Gearing Up for Spirit Day with its Founder, Brittany McMillan

October is a big month for awareness-events concerning the LGBT community.  It’s LGBT History Month, and National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. It also contains the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, the anniversary of the 1979 March on Washington, National Coming Out Day, Ally Week, and Spirit Day.

This October 20th will mark the second annual observation of Spirit Day, and we are once again thrilled to be teaming up with the event’s creator, 16 year-old Brittany McMillan, to raise awareness of the issues impacting LGBT young people, to highlight the need to show support, and to encourage people to “go purple!”

We asked Brittany a few questions about Spirit Day; what it means to her, what she had envisioned for it initially, and what she sees as its role now that it’s taken off so successfully.

Had you been involved with LGBT advocacy before you created Spirit Day?

No. I’d never really done anything other than ask my friends to stop using the word “gay” in a derogatory way. I’ve always wanted to go to my local pride parade, but it just happens to be held the same weekend that I go camping every year. I haven’t been able to make it to one yet.

What was your vision for Spirit Day when you FIRST created it?

The purpose of the event was so that people who were being bullied at their schools could come to school on Spirit Day and look around at all the people wearing purple, all the people who they could trust, all the people who would support them. I hoped that it might even encourage a few people to come out of the closet. What I expected was nowhere near what the results were. I honestly had a bit of a pessimistic view of it. I thought that I would only get a few hundred people wearing purple and then my school. I never thought it would get as big as it did. That was a definite surprise. I think that – at the time – all I’d wanted was for someone, anyone (even if it was only one person) to support the cause and believe in it.

Has your vision for Spirit Day changed since then? 

Definitely! After seeing how amazing the results were last year, it really made me re-think the possibilities. If more than 2 million people supported the event last year, then imagine how many could support it this year? There were a lot of people who hadn’t heard about the event and said that they definitely would have worn purple should they have known about it. I’m hoping that this year, we’re able to reach out to those people and maybe we can get 3 million participants!

I want to show (LGBT) teens that there are people out there who support them and will continue to support them, people who care.

How is the message of Spirit Day different from other advocacy campaigns?

A lot of people are always asking: “Can’t we open this to being about bullying all children? Bullying is wrong no matter what the reason.” And although that is most definitely true, I really wanted this to be a day to bring homophobia to our awareness. So often, people use sentences like “that’s so gay” and “you’re such a f*g” and they don’t realize that they are hurting people. They don’t think that those words might scare some people away from being proud to be who they truly are. That in itself is bullying – making someone afraid of who they are and what might happen if others find out.

Spirit Day is also a day to mourn teens we’ve already lost. A lot of events are always doing things for the present or the future, but they don’t really look back on the past. Spirit Day is a day where you can presently support LGBTQ teens, promise to stand up to homophobic bullying and also remember teens from the past.

Have you noticed changes in attitudes towards LGBT people among students at your own school following the success of Spirit Day?

I’m not too sure of how much peoples’ attitudes have changed because as far as I know, there are no LGBT students in my school. I know I still hear “that’s so gay” in the hallways but I also know that a lot of people who used to say it all the time have stopped, mainly being my friends and people who I have classes with. I think supporting LGBT rights was always kind of a taboo thing at my school, but now that Spirit Day has happened and LGBT people are being talked about more in classes, it’s not such a forbidden topic anymore. People aren’t afraid of supporting gay rights and they know that they can talk about and be friends with gay people. There’s been such a huge movement in the past year and I think it’s starting to get somewhere. It’ll just take time.

What are your personal plans for Spirit Day this year? Did you learn anything from your last experience that you will do differently this year?

My plans this year are to once again bring it to my school and to hype it up as much as possible. I hope to do something at lunch time for people who don’t have purple, whether it be face painting or tying a purple ribbon around their arm. I’m also going to ask my work if it would be okay for us all to wear something purple because I didn’t do that last year.

If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s to start advertising sooner and use as many social networking outlets as possible. Last year, I didn’t use Twitter but this year, I made an account and am trying to get the message out there as well.

What does a "safe school" look and feel like to you?

A safe school is a place where you can go, learn, have fun and make friends without being afraid of being hurt mentally or physically. Schools will be “safe” when everyone is accepted by somebody and when those that don’t necessarily accept a certain person, can at least be civil and show tolerance.

Did any LGBT youth reach out to you during or after last Spirit Day? If so, did anyone share a particularly inspiring/heart wrenching/compelling story?

Honestly not really and that is a really sad part. I got lots of support in the days prior, of people telling me that they were getting all their friends, family members and co-workers to do it but no-one followed up! I did read some of (GLAAD’s) stories and those were really cool to read.

What was really inspiring, though, was hearing about the candlelight vigils. There were several in the states and one in Vancouver which I was unable to attend. That was amazing. I wish I could have been able to go to see all the people wearing purple. It’s something that I am definitely going to try to do this year.

When you began the Spirit Day “Wear Purple” campaign, were you hoping for/predicting the huge response it received? How did you react when people like Ellen Degeneres wore purple?

I was not predicting the response at all. Like I said before, I thought that only a few hundred at most would wear purple. I never imagined that celebrities would be wearing purple or entire organizations. I was absolutely shocked when Tumblr went purple for the day. It was so, so inspiring and it was an incredible feeling. To see my favorite celebrities wearing purple was such a cool experience. I was so excited when I turned on my TV and could find news casts and TV hosts all decked out in purple. And then I watched Anderson Cooper and Dr. Phil fight for my cause! I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.

How would you like to see young people getting involved in Spirit Day? (Or, what can young people do to make this day their own?)

I really hope that young people will spread the word to their schools because that’s the most important thing. I did it at my school last year and it was a huge success. It’s so easy to do. Make posters, make announcements and then talk to your classmates. Personally, I only talked to my own 4 classes of grade 11s, but the message did get spread around and kids from every grade wore purple.

I hope people will do is not forget about the message. I don’t want Spirit Day to be a one day thing where people stand up to homophobia for one day out of the year and then ignore it for the other 364. Sticking up for what you believe in takes a lot of courage, a lot of spirit, and I want people to carry on that spirit throughout the year and throughout the rest of their lives. You should never back down from what you believe in and you should always speak up when you can.

Ultimately, what would you like Spirit Day to accomplish?

At the end of the day, I want Spirit Day to make just one person feel a little bit better about his or her self, to feel safe enough in their own skin to be proud of who they are. And even if it only stops one person from ending their life, that will be enough.