“My silence echoes that of the victims of hate crimes,” the neon colored index cards I was given for distribution claimed. I was participating in the Day of Silence to raise awareness about a recent rash of harassment and assault that had taken place on University of Massachusetts Amherst campus in what is ostensibly one of the most LGBTQ friendly regions in the country. The speak-out the day prior had yielded accounts of being spat on and yelled at on the very patch freshly-trimmed lawn where we had gathered. Reclamation seemed somehow more tangible sinking into the damp earth as we read the stories of the larger community history of harassment, abuse, and murder. The pride I had in those who spoke from their own experiences was overwhelmed by the guilt that I could not, intensifying each time I heard an incident I had no real point of reference for.
The next morning, my late rising was complicated by my desire to find a way to make my silence visible. I cut a cloth square from an old shirt to tie around my mouth, and distracted by my own ingenuity, I headed out without anticipating the responses I would garner. Subconsciously afraid of the accusations the handkerchief might warrant from the strangers, I found it hard to make eye contact with passing students as I walked to the concrete behemoth where the conference was scheduled.
As I entered the familiarity of the space, I remembered how I had commented earlier that being around educated people made me feel safe: a ground of commonality, the parameters of civility sketched out in approximately wide enough for me to fit. I questioned that the moment the organizer and I made eyes contact; she hesitated and turned in my direction before tossing a trivializing remark my way. I looked at the ground in embarrassment, instantly sent back to all those moments in school I've spent hoping the teacher would not call on me for an explanation that somehow felt inadequate.
There are so many ways you can ask a question, so many eyebrow configurations, glares, and sighs. I forgot how quickly questions become challenges to one’s right to exist in a space. I forgot how being enveloped in difference feels marked. The day of silence is about remembering...
Throughout the day, I came to realize all of the instances that I use my voice other than to establish an authentic connection. The times I use it for pettiness, to project, to build walls, to swallow my own awkwardness, to convey insecurity. My growing awareness infused me with the determination to not use my silence for those ends as well.
I walked into the hall in between each session renewed with purpose, handing out cards to dozens of passer-bys, but only if they bothered to ask--through lingering eye contact, through a pained face, through an outstretched hand. Sometimes I felt respected, but I always felt alone. No one spoke to me the whole day, except a muscular blonde man clad in sports shorts and buzz cut. He said, "Thank you."