Trouble with T-shirts

Day of Silence shows bullying of local teens can cut both ways

It’s smiles all around at a Day of Silence rally at the state Capitol.

It’s smiles all around at a Day of Silence rally at the state Capitol.

Photo By Kel Munger

From Cierra Milton’s point of view, it’s not about the T-shirt.

“Look,” she said, “if they can wear their shirts, why can’t we wear ours?” The 15-year-old sophomore at Rio Linda High School told SN&R that school officials insisted she leave campus because she refused to take her shirt off.

The shirt in question, white with black lettering, was so crowded with words it was hard to read. It was the text of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, a list of all the people who won’t get into heaven, followed by the phrase “Christ Can Set You Free!”

Milton and her friends had worn the shirts on Friday, April 25, because they felt that one of the groups named in the verse was getting away with too much. Friday was the Day of Silence, in which chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance at schools across the country vowed not to speak all day in order to demonstrate how many times GLBTQI students are silenced by bullying. But Milton and her friends weren’t concerned with the fornicators, idolaters and adulterers. It was the homosexuals.

More even than her issues with gay rights, the fairness issue is what had Milton irate on this warm spring day. “They’ve got T-shirts with two boys and two girls holding hands,” she said. “I believe we should be able to wear our shirts, because they’re wearing their shirts.”

While Milton and her friends talked to SN&R, a pickup truck loaded with teens rolled past them. Whatever the teens inside yelled was unintelligible over the pounding beat from the truck’s stereo, but the tone was unmistakable. Milton flinched, then scowled. “Bad kids,” she muttered.

Last year, a number of students were suspended from area high schools for refusing to remove T-shirts that read “Sodomy Is Sin.” This year, students at Rio Linda who refused to remove the shirts were sent home. “They didn’t suspend me,” Milton said. “If they did, I could file a complaint about that and get a hearing.” This way, she was simply counted as absent, a violation of attendance policy.

Cierra Milton believes she should be able to wear her shirt if students in GSA can wear theirs.

Photo By Kel Munger

Wearing one of “their” shirts (which actually show three couples—one male, one male/female and one female—holding hands beneath the phrase “how you can help end the silence”) was Brittinnie McHugh, 16, a junior at Rio Linda. McHugh is out about being gay in high school, something older gays and lesbians can barely imagine.

“It went well today,” she said, smiling. “Last year was much worse.” She nodded her head toward the small group, including Milton, standing on the sidewalk just off campus. “They had protesters lined up all down the block last year. It was kinda scary.”

The Day of Silence has become a battleground both locally and nationally. Competing groups, including the Alliance Defense Fund, backed a Day of Truth, held on the following Monday, when some anti-Day of Silence students distributed cards offering to talk to others who wanted to “change” their orientation. Concerns about ongoing conflict between proponents of the two days led to the San Juan Unified School District posting a letter and sending it out to parents and local pastors, reminding them that both the Day of Silence and the Day of Truth were student-sponsored events and setting limits for student behavior.

Dave Terwilliger, principal at San Juan High School, told SN&R that the letter was intended to clarify matters for the community and help to “maintain peace and calm.” Late Friday afternoon, he said, “It’s been very quiet.” He also didn’t anticipate any problems on the Day of Truth.

But Milton and her friends didn’t wait for the Day of Truth. They countered the Day of Silence with T-shirts and signs. There was a pickup truck parked near their perch just off the Rio Linda campus with professionally printed signs that read “High School Censors the Bible” and “The Bible Is Not Hate Speech!”

The kids were vague about where the T-shirts came from and told SN&R that they didn’t all go to the same church. But present at the event was Luke Otterstad (see “A gay ole time in ‘Old Hangtown’” by Jason Probst, SN&R News, February 24, 2005), an outspoken member of an avowedly anti-gay church in Placerville, the Church of the Divide. Otterstad indicated that he was there in spontaneous support of the Rio Linda High School students.

According to Tiffinnie McHugh, Brittinie’s older sister and president of the school’s GSA group, the only incidents at Rio Linda High School were minor. “One girl was pushed and another girl was called names until she started to cry,” she said. Students didn’t make any complaints to the administration because “the kids doing it were in big groups, so we didn’t know who to make a complaint about.” Overall, both McHughs rated the faculty and staff at Rio Linda as very helpful and were grateful that things went so smoothly.

But the pushing and name-calling is exactly why the Day of Silence was started in the first place. At the Day of Silence/Night of Noise rally, held on the north steps of the state Capitol later that evening, speakers repeatedly stressed the importance of the Day of Silence as a way to raise awareness of and combat bullying.

Gretchen Bender, the vice president of the Sacramento County Board of Education, told a group of about 200 that the Day of Silence was “about making positive change by ending bullying. We need comprehensive anti-bullying initiatives.”

So it really isn’t about the T-shirts, despite the number and variety on display. It’s about protecting students from violence at school—and that includes the youth who are bullied for being “too religious” as much as the ones who are bullied for being “too gay.”