The lesbian couple behind the National Day of Silence

By Beverly Greene

Who says that our youth are too self-centered and lazy to make any real difference in our world today? The National Day of Silence is a perfect example of how the vision of one young woman can become a passionate appeal for humanity and how that one small objective spiced with a lot of determination can grow into international activism and awareness.

The National Day of Silence started as nothing more than a passing idea while writing a history paper in the mind of a recently out University of Virginia student in 1996. Realizing what a powerful notion she had, Maria Pulzetti refused let a good idea simply fade away. So, utilizing what resources she had available to her, she set out to bring her idea into the light of reality.

As a new member of the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Union at her university, Maria wanted to be a part of the upcoming University of Virginia Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Awareness Days week in April of 1996. She says "I wanted to do something for BGLAD week that would impact many people at the school and that would be very visible. I knew that if we held panel discussions and events like that, the only people who would come would be the people who already were fairly aware. I also wanted to event to involve straight allies."

After her history-paper-inspired brain storm, she took her idea to the officers of the LGBU and working with their suggestions, she developed her concept into a working plan. With only a few weeks to bring everything together, the National Day of Silence was born.

That first year was a great success, with many University of Virginia students participating in the silent protest against hatred and homophobia, half of which were heterosexual allies. Due the amount of response her vision got, the press quickly picked up on the story, giving Maria a chance to take her message to a larger public.

One of those participants the first year was Jessie Gilliam. She was deeply moved at what she saw going on around her. She couldn't help but notice the impact the silence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and allies had on the other students, the faculty, and the staff. Sitting in the dining hall, she looked around and saw a room filled with students wearing stickers and handing out the purple cards which explained their reason for silence. She couldn't help but think, "This is an idea that can really make an impact on people." Jessie goes on to say that "The Day of Silence was really different from other events that had gone on at the University of Virginia in previous years, for unlike events such as rallies, people who did the Day of Silence were everywhere." Because of this obvious amount of support for equality, Jessie says that she "felt a lot more able to talk and be open in classes, knowing that I had allies surrounding me."

Maria and Jessie first met one another in a Modern American Literature class where they were assigned to be editing partners. They became instant friends, a friendship which grew over the summer between their freshman and sophomore year. On September 21st of their sophomore year, they celebrated their mutual birthdays together on their first official date.

Still dreaming of making her brain child into a truly national event, Maria began searching for ways to make it happen. With no money, no real contacts, and no idea of how to make what had been a relatively small scale event into a national day of awareness, she began using what resources she did have available to her, the Internet. In October of 1996, Maria began sending out E-mails to every lgbt college student list she could find, letting them know about her National Day of Silence and the success it had enjoyed at the University of Virginia. After getting several responses from interested persons, Maria began to truly believe that it was possible.

It was at this point that Maria decided to ask Jessie to co-chair the event with her. Jessie happily accepted the invitation. When Maria attended the NGLTF Creating Change Conference in Washington, D.C., Jessie set out to find even more E-mail lists, individuals, and organizations to contact. They began keeping a list of who they had contacted on index cards, which has since been transferred to Excel files. Their collection quickly grew to include around 500 contacts, at least 100 of whom they knew were planning National Day of Silence participation.

Time passed and interest grew. Maria and Jessie attended the MTSU "And Liberty For All" LGBT student conference where they were able to share their silent activism idea. The people that they meet through these types of conferences and through seeking out organizations online provided the much needed assistance in spreading the word.

During this time, they also helped put on another National Day of Silence at the University of Virginia. This second time around, over 200 people participated. However, this experience showed Jessie and Maria just how much more work needed to be done before their now shared vision could be truly realized. Realizing that there was no way that two people, no matter how dedicated, could do all of the required work, they set out to find other volunteers who could help them get the information out there, aid other organizations in setting up a Day of Silence, and help them keep track of all of the participating organizations. Their pleas for help were answered and the National Day of Silence now has eight volunteers, contributing their ideas on how to improve the Day of Silence as much as coordinating talents.

But perhaps the most inspiring story starts before the National Day of Silence was ever conceived. Maria Pulzetti went to a New England high school where she dedicated herself to excelling in her studies. Being at a very lgbt positive high school, she learned to be accepting, however she still shied away from any thoughts about her own sexual orientation. It was not until she went to the University of Virginia on a scholarship that she found herself in a world where heterosexuality was the only acceptable norm. It was because of this that Maria finally began looking into her own soul, searching for the answers to her questions, hoping to find the reason why she felt like she didn't belong in their heterosexually dominated world of sororities and boy-girl dances.

This proved to be a very difficult time for Maria, not only adjusting to the strange new experiences that college life brings, but also facing for the first time the feelings that she had about her own sexuality. Being far from home and her always supportive family, Maria felt completely alone in her journey, with no one she felt she could turn to. But, the human spirit is a strange and marvelous thing that more times than not will find a way to do what has to be done. Maria found this out one Sunday morning during her second semester when she says she literally woke up and felt ready to deal with her sexual identity, labels and all.

Maria says of the experience, "I know it sounds very corny to say that I just woke up and KNEW, but honestly, that's what happened. As soon as I knew what the answer was, everything seemed to fit together, and I was so relieved and happy. The next week was one of the most exciting times of my life. Suddenly, an entire new world -- a world of being sure of my identity, a world where I could feel that I had a sexuality, a world where life made a lot more sense. Coming out to myself was probably the most positive experience I have ever had."

Years before Maria's personal revelation, Jessie Gilliam was experiencing something very similar. Around the age of 13 or 14, Jessie knew that she was a lesbian. Unfortunately, she was not lucky enough to enjoy an lgbt positive high school as Maria was. The halls of her Virginia high school were filled with derogatory comments and name calling. Because of this pressure, Jessie remained in the closet except to a few friends and her family. Despite graduating as the Valedictorian of her class, she says that she "still felt that no one would support me if I came out."

At first, Jessie found the atmosphere at the University of Virginia to be little different than that of her high school. In fact, her first college experience was with her roommate, who she had yet to even move in with, declaring "I'm not a lesbian, by the way." Fortunately, as Jessie became more and more comfortable with her new life as a college student in this strange new world, she became more confident with herself and came out to a few people and eventually even her roommate, who Jessie says "came around and became one of my strongest supporters."

It was here that Maria's vision became a part of Jessie's dream of a better world, setting into motion what would become the partnership that is now the driving force behind The National Day of Silence. Jessie read an article in the paper about the Day of Silence which Maria had written. Jessie says that "seeing her words on paper really inspired me to activism." Starting the first semester of her sophomore year, Jessie became active in both lgbt and feminist issues, joining the University of Virginia's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Union and eventually becoming an officer in the National Organization for Women.

Jessie says of her experiences, "I have found that being very open about my sexual orientation inspires respect from people: many University of Virginia students, even student leaders, have never meet a lesbian before, or considered gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues, and meeting a 'real live' lesbian really makes a difference to them in terms of supporting lgbt issues. We have had our share of homophobic incidents from being active on campus -- but the positive experiences, even at this conservative school, far outweigh the negative."

Since it's creation, the National Day of Silence has undergone a few major changes, largely due to the fact that it is publicized by more than just the National Day of Silence committee. This is wide-spread attention is a dream come true for both Jessie and Maria, even allowing them the honor of being awarded the 1997 Campus Based Civil Rights Initiative Award for their hard work and dedication, an event to which Maria and Jessie were accompanied by Jessie's ever supportive mother. However, they do wish that people would take the time to let them know that they are participating so that the organization can be registered with the other participants, proving just how effective this activism tool has become.

Maria and Jessie, happily together and still enjoying the support and love of their families, continue their work and have no intention of letting up any time soon. They both realize just how much they have to offer this world and no matter what anyone tries to tell them about the youth today or about the "true nature" of lesbians, they will keep fighting until the silence is finally stopped and the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered persons, and our allies are truly heard.

You can learn more about The National Day of Silence, including information on how you can get involved by visiting their website at: http://wsrv.clas.virginia.edu/~mkp6n

The author of this article, Beverly Greene, can be reached at poetica@intouch.bc.ca. Her web page is at http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/1769/