Today is Spirit Day, when millions of people “go purple” to stand in solidarity with LGBTQ youth and against bullying. On this day, celebrities, companies, landmarks, television shows and social media platforms will turn purple. We hope that our church and its leaders will also go purple, sending a message of God’s acceptance and support to youth who may be experiencing bullying.
Spirit Day launched in 2010, in response to a series of high-profile suicides that prompted society to ask hard questions about bullying and mental health, especially among LGBTQ youth. The color purple, symbolizing spirit on the rainbow flag, became a visual symbol of solidarity and support for youth who were feeling like they had no one standing up for them. The goal was to send a message, through any form of media and interpersonal interaction, of solidarity and support for LGBTQ youth.
Since 2010, we’ve seen a phenomenal shift in culture. The number of youth who are part of the LGBTQ community has multiplied, now at least 20 percent. We’ve built a safe enough world where young people can imagine a future for themselves as LGBTQ, and they feel safe enough to share that truth with others. That is the success of Spirit Day.
However, we’ve seen a backlash. In the last two years, hundreds of bills have been filed in state legislatures that would enable harassment and exclusion for LGBTQ youth. These bills take many different forms. Many target transgender youth, banning them from participating in school sports with their peers and denying them access to medical care. Other types of bills, like Florida’s dangerous “Don’t Say Gay” law, make speaking of LGBTQ people illegal in school settings.
Thankfully, not all anti-LGBTQ bills have passed into law, but the ones that have are causing tremendous harm in states like Florida and Texas, where LGBTQ student organizations are being canceled and families are fleeing to safer states. However, even the mere introduction of these bills invites a detrimental debate on the lives of LGBTQ youth. The lawmakers who introduce these bills encourage bullying, using taunts as talking points, and promote violence among their followers.
Jesus has strong words for those who harm the faith of young people. In the Gospel of Matthew, he uses a child as an example of who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven first, but quickly follows it with a warning. If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better “if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt. 18:6).
In this cultural moment, we, as the church, need to do some self-examination and ask what role our church is playing. Are we standing with LGBTQ youth, who are being vilified in state legislatures and by media talking heads? Or, are we silent, allowing bullying to take place? Or worse, are we encouraging and participating in the bullying ourselves?
When living out its mission, the church is a place where people find comfort and refuge, receive pastoral care and know that they are beautiful gifts of God’s creation. We cannot only provide support and pastoral care after the harm has occurred. Each of us, regardless of our vocation within the church, are called to proclaim safety and protection for young people.
I hope that by “going purple” for Spirit Day, the church can provide a message to young people that we are part of God’s wings of protection.