Promoting Anti-LGBTQ Bullying in Schools: Focus on the Family’s “Day of Dialogue”

About Cole Parke

Though framed as a “free-speech initiative” dedicated to preserving students’ “religious freedom,” Focus on the Family’s annual Day of Dialogue functionally serves as an anti-LGBTQ promotional vehicle, encouraging and equipping young Christians to express condemnation of homosexuality and “transgenderism” to their LGBTQ peers.

Day of Dialogue (DoD) emerged as a response to the National Day of Silence (DoS), an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which aims to bring attention to anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. Participants take a daylong vow of silence, symbolically representing the constant institutional silencing of LGBTQ students and their allies. This year’s DoS will be observed on April 17th. As is true every year, DoD is scheduled to take place the day before.

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Day of Silence: This youth-led advocacy campaign—valued by many as an important time of protest, reflection, remembrance, and solidarity—traces its history back to 1996, when a group of students at the University of Virginia organized the first DoS in response to a class assignment on nonviolent protests. Encouraged by the success of their event, UVA students Maria Pulzetti and Jessie Gilliam made it their mission to turn DoS into a nationwide campaign, and the following year, similar actions took place at nearly 100 college and university campuses. By 2008, students at over 8,000 schools across the country were making their silence felt, and the campaign has become increasingly widespread—DoS events are now organized around the world, in places like Russia, Singapore, and New Zealand.

Beginning in 2005, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund) launched the precursor to DoD—“Day of Truth,” an anti-LGBTQ response designed to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda.” Focus on the Family (FOTF) took over and rebranded the project in 2010.

Decrying Day of Silence as anti-Christian intolerance, FOTF argues that “students who dare to share a biblical viewpoint are made to feel like they’re doing something illegal.” In effect, they are trying to flip the script on who’s oppressed and who’s oppressive in order to defend anti-LGBTQ bullying. While DoD materials explicitly denounce bullying, as Zach Ford, editor of ThinkProgress LGBT at the Center for American Progress, points out, “Even if DoD participants do not attack or harass their targets, the stigma they encourage through condemning homosexuality helps maintain an unsafe climate for students with consequences that can last a lifetime.”

Sadly, anti-LGBTQ stigma needs no encouragement. While many LGBTQ advocates have celebrating significant legal gains (such as marriage equality) across the country in the last few years, schools continue to be hostile and dangerous environments for LGBTQ young people—who may face bullying or intimidation by fellow students, teachers, administration officials, or other students’ parents. According to GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, 74 percent of LGBT youth nationwide were verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 55 percent because of their gender expression. As a result of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month alone.

Homo lockerAnd the consequences of an anti-LGBTQ climate are real and devastating: students who have experienced prejudice-motivated bullying and victimization are more likely to attempt suicide, become clinically depressed, or contract a sexually transmitted disease by early adulthood.

In response to overwhelming evidence that LGBTQ young people are disproportionately targeted for bullying and harassment (and the tragic consequences of this persecution), social justice advocates have been rallying support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) since 2010.

Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which addressed discrimination on the basis of sex, SNDA would expressly prohibit discriminatory treatment towards students on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools. While federal statutory protections currently address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability, no such federal protections exist for LGBTQ people. As the National Center for Lesbian Rights explains, SNDA seeks to address this discrimination loophole [for public school students] by providing them with “meaningful legal recourse and effective remedial option in a manner that is similar to other civil rights claims made under the 14th Amendment.”

However, the Religious Right—backed by a coalition of right-wing legal institutions, including ADF, the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), Liberty Council, and The Becket Fund—argues that Christians are the true victims of persecution in need of protection—in bakeries, in flower shops, and in schools across the country (reinforcing their false framework of Christianity vs LGBTQ people, which completely discounts the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people who are also Christian). This is the oppositional force behind the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws that are cropping up in state after state—laws that functionally aim to redefine religious liberty as a right to discriminate on the basis of an individual’s beliefs or non-beliefs. This corruption of religious freedom protections from something that once served as a shield to protect individual beliefs into something that is increasingly used as a sword of religious authoritarianism is a threat to anyone who falls outside of the Religious Right’s narrowly defined moral vacuum and the very foundation of pluralism the U.S. was built upon.

While bullying, harassment, violence, and isolation continue to prematurely end the lives of LGBTQ young people, the organizers of DoD insist that young Christians are the real martyrs. As part of their ongoing effort to paint Christians as innocent victims of the “homosexual agenda,” ADF has pledged to provide pro-bono legal assistance to any DoD participants who “encounter unconstitutional roadblocks to their free speech rights.”

Sadly, free speech is only a privilege of the living. Had suicide not robbed us of their presence, Taylor Alesana, Tyler Clementi, Blake Brockington, Seth Walsh, Maddie Beard, and countless other young LGBTQ victims of suicide would probably have a lot to say about who is being persecuted and who is not.

Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.