In 1993, when the AIDS epidemic had thoroughly entrenched a fear of gay people into the psyche of almost everyone I knew, I caused a scene in a Health Education class. Our teacher had asked us to participate in a thought experiment: there was going to be a nuclear apocalypse, and we had the responsibility of deciding which people would be saved in the one remaining bunker. On the list of hypothetical candidates was a gay man; not one of my group mates would countenance his right to be saved. I was incensed: the resulting impassioned lecture I gave the class about tolerance was above and beyond the task requirements of the day!
So, when I was asked by the teacher to stay behind after class, I trembled in my seat. What I expected -- with good reason, given the usual way that my teachers responded to any mention of homosexuality -- was a lecture on morality. I thought I was about to get in trouble for standing up for gay people. Instead, my teacher surprised me by congratulating me on my eloquent arguments and my courage. I hope you don’t get too much flak from the other kids, she said. As it happened, I did suffer in the schoolyard: I was called a “lezzer” for my troubles. But what mattered to me was that a teacher had affirmed that it was moral and ethical to think gay people had a right to live.
That teacher was one of the ones who saved me, growing up.
Many teens still rely on a few good people to help them navigate through schools that are, over two decades later, still mostly homophobic and transphobic environments.
In 2010, in response to a spate of widely reported suicides of LGBTQIA+ teens in the US, two important movements began. The It Gets Better project was a US-based, celebrity-endorsed series of videos and messages to bullied teens, reassuring them that once they reached adulthood, they could live more freely. In Australia, a branch of the grassroots campaign Wear It Purple Day was launched by volunteers. Wear It Purple Day has grown and expanded since its fairly modest roots, and is now a familiar fixture on the rainbow calendar. Wear It Purple is run by young people, and provides an accessible and fun way for schools and workplaces to affirm their support of same sex attracted and gender diverse youth.
Sceptics ask, can wearing a colour really make a difference to the rates of homelessness, suicide and mental illness amongst young LGBTQIA+ people? And can running one purple-glitter-coated day a year really be enough for schools and workplaces to show they are inclusive?
These are not easy questions to answer. Certainly, there is the risk that such events become barely relevant lip-service to the real issues. A grassroots organisation that runs a volunteer team on a shoe-string is no substitute for the kind of funding that is required to make a significant difference to the mental health and wellbeing of young LGBTQIA+ Australians—particularly those who are especially at risk as Indigenous people and or/rural and isolated youth. We need a fully funded Safe Schools programme, and we need more dedicated health services for LGBTQIA+ youth. Just as there are limits to the value of any ‘awareness-raising’ campaign, Wear it Purple’s reach is not infinite. But it does have reach -- and its impact should not be underestimated.
What many adults don’t realise is that young people generally assume we are homophobic and transphobic unless we make it clear that we are not. To put it another way: LGBTQIA+ youth make judgement calls all the time about where and when they can be safe to be themselves, and they will usually presume that adults will not protect them. According to La Trobe University research, 80% of young LGBTQIA+ people who have experienced bullying or harassment have been verbally or physically abused at school. Despite the efforts of many teachers and principals, schools are still not safe spaces. And that means that teenagers don’t always trust us.
Wearing purple this Friday 26th August is one way that adults who come in contact with young people can make their support visible. We have a responsibility to model acceptance and embrace diversity in our communities so that teens and children don’t have to wait for it to get better. Schools, especially, need to acknowledge that students learn better when they are at ease. Whilst many LGBTQIA+ young people (and those with LGBTQIA+ family members) may not wish to draw attention to themselves at school, they still crave the acknowledgement that they deserve the same love and respect as everyone else. The more teachers who show the courage to wear their accepting hearts on their sleeves (or lapels, or heads, or wherever else a splash of purple can be seen), the more young people will feel like they don’t have to suffer bullying in silence.
This year, I am proud to say that my workplace will be celebrating Wear It Purple Day, along with many other educational institutions around the country. And like that Health teacher who surprised me with her tolerance twenty years ago, I know some of my colleagues will provide a welcome surprise to their students too. Participating in Wear it Purple says: I support you. I value you. You have a right to be proud of who you are, and I’m proud of you, too.
For a young person who desperately needs to feel valued, it doesn’t get that much better than that.