggest that ship has already sailed), and that the event was allowed to occur during the school day.
And that's where we get to the "Pledge of Allegiance". As it turns out, the United States Supreme Court, in a series of cases that begin with Minersville has ruled that students have a "right of silence" that allows then the complete freedom to exercise this sort of protest. The fact that the Reverend was publicly not aware of this either speaks poorly of his own educational background or suggests he would prefer that topic not come up.
So that was pretty much it: the Reverend came to make his statement, he looked a bit silly doing it, 850 of the Prayer Warriors apparently had other things to do, his paranoia and fear were everywhere evident, and his use of "fake police" as a tool of intimidation appeared to intimidate no one.
I saw no minds changed on either side, roughly 60 students got a direct political education...and at least on one side, a fun time was had by all.
[Author's Note: Here's a little "what happened in 2009?" follow-up: I'm happy to report that this year, the Reverend was able to convince nearly one Prayer Warrior to attend.]