On Anti-Bullying Campaigns, LGBT Youth of Color Suicide, and Why I Never Supported Spirit Day
I didn’t sign into Facebook that morning. I knew what I’d see; a timeline of status updates and cropped purple photos for Spirit Day; a timely performance of empathy. I knew, too, that my Facebook feed, practically segmented into Lists, including one for “Nigerian”, “College” and “Queer” would vary in hue, with barely any purple love coming from the Nigerian feed, and my white, queer, progressive community in Boston leading the way. I wanted to have nothing to do with it. And I needed to clear my head. So, I got dressed, grabbed my gym bag and headed out.
The train ride on the way to the gym was the worst. I remember being sandwiched between two white women, both wearing varying shades of purple; one, a neck scarf, the other a hat. As I sat squished between them, one fiddled away with her smartphone while the other scanned the Metro paper, her nose slightly tilted upwards as she peered at the headlines through her glasses. I wondered how I could sit so uncomfortably between symbols of awareness and still feel so invisible. I wondered if they could tell from my baggy jeans, hoodie, and messy frohawk that I used to be one of the kids they were supposed to be supporting that day; that I still remembered the night I tried to take my own life like it was yesterday; that, even as an adult, it was still hard to talk about bullying, both aggressive and the silent kind from my family, without crying.
My eyes glided along the line of people sitting in front of me: purple, no purple, no purple, purple, purple. Which of the purples would look up and notice me? I lowered my head, and turned up the volume of my ipod. I remember the song: “Wavin’ Flag” by K’Naan. “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.” I shut my eyes and counted the number of times the train doors opened as I anticipated my stop.
When I stepped in the gym, I sighed a breath of relief. No signs of purple. Just the same older white lady walking steeply up a treadmill, swinging ponytails on the elliptical machines, and a muscular black guy getting in his warm-up run before hitting the weights. I headed downstairs to the basement–the unspoken “men’s area” of the gym– where grunting and clanking bar weights replaced the soundtrack of the morning TV upstairs. I preferred this part of the gym; the men didn’t stare at me for quite as long as the white women did upstairs; muscular black girl, or something. Maybe she’s an athlete. Why aren’t her legs shaved?
During my workout, I’d tried to drown out thoughts about my time at school with angst-filled music (Linkin Park, Eminem, Kelis), but my mind had kept going back to the sensationalism of Spirit Day, how futile it was that everyone would be wearing purple. How would any of this support young people? What would any of this have meant for me when I felt judged and ostracized in school.
I’d been the only girl in my computer science class; no one had reached out to me when they picked group members to tackle problem sets with; the black women’s student group hosted more discussions about “Black Men Dating White Women” and “How to Date Like a Good Christian” than they did anything else; and when I sought support, my racist academic adviser told me she felt I was using my “status as a minority student” and “gay issues” to avoid admitting that I wasn’t smart enough to be at MIT; meanwhile the GSA was filled with queer white students from the theater department, who didn’t understand I had to work on weekends. What good would a campus of purple outfits have done for me then? It was I who had felt invisible, then, and today.
I felt the strain of the weights and my memories weighing me down as I finished my last set, and decided to call it quits for the morning. I grabbed a towel and headed for the locker room, not the men’s one this time. I could never get away with that, not yet. By the lockers, I braced myself for the eyes that would question my presence until they noticed my breasts. Then decided to change in the furthest corner of the room, away from the possibility of interacting with anyone.
As I untied my shoelaces, two white women chatted about an upcoming second date after work. “We probably won’t spend too long at dinner, I told him we had to meet up with the party at 9 for the surprise.” Life for others always seemed so easy, so straight-forward. Even though I’d been living with my girlfriend of two years, she still hadn’t met all of my friends, especially the black girls who claimed to be “cool with it” but never asked about our relationship, or pried too deeply into any part of my personal life for fear of having to feign acceptance via nodding vigorously to everything I said, never uttering a word until I changed the subject. My parents were really good at this. I dreaded pleasant phone calls, intimate conversations filled with sharp silences that pierced my resolve.
The locker room had gone quiet, save for another black girl with shoulder-length pressed hair getting dressed across the room. As I jammed sweaty clothes into my gym bag, my chest tightened with anxiety at heading back out into the world, purple reminders of the silences that had left me feeling ashamed, invisible, and one night, without any hope that I thought it would be easier if I swallowed some pills and left my journals behind for solace, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but mine; that it had become too hard to persist through the world surrounded by so much silence.
I’d been drowning in my thoughts, fighting with the tension I felt between wanting to have a normal day and not focusing so much on the emotions triggered by what the day meant. But then, something special happened. As I began to make my way towards the entrance, I noticed the black girl was now fully dressed, in black pants, a gray jacket, and underneath, a bright purple sweater. She’d caught my gaze, but before I could awkwardly take my eyes away – an instinctive reaction I’d developed after hearing one too many black women profess being uncomfortable around “women like me” (especially in locker rooms), she did something completely unexpected, she smiled at me.
She smiled at me. Me with my awkward, scruffy masculinity in the locker room. Me who’d never imagined that the weight I carried in silences from the diaspora communities I’d once called “home” could be lifted in a simple gesture; a smile that meant I’d been seen.
I smiled back, shyly. Perhaps a tad too widely, as her warmth had caught me off guard, before leaving the locker room. When I stepped outside, I saw purple everywhere, and realized that I was still smiling. All of a sudden, it made sense. What I’d needed during all those times I’d felt bullied and ostracized, wasn’t just a campaign against bullying, but a group of people saying out loud that it was okay to be me; what I needed to believe the night I tried to take my own life, was that it was possible for the communities I loved to see me, and still extend love.
Now, standing under the sun, searching for purple in strangers, the tension I’d been carrying all day melted away. And, in its place, came hope. I thought about the thousands of young people walking through hallways, their heads down out of habit, only to look up and see someone smiling at them. I thought about the assumptions I’d made about the men at the gym, grunting and puffing as they curled 50 pound dumbbells; perhaps they felt invisible as well. I hoped they’d be comforted by the smiles around them. I thought about how much just one smile had meant to me that morning, and how much more it would mean to youth of color all across the country, if they saw so many other older people of color proudly wearing purple as a stand against anti-LGBT bullying, as a stand for Love. I thought of myself, as a masculine of center woman of color, and what my wearing purple could mean to the younger, awkward, lonely version of me.
When GLAAD announced their campaign for Spirit Day that first year, I admit it; I was a cynic. I was part of the group of people that dismissed it as a bandwagon campaign run by white people that didn’t get the complexities faced by LGBT people of color shouldering multiple burdens—as a person of color facing racism from the gay community, and homophobia from our own families and communities. But after my experience at the gym that day; I see both the importance of being seen and being visible.
If you’re anything like me, a campaign to stand against anti-LGBT bullying may not resonate as deeply with you, but I’m hoping that a day dedicated to making sure LGBT youth from all cultural backgrounds know that they have allies in their own community will.