A SILENT PROTEST GETS A VOCAL RESPONSE
by Walter M. Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
DANVILLE, Pa. -- "Enraged" would be too mild of an adjective to describe the caller to Spectrum magazine, a national award-winning student-produced magazine for the permanent residents of two rural counties in northeastern Pennsylvania.
"Take my wife off of this circulation list. I don't know how she ever got on!" he demanded.
My business manager, a junior, asked what was wrong, thinking she might defuse his anger - or at least find out what bothered him.
"We don't believe in alternative lifestyles, and don't want to be associated with this!" he angrily shouted, and again demanded to be pulled from our circulation list. He didn't want to talk to the circulation manager or the editor; he didn't even want to tell us what infuriated him. He just didn't want his wife to receive the magazine.
The business manager politely thanked him for his call, took his wife's name off the subscriber list, and came to see me. My office is adjacent to the Spectrum office. I teach journalism at Bloomsburg University, and serve as editor-in-chief/advisor to Spectrum.
Together, we quickly went through the 20-story index - shorts, features, in-depth investigative reports, trying to figure out what in our recently distributed issue could cause such outrage. In a couple of minutes of rapid-fire thought, we finally made the connection.
The current issue was distributed within a week after the Day of Silence. The only connection was our name; at Danville High School, the only one of seven high schools in our circulation area to officially support the Day of Silence, the sponsoring club, with both gay and straight students, was also known as Spectrum.
The Day of Silence began in 1996 with 150 students at the University of Virginia. Ten years later, about 500,000 students from 4,000 schools participated in a silent day to send "a loud message from America's students that we must work harder to ensure safe and effective schools for every child," according to Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which works with the United States Student Association, in the annual event.
Last year, the Alliance Defense Fund initiated the Day of Truth to "counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda and express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective." About 2,800 students participated this year, according to the ADF.
In two meetings of the Danville Area School Board, parents had protested the forthcoming Day of Silence. They complained that students not saying anything for one of the 180 mandated school days would disrupt the entire educational process, apparently not understanding that education can also occur by reading, watching, and listening to others.
"Why are the rights of the majority trumped by the few?" asked one parent who gave a good impression of someone who may not have done well in basic civics when he was in high school. They also complained that the gay lifestyle promoted mortal sin; the Bible, they claimed, said as much. Donald Lee Fox, a 30-year-old conservative, delivered an impassioned speech, quoting Biblical text and called homosexuality "an abomination."
This was the same Donald Lee Fox once convicted of aggravated indecent assault upon a 15-year-old girl, who was sentenced to three to 10 months in prison, was on parole for four years, and is required to register as a Megan's Law offender. Apparently, being gay is a greater sin than sexual assault.
The Sunbury Daily Item, Danville NewsBloomsburg Press Enterprise, which circulate in Danville, ran articles about the controversy, and each ran a few signed letters to the editor. But it is in "30 Seconds" that the mood of the community is revealed. Each day, dozens of residents who listen to radio talk shows, but probably can't get past the screeners, call or write e-mails to the politically conservative anti-union Press Enterprise; each day, the 21,000-circulation newspaper publishes anywhere from a half-page to two full pages of these short usually anonymous snippets, some of which are recycled from the Internet or based upon what their callers heard on talk shows. Many comments contain at least one spelling or grammar error, and many contain pejorative phrases.
One woman talked about "divant lifestyles," while others talked about "queers" and "lesbos." Five weeks before the Day of Silence, one frightened resident called into "30 Seconds" to say, "What really scares me is the people with warped minds teaching our children that this behavior is O.K."
Another was "elated to see the sodomized, lesbians and transgendered agreeing to just shut up for one day... . Think all the perverts and those who support their offensive lifestyle nationally should just shut up for one day. What a blessing." One person, claiming to be an "opinionated student," said "I don't discriminate, but gay rights should not be shoved down my throat."
Several called the newspaper with flip comments, wanting days of silence for a variety of people, including the divorced, young pregnant girls, and bald-headed men. The Danville Area School Board came under attack for protecting "the whims of the sick and depraved liberal minority."
Some residents believed the Day of Silence was un-American, not understanding that the First Amendment also protects the right not to speak as well as the right to speak. Even the newspaper's editor became involved when he claimed the Day of Silence "was not a student-led event [but] was organized and promoted nationwide by adults," not so discretely implying that a few wrong-headed adults were manipulating a half-million teenagers. "Whatever happened to having a day of silence for putting prayer back into the schools?" asked one "30 Seconds" writer.
During the Day of Silence controversy, a United Church of Christ congregation near Danville became an independent church because the UCC General Synod approved same-sex marriage. However, many local ministers also gave their support to encourage tolerance - a couple of Protestant ministers even said that persons quoting the Bible to support opposition to homosexuality may have misinterpreted the Scripture or taken the words out of context.
But their voices were smothered by a blanket of invective.
By the time the actual Day of Silence arrived, the Press Enterprise reported there were 113 letters, call-ins, and e-mails, with two-thirds criticizing the "appropriateness of such a protest in school, condemned homosexuality or attacked Spectrum."
Between 25 and 30 percent of the student body (between 208 and 250 students) didn't go to classes on April 26, according to a statement from the school district; normal absenteeism is about five percent. Perhaps many stayed home to protest what they and their parents believed was absolute truth, that homosexuality is a sin; many who don't answer questions in class on any other day, perhaps, thought they'd be identified as gay if they showed up for class, or maybe just wanted a day off from school.
"It was a waste of an educational day," stated one caller to "30 Seconds" who believed "the teachers got to silently sit behind their desks and do nothing." One vituperative reader, a few days after the peaceful event, called to declare, "If anyone thinks gay militants will not resort to any means necessary to achieve their selfish goals, take time to research their barbaric, disgraceful, Nazi Storm Trooper tactics of disruption and intimidation . . ." But one woman called to praise the Spectrum students for their "example of dignity, reason, and restraint in the face of rank bigotry."
We don't know if our caller from Danville threw Spectrum magazine away before he showed it to his wife, whom he obviously was protecting against what he knew to be evil thought. What we do know is that the Pilgrims fled England because of intolerance, created equally intolerant societies, and that subsequent generations have falsely misunderstood and misused the Bible and the message of their Christ to taint houses of worship with racial, religious, and social biases and lies.
Unfortunately, intolerance is as much a part of our nation's past as of our present. Perhaps the students from Spectrum give hope for our future.
AR Correspondent Walter Brasch's latest books are "Unacceptable: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina," and "America's Unpatriotic Acts," a look at the use of the USA PATRIOT Act to suppress civil liberties and dissent. Contact Dr. Brasch at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.walterbrasch.com.