By Spencer Harvey, GLAAD’s Communications Coordinator
In September 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi died by suicide after his roommate publicly released a video of him being intimate with another man. Sadly, Clementi’s death was far from the first like it, and it wouldn’t be the last: Earlier this year, Nigel Shelby, a 15-year-old gay Black teenager from Huntsville, Alabama, died by suicide; he had been bullied at school for being gay. Just weeks ago, 16-year-old Channing Smith from Tennessee died by suicide shortly after he discovered a classmate outed him as bisexual on social media.
Following Clementi’s death, then-high school student Brittany McMillan decided to take a stand against bullying that targets lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) youth. In collaboration with GLAAD, McMillan founded the first ever Spirit Day, which took place on October 20, 2010. The ask was simple: That people come together and wear the color purple, which symbolizes ‘spirit’ on the LGBTQ+ pride flag, as a way to take a stand against bullying and show support for LGBTQ+ youth.
In the years since the inaugural Spirit Day, there have been several positive developments within the landscape of LGBTQ+ rights and representation in America. In 2011, we saw the repeal of the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to serve in the military openly. In 2012, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay politician to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Just three years later, the Supreme Court declared that same-sex marriage was legal in all 50 U.S. states. In 2016, the Obama administration lifted the ban on transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. And by the end of 2016, GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance Report found that more young people were openly identifying as LGBTQ+, and the level of LGBTQ+ acceptance by non-LGBTQ+ Americans was higher than ever before.
Despite this progress, LGBTQ+ rights have since been at serious risk in the United States. In less than three years, the Trump administration has attacked the LGBTQ+ community at least 129 times in both policy and rhetoric, ranging from the administration’s transgender military ban, to Trump’s opposition to the Equality Act, to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s decision to roll back various Title IX guidelines that protect LGBTQ+ students. And as of this writing, the Supreme Court is deciding whether the identities of LGBTQ+ people are worth equal protection under the law, after hearing a series of cases that will determine whether it is legal to fire someone for being LGBTQ+.
In the era of Trump, acceptance for LGBTQ+ people has dropped within the United States. GLAAD’s most recent Accelerating Acceptance report found that erosion has mostly occurred amongst adults ages 18-34 — that’s millennials and Gen Zers. This finding suggests that although more young people are openly identifying as LGBTQ+, there is also an increasing number of non-LGBTQ+ people who say they are uncomfortable interacting with LGBTQ+ Americans in their everyday lives.
What’s more, GLSEN’s most recent National School Climate Survey found that 59.5 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 44.6 percent because of their gender identity. Additionally, 70.1 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported being verbally harassed at school based on their sexual orientation, while 59.1 percent reported verbal harassment based on their gender expression. The survey also found that only 12.6 percent of students reported that their school had a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy that protected students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — a statistic that becomes unsurprising when faced with the reality that fewer than half of U.S. states have anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws that protect students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
It is has also become painfully clear that social media platforms have the ability to elevate racist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic rhetoric, often initiated by the highest seat in American politics. As we watch this type of discrimination unfold online, it’s increasingly clear that certain groups have weaponized social media platforms as unsafe spaces that can lead to increased discrimination towards marginalized groups both virtually and on the ground. However, we’ve also witnessed how social media can be used to counteract this harmful narrative and mobilize people around the world to become positive change makers. That’s why Spirit Day remains more important and necessary than ever.
When you go purple on Spirit Day, you are not only taking a stand against bullying — you are sending a message to every young LGBTQ+ person in the world that you will fight for a world where they are fully accepted, validated, empowered, and loved. On Spirit Day, the power of purple is truly unmatched.
And that work can extend far beyond Spirit Day; we need to prioritize creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth on school campuses and in our everyday lives. According to GLSEN’s most recent National School Climate Survey, just over half of LGBTQ+ students reported that their school campus did not have a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) or a similar club. However, LGBTQ+ students that did report having these types of clubs on their campus cited higher levels of belonging, safety, and inclusion than those that did not. In many communities, these spaces are crucial for connecting LGBTQ+ students and allies, and providing greater representation for LGBTQ+ voices and issues. Starting a GSA on your campus is straightforward; GLSEN outlines 10 steps to make it happen. GLAAD also has over 190 Campus Ambassadors on 147 college campuses across America who work to accelerate acceptance for LGBTQ+ students. (To learn more about the program and how to connect with campus ambassadors on your campus, you can visit www.glaad.org/campus.)
You can call your state representative and tell them to pass legislation to protect LGBTQ+ students from bullying. Less than half of U.S. states have anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws that protect students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. If you believe that LGBTQ+ students should have legal protection from bullying under state law, call your own state representative and explain to them how LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately affected by bullying.
It’s crucial to know what resources are available to members of the LGBTQ+ community, whether you seek to use them yourself or you’re an ally looking to help a friend. The Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 39 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months; 54 percent of transgender and non-binary youth experienced similar considerations. The Trevor Project’s 24-hour TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386 is available for people who are in crisis, experiencing suicidal thoughts, or in need of someone to talk to. GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide also offers a variety of resources on proper LGBTQ+ terminology, understanding LGBTQ+ issues, and a directory of LGBTQ+ community resources.
Don’t remain a bystander to bullying and allow this vicious cycle to continue. Call out bullying when you see it in person or online. If you hear someone using homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic language, call it out and take the opportunity to educate them. If you are not comfortable or it is not safe in the moment, always know who you can contact at your school or in your local area to report these forms of bullying. Online spaces can be especially toxic places for people to use hateful rhetoric to target marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ youth. When people speak against this hateful behavior, it has the potential to create a community of action and sends a message to those being bullied that they are not alone.
Be accepting and supportive if someone in your life comes out to you. Although more young people are likely to openly identify as LGBTQ+ than ever before, coming out is still a vulnerable experience for many people. If your friend or family member decides to come out to you, they’ve likely chosen you for a reason; be open, accepting, and willing to listen. All coming experiences are different, and all deserve validation and respect. Always remember: The way you react to someone’s coming out can have a lasting impact on their life.
On October 18, it will be another 364 days until the world goes purple again. But at such a crucial time for accelerating acceptance for LGBTQ+ people, and especially LGBTQ+ youth, we don’t have any time to wait. Every day, we must continue to work towards a future where no person lives in fear of who they love, how they identify, or who they truly are.