Photograph by Talia Cole
The Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) of Berkeley High School (BHS) hosted its fourth annual Break the Silence panel on April 25. The GSA also encouraged BHS students to take a vow of silence on April 27 for the National Day of Silence to show “solidarity with LGBT students who feel silenced every day due to fear of harassment, discrimination, and violence,” read the signs provided by Maxime Hendrikse Liu, one of the presidents of the GSA.
The Break the Silence panel aims to do just that for LGBT+ students, teachers, and faculty members at BHS by giving those willing to speak up for themselves and their community a platform to do so.
The panel also shows LGBT+ members of the BHS community that there are other people like them on campus and that it is possible to be out and happy at BHS, as stressed by Jaya Nagarajan-Swenson, a speaker on the panel and one of the presidents of the GSA. The panel also gave students advice on coming out.
The panel featured a diverse group of non-binary, bisexual, lesbian, gay, asexual, aromantic, and transgender students, teachers, and staff from many of the small schools at BHS. Some speakers on the panel attended both periods it was hosted, while others only spoke at one, bringing variety into the perspectives that were shared. The panel not only featured people from many communities within the LGBT+ community, but showcased many perspectives from people of color as well.
Many of the adult speakers in particular mentioned wanting to see people who looked like them and shared their experiences when they were growing up and coming to terms with their sexual or gender identity.
Leo Paniagua, a tenth grade student in Academic Choice (AC) who was on the panel, speaking from personal experience, encouraged people coming out to moderately heterosexist or cissexist family to be direct about what they need from their family instead of dancing around difficult topics. Hendrikse Liu also encouraged people preparing themselves to come out to potentially hostile or unsupportive family to set up a support network of friends before coming out to family.
Nagarajan-Swenson added that once they understood their sexuality better, they acted as if everyone already knew their sexuality so they would not formally come out to people at school and if their sexuality came up organically in conversation, they would be open if they felt safe.
Alix Abrahams, one of the presidents of the GSA, moderated the panel. Abrahams first asked the panel what they felt the best and worst parts of being LGBT+ at BHS were. “[While] I don’t think there is necessarily a best part of being a member of a marginalized community like the LGBT+ community, [the experiences I have gained] give me a stronger ability to empathize with people, which I really value,” said Paniagua.
“There are friends and people I know at this school who … don’t feel comfortable being themselves yet. And so I’m here for them,” Hendrikse Liu said when asked why the members of the panel chose to be there.
While the National Day of Silence and students taking vows of silence is one step for the LGBT+ community, Abrahams feels that there is still more that needs to be done to help. “Pledging silence for one day won’t do anything. Starting to understand the community will,” said Abrahams.