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Spirit Day: Celebs, presidential candidates send messages to LGBTQ youth

The anti-LGBTQ bullying campaign started in 2010 and takes place every year on the third Thursday of October.
Image: Rainbow Flag, Colombia Gay Pride Parade
Spirit Day, held on the third Thursday of October, has become "a megaphone for allies to send a unified message of acceptance and support to LGBTQ youth each year," said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD.RAUL Arboleda / AFP - Getty Images file

Shortly after Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi died by suicide in 2010, Canadian teen Brittany McMillan decided to do something about it: She created a Facebook event calling on people to wear purple — the “spirit” color of the rainbow pride flag — on the third Thursday of October to show that they stand against anti-LGBTQ bullying.

By the time the first Spirit Day took place on Oct. 20, 2010, it was already a worldwide phenomenon.

“Since then, it has evolved into more than just wearing purple, but ‘going purple,’ which is really quite amazing,” McMillan told NBC News in 2016.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, the LGBTQ media advocacy organization, said Spirit Day had become "a megaphone for allies to send a unified message of acceptance and support to LGBTQ youth each year.”

“In today’s divisive culture and political climate," she said, "LGBTQ people and allies need to be louder than ever to outshine bullies and tell young people that they will always be supported just as they are.”

As in past years, celebrities across the U.S. and beyond — from movie stars to sports teams — have shared messages of hope and empowerment with LGBTQ youth on Thursday, Spirit Day 2019.

And as a sign of how far Brittany McMillan’s dream has come, this year, several 2020 presidential candidates also shared their messages to LGBTQ youth.

“You’re incredible, you’re as good and better than anybody else, and don’t let people try to tell you you’re not,” former Vice President Joe Biden said. “Remember that, you’re special.”

In his Spirit Day video, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, noted that when he was in high school, “there was literally not one out person that I knew of.”

“When you do speak up, when you are willing to be yourself — which is not an easy thing — know that you are having an impact on other people that are looking to you who you might not even realize,” Buttigieg continued. “Be strong, be yourself, and know that it gets better.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told LGBTQ youth, “You have friends and you have people that have your back.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., let LGBTQ youth know they’re “not alone.”

“So do not ever silently suffer and know that you are deserving of respect and dignity and safety, and we will always fight for that,” Harris said in her video.

This year, the 10th annual Spirit Day, the event is more widely observed than ever, even as bullying remains a stubbornly common experience for LGBTQ youth. GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey found that 70 percent of LGBTQ students say they have been verbally harassed, and over half didn’t report it because they doubted adults in charge would intervene. In that same survey, 60 percent of those who did report bullying say that school staff either did nothing or told the reporting student to “ignore it.”

As awareness of the impact of bullying has spread, thanks in part to groups like the Tyler Clementi Foundation, several cases of LGBTQ suicides have made national headlines as examples of the dangerous consequences of bullying, which increasingly takes place online.

There was 9-year-old Jamel Myles from Denver who died by suicide after classmates bullied him for being gay. He had come out to his mother the summer before fourth grade and wore false fingernails on the first days of school.

And then there was Nigel Shelby, an Alabama high school freshman who died by suicide after facing bullying from classmates and unsympathetic school administrators who allegedly told him being gay was “a choice.” His mother, Camika Shelby, said administrators knew her son was having suicidal thoughts and did not tell her. Just last month, Tennessee teen Channing Smith died by suicide after sexually explicit texts he had sent to another boy were shared on social media.

Facing growing awareness that bullying increasingly takes place in cyberspace, Instagram took a stab at reducing it on the platform with a new set of features that would use artificial intelligence to tell commenters their posts are abusive, and also allow users to discreetly mute abusers.

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