Every year on Spirit Day, millions of people wear purple to show support for LGBTQ+ youth who face staggering rates of bullying and harassment. It’s the most visible anti-bullying campaign in the world — and it all started with one humble teenager, Brittany McMillan.
In September 2010, McMillan was a high school student in Canada. She was scrolling through Tumblr one day (as all teens did in 2010) when she came across several articles about LGBTQ+ teen suicides.
“Every day for a week, it seemed like there was a new suicide every time I logged in,” McMillan recalled for Advocate in 2012. “And it made me sick. I wanted to do something to spread awareness about the loss of these teenagers, and I wanted to show support for anyone going through similar problems.”
Inspired by Canada’s anti-bullying Pink Shirt Day, McMillan decided to make a Tumblr post to ask students to wear purple in support of LGBTQ+ youth. She chose purple, because it’s the color that represents spirit on the Pride Flag.
“Wearing purple would also symbolize support for the LGBTQ community and hopefully encourage youth to find the ‘spirit’ to persevere in times of struggle,” McMillan told NBC OUT in 2016.
Her hard work resulted in the very first Spirit Day on October 20, 2010. Her posts went viral on social media, and they soon drew the attention of GLAAD, which now co-organizes the events. The day has steadily grown in visibility every year, and it’s now a global phenomenon with millions of participants, including schools, businesses, sports teams, celebrities, and media outlets. As McMillan says, Spirit Day is about so much more than wearing a certain color shirt — it’s not about wearing purple, but about “going purple.”
“Going purple” means taking the pledge against bullying and visibly showing solidarity with LGBTQ+ youth. In addition to wearing purple, supporters change their profile pictures, tweet with the hashtags #SpiritDay and #ChooseKindness, and host a variety of local events. Others also share the names and stories of LGBTQ+ teens who have suffered from violence and harassment, like the ones who inspired Spirit Day in the first place.
According to GLAAD, 70.1 percent of LGBTQ students report being verbally harassed, and 71 percent report hearing homophobic remarks from their own teachers and/or school staff. In the majority of cases, young people say that nothing is done when they report an incident to their schools. Celebrating Spirit Day is one way to show young LGBTQ+ folks that you see them, that you care, and that you are committed to making the world safer for them. Seeing the huge flood of purple on Spirit Day sends a “powerful message” to anyone who’s feeling alone or scared, McMillan says.
“It’s the participants that make Spirit Day what it is; they create their own events and their own art, all in the name of showing LGBTQ young people that they care,” McMillan told NBC OUT. “I know how much it means to people around the world to know that they are supported by their communities.”
Spirit Day has also elevated the national conversation around bullying. GLAAD’s Spirit Day resource kit gives allies the tools to stand up against bullying in their own schools.
It all goes to show that, contrary to popular belief, one person can make a big difference. McMillan certainly knows that now.
“Spirit Day has taught me so many things, but one of the main lessons I’ve learned is about the power of a single person or a single group of people,” she said in a 2017 interview with GLAAD. “When I started Spirit Day, I was just one person, one teenage girl who wanted just a few more people to know about homophobia and the consequences of bullying. Yet every year since its creation, Spirit Day has impacted thousands of people all around the world.”