It appears as if the only time we hear minority voices is when they are arguing for “special rights” like reparations for slavery, protection against sexual harassment and freedom to marry members of the same sex. In a time of national crisis since the fall of the World Trade Center and the now active military engagement against terror in Iraq, shouldn’t we all be uniting as Americans, content with the very society in which we live? Besides, America was born with the notion of tolerance and has become increasingly more liberal in terms of minority issues. For example, from gays on “The Real World” and “Queer as Folk” to the success of many African-American thug rap artists on MTV, our media has gone a long way toward making various subcultures acceptable and mainstream. Shouldn’t we be content with what appears to be a growth of tolerance, especially among American youth?

It is true that the average American is far more tolerant than in previous generations; however, thousands and perhaps millions of people still face the residual prejudices of old such as racism, sexism and homophobia.

Unfortunately, the mainstream caricatures of minorities and especially of queer folk inadequately represent those who have been silenced by fear of bigotry, hate and discrimination. Sure, the depictions of African-Americans as violent ghetto ruffians and of gay men as limp-wristed pretty boys with insatiable sex drives may be common, but are they positive reflections of reality or simply marketable stereotypes that enchain people to false notions of identity? We, as proud Americans, all have the right to free speech as well as to remain silent and it is our patriotic duty to use both effectively, especially when the motive is the promotion of equality for all.

As a closeted gay black male growing up in a small community in Southern California, I spent 18 years of my life in silence trying hard to conceal my identity in order to prevent anything I said or did from being used against me. Needless to say, being the unathletic weakling that I was, my efforts were futile. I was branded the school faggot as early as the 6th grade, before I even knew what being gay meant. Every day I feared being tortured or threatened verbally and physically. In one incident I was socked in the stomach and pinned against the gym lockers by one of the school bullies, who continued to ask me if I was “fuckin’ gay” and to whom I always replied no, but it was never enough. Rejection only magnified this torment, as the other guys in the locker room appeared to enjoy the spectacle, which ended with my head being smashed onto a solid oak bench. I remember being so ashamed of everything I was that I felt better off dead. Even now I keep quiet when I hear groups of guys, some of whom are my own friends, use the terms “faggot” and “gay” like household names for anything that is inferior. Four years later, I still live in fear of being humiliated and slandered.

It is no surprise that gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than any other group in America. In addition, recent studies have shown that 30 percent of all youth suicides are related to sexual identity. Certainly the fact that thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight youth alike are continuously being harassed at every corner with derogatory slurs and physical assault does little to ameliorate the situation. Many of them live in fear and silence as I did just to prevent being ridiculed, while others do so because their very lives could be in danger.

It is for this reason that I encourage anyone who wishes to support equality for all, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, to participate in the National Day of Silence this Wednesday. The time of silencing will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can show your support by cheering on the many Gauchos and approximately 100,000 students nationwide who are making a powerful statement by using their right to remain silent. Participants will be meeting between the Arbor and Davidson Library from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., followed by a discussion session in the MultiCultural Center at 5:30 p.m., so please feel free to take time to bear witness to this monumental event in the history of UCSB.

Toney Henry is a senior French and global studies major.