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Spirit Day 2021: 'Renewed importance' to protect LGBTQ youths

Millions of people worldwide are wearing purple Thursday to stand up against the bullying of LGBTQ youths.
Image: Spirit Day
Symone, GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis and Kevin Shapiro light the Empire State Building in honor of Spirit Day-Take The Pledge Against Bullying in New York City on Thursday.Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images

Spirit Day is an annual celebration in which millions of people around the world show their support for LGBTQ youths and stand up against bullying by wearing purple — the "spirit" color of the rainbow Pride flag — on the third Thursday of October.

Brittany McMillan, 27, of Canada, launched the yearly tradition in 2010 after she read on Tumblr about nearly a dozen LGBTQ youths who died by suicide that September, she said.

"At the time, I would have been 15 or 14, and some of the kids that were committing suicide were even younger than that, and that was hard to see," said McMillan, an elementary school teacher. "So, I just wanted to spread awareness and say: 'This isn't OK.'"

With the backing of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, McMillan launched the first Spirit Day on Oct. 20, 2010.

Since then, Spirit Day has become a global phenomenon, with celebrities — from drag queens to sports teams — coming out against the bullying of LGBTQ kids, which remains pervasive in the U.S.

A study this year by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, found that more than 52 percent of LGBTQ middle and high schoolers report having been bullied in person or online. Transgender youths also report higher rates of bullying than cisgender gay, lesbian and bisexual youths — 61 percent and 45 percent, respectively — the survey found.

And 29 percent of LGBTQ middle schoolers in the survey who were bullied attempted suicide in the previous year, compared to 12 percent of those who say they were not bullied, the Trevor Project found. Over 34,000 LGBTQ youths were surveyed for the study last year.

To show their support for LGBTQ youths, some TV personalities, including CNBC's "Squawk Box" co-host Becky Quick, "American Idol" veteran Ryan Seacrest and CBS’ Gayle King wore purple Thursday.

"Going purple to stand against bullying and support LGBTQ+ youth!" Seacrest, who co-hosts ABC's "LIVE with Kelly and Ryan," tweeted Thursday. "Be proud of who you are and remember to spread kindness every day. Happy #SpiritDay!"

Several sports teams, including the Boston Red Sox, the Kansas City Royals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, came out against LGBTQ bullying Thursday after the revelations about the homophobic, sexist and racists remarks made by former Las Vegas Raiders coach Joe Gruden, which rocked the sports world this month.

Gruden resigned after The New York Times uncovered that he had frequently used misogynistic and homophobic language directed at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others in the league.

The NFL did not release a statement to support Spirit Day but retweeted a post about the celebration from GLAAD.

On Thursday, Symone, New York's iconic “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner, and Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, helped light the Empire State Building in purple.

Several lawmakers — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.; and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who is one of the few openly LGBTQ members of Congress — also shared messages of support on social media.

"As a former teacher, I know how important it is for our youth and our students to feel safe, heard, and empowered," Takano wrote on Twitter. "Today and everyday, we refuse to tolerate hate."

Speaking in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., to honor its 10th anniversary and advocate for Congress to pass a bill to expand voting rights, Vice President Kamala Harris wore a purple blouse under her blazer. The White House confirmed that Harris wore purple to commemorate Spirit Day. President Joe Biden, who also spoke, was not seen wearing purple.

Deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a White House briefing that the disproportionate rate of bullying of LGBTQ youths “reinforces the need” for Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against LGBTQ people. The bill passed in the House in February but has stalled in the Senate.

"A younger staffer recently told me that in high school he noticed how many people wore purple on Spirit Day and how much that meant to him as a young closeted teen," said Jean-Pierre, an out lesbian. "I could only hope that young people who might be watching or see clips of this briefing will know that they are supported and represented in the highest levels of government today."

Ellis of GLAAD applauded the outpouring of supportive messages, saying this year’s Spirit Day has taken on a “renewed importance.”

“Over the past year and a half, LGBTQ youth have been faced with unprecedented challenges, including isolation, increased vulnerability to online hate and harassment, and relentless discriminatory attacks against trans youth in state legislatures across the U.S.,” she said.

More than 280 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in 33 states this legislative session, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, many of them targeting transgender youths.

Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill this month that would bar trans students from playing on school sports teams based on their gender identities, which Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign.

In recent weeks, LGBTQ-affirming symbols, including rainbow Pride flags, have also been banned and stripped from classroom hallways in some schools around the country.

"As a teacher, it's good to see that there's such a big community out there that cares about this," said McMillan, the Spirit Day founder. "I would hate for any sort of bullying or homophobia to be taking place in my classroom and for my students to feel that way."

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