Joel Burns, Drew Ginsburg, Bonnie Blossman to headline kickoff at Dish on eve of annual in-school protest to draw attention to anti-gay bullying

KEEPING IT DOWN  |  A group from Youth First Texas held a silent flash mob at Rosa Parks Plaza in Downtown Dallas on the Day of Silence in April 2010. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

KEEPING IT DOWN | A group from Youth First Texas held a silent flash mob at Rosa Parks Plaza in Downtown Dallas on the Day of Silence in April 2010. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

The new Greater Dallas chapter of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network will be formally unveiled at an event at Dish on Cedar Springs Road on April 19. That precedes GLSEN’s National Day of Silence the next day.

The local GLSEN was rechartered and has operated since early this year. Area celebrities who have spoken out about bullying will introduce the new chapter at an event called Awaken.

“We wanted to have some sort of coming out,” GLSEN Greater Dallas Chair James Tate said.

Among those appearing at Awaken will be Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, who will speak about how his “It Gets Better” speech went viral, changing his life and the lives of others.

Two reality TV stars will also appear. Drew Ginsburg from Dallas Most Eligible will speak about his personal experiences with bullying.

“My hope is GLSEN brings bullying to the spotlight in Dallas,” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg was bullied because of his size, because he was dyslexic and because he was gay.

“I was called gay before I knew I was gay,” he said. “It took an emotional toll on me that took years to get over. Children need to learn in a positive learning environment.”

Bonnie Blossman from Big Rich Texas has supported the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Trevor Project, and is now also backing the work of GLSEN.

“I will attend to continue our campaign against bullying and make a strategic move to increase awareness and promote the prevention of bullying in Dallas and surrounding area schools,” Blossman said. “By empowering schools with a solid plan and support of the prevention of bullying, we hope to do our part to make a difference for our youth who struggle with bullying by their peers.”

One of GLSEN’s signature events is the National Day of Silence — which this year will be the day after Awaken, on Friday, April 20.

Day of Silence is an action where students in thousands of schools remain silent for all or part of the day to call attention to discrimination, harassment and bullying of LGBT students.

According to Lambda Legal, students have a right to participate in most circumstances.

School officials may not discriminate against students because they do not like the message. However, a student does not have the right to refuse to answer a question in class.

A Lambda Legal document released in March 2012 said, “Students who want to remain silent during class on the Day of Silence are less likely to encounter problems if they seek permission from their teachers beforehand.”

“What they can’t do is discriminate on the basis of message,” Lambda Legal Supervising Senior Staff Attorney Ken Upton said.

He said that in some schools, refusal to speak in class is considered disruptive, and he recommended answering questions. Schools do need to protect the right of a student to participate in the Day of Silence during extracurricular activities, lunch or between classes.

He laughed at the idea that any teacher would think that a class full of quiet students is disruptive.

SPEAKING CARDS  |  GLSEN recommends handing out cards like this one on the Day of Silence.

SPEAKING CARDS | GLSEN recommends handing out cards like this one on the Day of Silence.

“Silence, in and of itself, is not disruptive,” he said. “If someone senses their school is not allowing them to participate for other reasons, contact the Lambda Legal help desk.”

Tate said schools with Gay Straight Alliances are more likely to be cooperative, but he has already heard from students in schools without GSAs.

For students at schools without GSAs, he suggested students follow live-tweeting of the day from GLSEN’s national office to be part of something bigger.

“We expect more schools than ever to participate,” Tate said.

Since GLSEN Greater Dallas was rechartered this year, he has worked with a number of new groups including a GSA at Richland College. He’s also heard from students and faculty from schools across the Metroplex looking for help on how to take part.

On Friday evening, GLSEN will be part of a Breaking the Silence party.

“Youth First Texas reached out to us and offered their facilities,” he said.

YFT Board Chair Chris-James Cognetta said the group has materials related to the Day of Silence at the youth center.

“Anyone who wants to participate can pick up buttons, stickers, fliers, information cards,” he said.

He said that his group is recommending using surgical masks or bandanas rather than duct tape over the mouth and recalled some duct tape-mouth mishaps at last year’s Day of Silence.

On Day of Silence, YFT’s doors open at 4 p.m. The group will break the silence together at 6:30 p.m. A sit-down dinner begins at 7 p.m., followed by a dance with a

DJ until 11 p.m. Everyone 22 and under is welcome.

“Over age 25, anyone can volunteer,” Cognetta said.

A counterprotest to Day of Silence is planned by the hate group Focus on the Family, which has designated April 19 as the Day of Dialogue.

“In contrast to the whole idea of silence, this is a day that encourages open dialogue,” the organization explained on its website.

However, the purpose does not appear to promote understanding but to preach the group’s version of Christianity.

“The Day of Dialogue gives you, as a student, the opportunity to express the true model presented by Jesus Christ in the Bible,” they wrote.

“His example calls us to stand up for those being harmed or bullied while offering the light of what God’s Word says.”

Tate doesn’t expect many students locally to participate in the hate group’s event.

Instead, he said he was happy with the progress GLSEN has made in just a few months in Dallas. School administrators, faculty and students have begun finding his group and  using it as a resource. His Day of Silence will begin when he speaks about diversity at UT Dallas.

For Pride Month, Frito Lay reached out to GLSEN Greater Dallas to do an exhibit on bullying for its Plano corporate headquarters. Tate said his group is working on a series of story boards featuring local LGBT youth who have been bullied that will be exhibited at the company in June.

“It’s really coming together much faster than we expected,” Tate said.

Awaken, Dish at ilume, 4123 Cedar Springs Road. April 19. 7–9 p.m. $12.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 13, 2012.