It’s no secret that bullying is a pervasive problem in schools. And LGBT students are frequent targets of anti-gay slurs and assaults. According to a 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 90 percent of LGBT students reported being harassed at school –a harrowing statistic.
The recent publicized cases of harassment and bullycide motivated teen activist Brittany McMillan to take action. In 2012, she came up with Spirit Day, when students, teachers, and professionals would “go purple” in support of LGBT youth. The idea spread like wildfire with help from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). This year, millions of people –including celebrities like Shay Mitchell and George Takei– have pledged to don purple gear on October 19.
We chatted with McMillan about bullying, activism, and the “20 Days of Action” preceding Spirit Day.
How did you come up with the idea for Spirit Day?
“I came up with the idea for Spirit Day from a day we celebrate here in Canada called Anti-Bullying day. On Anti-Bullying day, people wear pink all over the country in support of a boy who wore a pink t-shirt and was bullied for it. Wearing a certain color is something that everyone can participate in for free and if enough people do it, then it’s easy to see as well.”
What does the color purple symbolize for LGBT activists?
“The color purple represents ‘spirit’ on the rainbow flag. When I was deciding what color people should wear, I wanted people to have the spirit to stand up to bullying and/or the spirit to keep going even if they were struggling through a hard time. Thus the name, ‘Spirit Day.’”
Did you or someone you know personally experience bullying because of their sexual orientation?
“I do not know anyone personally who has been bullied because of their sexual orientation. But I do know quite a few people who have been bullied, myself included. When I first entered high school, I was bullied for two years. At the same time, I was suffering from depression and the bullying only succeeded in making it all the worse. There was a long time where I struggled with suicide, which is why it is so important to me to stop people from bullying others. For me, my reasons for suicide were because the chemicals in my brain were messed up, but for these kids, they were being bullied by outside forces, people who hated them and weren’t important. I can’t even imagine how that would feel.”
Did you ever expect Spirit Day to become such a huge event?
“Not at all! You always get those Facebook events (which I hate) and usually you brush them off, ignore them until it’s too late. But with Spirit Day, people actually looked at it and they felt it was important, which was amazing. I couldn’t believe so many people were so supportive. Truth be told, I was ecstatic when 100 people agreed to participate. I had no idea what to do with myself when 2 million people wore purple!”
What was the best piece of feedback you’ve received about Spirit Day?
“The first piece of feedback… well, I did ask people for opinions on whether or not they thought it was a good idea before I really threw the idea out there. A bunch of people thought it would be a great idea. Once again, there was a lot of support and people wanting to help spread the word.”
Do you have an outfit planned for this year?
“I’ve been thinking about it. For the last two years I’ve just worn my HUMAN shirt by Tyler Oakley. It has a bunch of different types of people listed on it (black, white, man, woman, Christian, atheist, rich, poor, middle class, gay, straight, etc.) and it is purple, which is awesome. It’s so fitting because equality is what Spirit Day is all about! But this year, I feel I should step it up. I’m not quite sure what I’m wearing, but I want to wear more purple and probably something a bit more professional than a t-shirt (considering I have tons of places to be in New York that day!).”
What other projects do you support as an activist?
“My starting point was Free the Children. Craig Kielburger has been my idol for as long as I can remember. I think I learned about him and his charity in first grade. And all through elementary and a huge chunk of high school, I was involved in fundraising projects and spreading awareness about poverty and child labor. I was also interested in environmentalism for a long while. I’m not so into it anymore –because I don’t have time– but I try to do my part, whether that is never using plastic water bottles, recycling, or printing on both sides of the page.”
What are some other ways we can get involved in addition to wearing purple?
“This is a good question because this year, GLAAD and I have worked together to come up with ‘20 Days of Action.’ For the 20 days leading up to Spirit Day, there will be an action a day that you can participate in. The tasks range from sending a letter of appreciation to an LGBT-friendly church, to watching a TV show with LGBT characters, to tweeting your favorite celebs to wear purple on Spirit Day! In addition, we will be running a text-to-give campaign this year where we will collect text donations and give to organizations that provide safe environments for LGBT youth.”
What advice would you give to LGBT youth who are bullied?
“Besides the standard: it gets better or keep on going, I’d tell them my favorite quote. “Be who you are and say what you feel because those that mind don’t matter and those that matter won’t mind.” The people who are important to you will love you for you, and not for your orientation. If they can’t accept that and let you find love, then you don’t need them. You are special and important and you deserve to be happy. Don’t end your life for people who aren’t worth it.”
Images via GLAAD.org