In 2010, a spate of suicides among LGBT youth shocked the nation. In our mourning for these queer kids who had been tormented by their peers, we demanded new conversations about what it means to be young, LGBT, and a member of a school community. Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” project, inspiring countless messages of support urging these kids to stay strong and hold onto the hope that the world is a more welcoming place than all the bullying they endure might lead them to believe. And a teenager named Brittany McMillan established a new tradition of taking time every year to remember that anti-LGBT bullying is a problem we haven’t fixed.
McMillan called her idea “Spirit Day,” taken from what the purple stripe represents in the Pride Flag. She asked that everyone across the country wear purple to show solidarity with LGBT youth who might not feel safe in their schools or communities. For one day, they’d see a nation draped in purple and know that they had allies — that there were people out there who wanted them to be happy and healthy for who they are.
As has been our yearly tradition, ThinkProgress is proud to stand with our colleagues at the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund — and countless others across the country — in celebrating Spirit Day. We are committed to improving the lives of all people, and LGBT inclusion is vital to that progressive vision. This year, that mission feels as essential as ever.
Despite how drastically and positively the legal landscape has changed for LGBT equality, 2016 has been a difficult year. It has only been four months since our nation’s deadliest mass shooting ever, when a gunman targeted Orlando’s queer Latinx community at the Pulse nightclub. It was a harsh reminder of how much hate there still is in the world and how even the spaces groups make safe for themselves are never truly safe. Accessing those spaces to commune with each other became more important than ever, but also a greater act of courage.
The nation has had to mourn and recover from this tragedy in one of the most divisive political climates we’ve ever seen. Social media, an important sanctuary for queer people divided by geography, has become a particularly toxic environment. The rise of the alt-right, a movement as anti-LGBT as it is racist, has occurred at the same time that LGBT people are largely invisible, going unmentioned in most of the political discourse.
Worst of all, our schools are still an unsafe place for LGBT youth. GLSEN’s new report on the climate of secondary schools found that over half of all students regularly heard anti-gay, sexist, and racist comments at school. One out of five students have experienced bullying or harassment because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, with 74 percent of all students experiencing some form of peer victimization in the past year. Though students felt safer overall than when a similar study was conducted 10 years ago, there’s a long way to go to ensure LGBT students have equal access to education.
Fortunately, many cogs are in motion to improve life for these students. The number of students who reported having GSAs (gay-straight alliances) at their school jumped from 21 percent to 36 percent since 2005, and schools with GSAs generally felt safer among all students, especially those who are LGBT. A fifth of all students also reported that they learned about LGBT people, history, or events in their classes, and as other studies have confirmed, exposure to an inclusive curriculum lowered levels of victimization against LGBT students.
2016 has also been a significant year for conversations about the experiences of transgender kids. The Department of Education’s new guidance calling for transgender inclusion has helped protect countless trans kids who might have had to attend school without basic access to restrooms that match their gender. Many districts have adopted the guidance and ensured that their students can safely come out without experience discrimination. Unfortunately, many schools have bucked the guidelines, and a massive legal fight is underway across the country to determine whether these kids can pee in peace while receiving the education they deserve.
There is so much work yet to do, but recognizing where the needs are is an important step to addressing them. And this year’s Spirit Day is a reminder that schools aren’t the only place where we have to work to reduce bullying and harassment. We all can do better by our fellow citizens. For once, it might be the queer kids, standing proud even when their families and peers might not accept them for who they are, who can inspire us to hope for a better day.