This essay was written in October of 2010 after DeviantART released this article supporting the Spirit Day movement to bring awareness to LGBT bullying.
I wrote it because there were so many comments on the official article that were defaming to one group or another that I felt the true issue had been lost in the rhetoric. The point of Spirit Day is to show solidarity and compassion for your fellow human beings. Not gay or straight or ill or handicapped - those categories don't matter. We're just humans, each flawed and each perfect. Spirit Day was an attempt to remind us of that.
I was confronted with two major arguments to this editorial in the original posting. One was that singling out LGBT suicides meant that I was putting more importance on that group than any other. For the purpose of the article, I suppose that's true. Spirit Day focused on LGBT issues, so the article (to an extent) does as well. But the steps outlined are steps one can and should take to end bullying of any kind.
The second argument was altogether more unsettling: "Bullying has been happening forever, so there's no point trying to stop it. Just teach kids to stand up for themselves instead." That attitude represents complacency, and complacency is how most of the world's atrocities are allowed to happen. Edmund Burke put it best: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing."
I urge anyone who reads this to continue the tradition of Spirit Day. I'll be wearing purple on October 19th, even if dA doesn't. Use your art, your words, your music. Use your voice to end intolerance, no matter what group it is directed toward.
The Purpose of Spirit Day
According to The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Spirit Day is "not dissimilar to the idea of 'Spirit Week' held in many high schools, and can be summed up in three words: Everyone Rally Together."
A string of suicides in the teenage population that occurred in direct correlation to LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgendered/Transsexual) bullying prompted teenager Brittany McMillan to organize the event. Its purpose was a simple one: to show other kids who may be being bullied for their sexual orientation that they are not alone, that there is support out there, and that they are valued. It is vitally important to the prevention of suicide that those at risk understand they have a support network. Spirit Day was one way to make that support network apparent.
The idea took on a life of its own once it hit the social network structure. Fan pages on Facebook garnered millions of hits. Hashtags on Twitter could be searched for millions of messages supporting Spirit Day, the LGBT community, and anyone who is being or has been bullied for any reason at all. Many celebrities chose to wear purple to show their support. Joel Burns, who gave an emotional speech at a city meeting appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and on the liberal news network MSNBC. He was wearing purple on both occasions.
In short, Spirit Day accomplished two goals. It helped bullied and oppressed teens everywhere see that they have a global support network, and it opened up conversation, at least within the United States, about how we can help put a stop to bullying, support our youth, and crack the wall of intolerance and hate that has so divided the country.
Why It Is Not Enough
When dA chose to support Spirit Day by releasing a news article and changing the color of the bar at the top of the website to purple, there was a backlash. This was to be expected, perhaps. There is a strong, misguided sentiment amongst dA users that dA staff should consult with us before making any changes to the function, look, or purpose of the website. There were several comments that requested an option to turn off the purple banner because it was unfair of dA to push LGBT agendas on their users.
It is important to note that dA is a business, and so can push whatever agendas they please. Yoplait helps push breast cancer research campaigns through their lids program. Target helps push academic excellence through their scholarship contest. Several companies participate in the Toys for Tots drive each Christmas season. Businesses are allowed to sponsor and support any causes they wish. No one is obligated to remain a customer of the business if the cause the business supports is found to be offensive.
If that were the extent of the disgruntlement over dA's color change, this editorial would not exist. Unfortunately, it was not. Most of the negative commentary on the Spirit Day article focused on the unfairness of a day aimed solely at LGBT related bullying. Arguments usually ran along the line that if the LGBT community really wants equality, they should stop bringing so much attention to themselves. Additionally, LGBT teens are not the only ones who experience bullying, and so Spirit Day should not focus only on them, but on everyone who has committed suicide or suffered harassment for any reason. There were also the inevitable comments which were purposefully derogatory toward the LGBT community, anyone who supports the LGBT community, and the very idea of Spirit Day.
dA is made up of millions of users from all over the world. It is therefore safe to say that viewing opinions left on the Spirit Day article gives us a fairly accurate measurement of the amount of intolerance that still exists towards the LGBT community. That measurement is still quite high.
Spirit Day made us stop long enough to notice an issue, a very specific issue that we can do something about. It was nothing more than a wake up call. Wake up calls are ultimately ineffective if we go back to sleep. In order for Spirit Day to actually mean something, we have to keep working toward finding a solution to the problem of harassment amongst our youth - for any reason - and to the problem of intolerance toward the LGBT community at large. Contrary to popular rhetoric, there are very simple, very specific ways to do this.
Step One: Look in the Mirror
I wrote a quick journal entry on Spirit Day itself in which I asked people to recognize their own biases and prejudices in a step to help end intolerance of any kind: "It can be very difficult to look at ourselves and recognize that each one of us carries some sort of ignorance, prejudice, or even hate toward another part of the population. We don't want to be bad people or to continue the cycle of oppression that has so divided the world through history. But neither do we want to recognize that change starts at the individual level."
This is a viewpoint that is well known, but rarely practiced in my experience. It is important - no matter who you are, what your religious belief is, or what ideologies you support - to approach each person as a person, not as merely a grouping of characteristics. If you are gay, you are not only gay. If you are straight, you are not only straight. These are simple ideas to understand, but we let ourselves get caught up in categorizing people instead of knowing them.
The first step to ending intolerance is to recognize it in yourself. Even if you wear your rainbow proudly, it is still vital to look in the mirror. Perhaps you are biased against Christians, or Republicans, or a specific sect of the LGBT community. Perhaps that bias doesn't make itself blatantly obvious, but slips into snide remarks about one group or another. The point is that no one is safe from prejudice, so we have to police ourselves. Pay attention to what you say, how you say it, and why.
Step Two: Reach Out to Others
Suicide is a mystery, if we're completely honest with ourselves. We don't know why it happens because we're still alive. The only people who know the real causes are the ones who are already dead. But it is also the only form of death that is 100% preventable, and the best documented way to prevent it is to be a friend.
If one of your friends seems down, ask about it. If she doesn't want to talk just then, be clear that she can come to you at any time for any reason without fear of judgment. If you notice someone in the halls of your school that might be lonely or considered an outsider, make an effort to include that person. Pick him for your team in P.E., ask to sit with him at lunch, make small talk between classes. Make sure he knows he's valued. There are few things more important to our mental and emotional well being than knowing someone gives a damn.
If you're an adult and notice a child or teen is getting bullied, do something to intervene. Talk to the parents of the child being bullied as well as to the parents of the bully or bullies. Inform school authorities of the situation. Open up communication between the people who have the authority to do something. And make yourself available to both the bullied and the bullies as a safe place to talk through frustrations. Often times, a bully has just as many problems as the kid he or she is harassing.
Basically, don't ignore the problem. In most cases, it will not go away on its own.
Step Three: Speak Up, Directly
This is probably the hardest step for anyone to follow, particularly when you're in school. It is also the most powerful and immediately impactful step.
When you see someone being bullied, don't look the other way. If you feel it is safe enough to do so, intervene directly by telling the bully to stop and staying with the bullied person until the bully is gone. If you don't feel the situation is safe for that kind of intervention, find an adult or a friend to back you up. There's safety in numbers. After the immediate incident is over, make sure that the behavior is reported to the proper authority.
That's right, be a tattle-tale. It might save a life.
But sometimes you need to speak up in a way that is less dramatic and much harder, and that is toward your friends. If you notice someone using terms like 'faggot' or 'that's gay', bring it to his or her attention and ask why those terms are used as insults. More likely than not, your friend won't have a ready made answer to that because the bias associated with those terms is a cultural one. It's one of those look in the mirror moments that people tend to avoid.
'Faggot' is no different than 'Nigger' in that it separates out one specific class of individual as substandard, and thus undesirable. It is an unconscious slur for the most part, and that's what makes it so dangerous. We know that most people don't actually mean to insult gay people when they use 'faggot' as an insult, but that's exactly what they're doing. Don't let it slide.
Step Four: Speak Up, Indirectly
This circles us back to what Spirit Day is all about, making people aware of the issue. In addition to talking to your friends, family, and co-workers, reach out to a larger audience. Write letters to your newspaper and politicians; start discussions on forums; participate in events like Spirit Day, Suicide Prevention Day, and TWLOHA Day; use your art to focus on the issue. Do whatever suits you best to further the cause of ending intolerance, and thus ending violence and harassment.
Stopping harassment doesn't require that you donate to a specific cause, march in any parade, or even wear a certain color. It only requires that you recognize the right of your fellow citizen to live without fear of harm and that you show no tolerance for actions that violate that right. It truly is that simple.