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On Anti-Bullying 'Day of Silence,' the Religious Right Cheers on the Bullies

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Today, students across the country will take a vow of silence to protest anti-gay bullying and harassment in schools. The Day of Silence, an annual event organized by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.

But all this silence has made the religious right very uncomfortable.

The American Family Association and the Liberty Council have called for boycotts of schools that allow students to participate in the Day of Silence. But the prominent anti-gay group Focus on the Family has gone even further, organizing a rival event -- the "Day of Dialogue" -- for students who want to tell their classmates "what the Bible really says about His redemptive design for marriage and sexuality." The organization is encouraging students to come to school on Monday armed with "conversation cards" and ready to talk about how they think being gay is wrong.

The "Day of Dialogue" is extraordinarily well marketed and designed to seem non-threatening -- participants pledge to "stand up for students around me being teased, bullied or harmed for any reason" -- but it takes its place firmly in the religious right's long and concerted effort to stop anti-bullying programs in schools.

In fact, the "Day of Dialogue," with its playful logo and friendly marketing materials, is a direct successor to the "Day of Truth," an event that was until last year run by Exodus International, an "ex-gay" group that organized the event to "counter the promotion of homosexual behavior" in schools. One of the Day of Dialogue's organizers is Jeff Johnston, an "ex-gay" activist, who says the event is meant to help "people who messed up sexually."

The religious right's campaign against anti-bullying programs, documented in a new report by People For the American Way, has been raging since school districts first started trying to recognize and confront anti-gay bullying. And it has since the beginning focused on the same set of myths.

In an absurd feat of fear-mongering, religious right activists like to claim that anti-bullying programs that acknowledge the widespread bullying of gay and gay-perceived teens, are in fact undercover "homosexual indoctrination." Candi Cushman, Focus on the Family's education analyst and the driving force behind the Day of Dialogue, calls anti-bullying programs "homosexuality lessons," and claims that anti-bullying advocates want to "capture the hearts and minds of our children at their earliest stages." The Family Research Council and the American Family Association have also gleefully peddled this myth.

These activists also often add that anti-bullying programs that include the recognition of anti-gay bullying amount to "special rights" for LGBT students, leading to what Cushman calls "reverse discrimination" against Christian students.

The anti-anti-bullying campaign also seeks to paint gay rights groups as the bullies and opponents of gay rights as the victims of bullying. A Family Research Council official said that bullying prevention efforts would force Christian students "in the closet." One of the leaders of the ultra-conservative Liberty Council called anti-bullying programs a "homo-fascist tactic to stifle any dissent."

And, in perhaps the cruelest part of the movement to protect bullies, religious right leaders have claimed that the gay rights movement, and young gay people themselves, are responsible for anti-gay harassment and the high suicide rate among gay youth. The Family Research Council's Tony Perkins wrote in the Washington Post that gay teens may be led to suicide because they "recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal." The American Family Association's Bryan Fischer suggested "adults that pressure these students to declare a disordered sexual preference when they are too young to know better...share some culpability for those who take their life."

The anti-anti-bullying effort shows the staggering extent of the religious right's campaign to prevent the recognition and acceptance of gay people in all parts of society -- and their desperation as more and more Americans, especially young people, want their gay friends and family members to enjoy equal rights. The Day of Dialogue's marketing is slick and its content carefully focus-grouped, but its true message is clear: as clock ticks on the religious right's anti-gay agenda, the Right's leaders know that intolerance, exclusion, and polarization can start at an early age, but they've "got to be carefully taught."

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