Opinion: Purplewashing

Last Friday, thousands of students and adults donned purple in solidarity with LGBTQ youth who are bullied in school. While I support the effort to raise visibility of the violence we face in our schools – I struggle with the issue becoming a commodity. Allow me to coin a term:

Purplewashing: the act of branding anti-LGBTQ bullying as an issue to be professionally marketed.

The harassment faced by LGBTQ students (and youth perceived to be LGBTQ) is widespread. You know the statistics.

Spirit Day may be a red-letter way of showing unity in some communities. However, I urge LGBTQ advocates to approach the day with caution. The idea is spreading that trendy activities such as wearing purple could be standalone ways to combat bullying, rather than accepting ownership of systemic and institutional causes of school violence.

Spirit Day was created through grassroots efforts back in 2010. That autumn, the mainstream media took hold of the suicides of gay youth for the first time. These tragedies included the back-to-back deaths of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Raymond Chase, Asher Brown, William Lukas, Justin Aaberg, and others. It was a very sad time as the general public was learning about how frequent LGBTQ youth suicide is.

Our Pennsylvania LGBTQ youth network supported over 25 vigils that October, called Pennsylvania Night to Live, to remember the countless youth who had been driven to end their lives related to extreme bullying. Vigils, concerts, and memorial services were held in communities across the country. Later that month, the idea organically spread through social media and celebrities to wear purple for a day in solidarity against anti-LGBTQ bullying, which became a national event. The non-profit media organization GLAAD eventually won the bid to take the reins of the day now known as ‘Spirit Day.’

This year I began to notice the day being driven by adult service providers and adult-run organizations more than the past two years. The adults in many major LGBTQ non-profit organizations posted pictures online of their staff all in purple. I even saw Esurance in my Facebook mini-feed about the importance of wearing purple. It was viral.

These concerns are not new to visibility movements. In the early 1990s, the breast cancer awareness and prevention community was struggling. Women were experiencing barriers to treatment and social stigma.  They were mad and things needed to be done – and so they marched in protest. Great progress was made with healthcare providers and insurance companies, and we were finally able to see breast cancer prevention become a national conversation. The rallies changed over time. The marches became fundraising races and walks.

Over the past two decades, breast cancer awareness advocates have promoted pink to become a multi-million dollar advocacy industry. These efforts are truly important to raise critical funds for prevention and research for a cure. However, some critics claim the global pink ribbon culture has become a professional fundraising machine. Numerous articles, books, and documentaries have been made on how the pink marketplace may be more interested in funding sources than direct service. Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign has been advocating for more fundraising transparency over the past decade. Indeed, we’ve seen what happens when so much pink power goes to one organization with Susan G. Komen’s disastrous decision (and reversal) to cut funding to Planned Parenthood earlier this year.

Cities from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia light up their skylines pink this month. Perhaps one day soon they will go purple too.

Our efforts for visibility must be tied with direct action. This year it was a struggle working with several partners to convince them that we must wear more than purple to change policies and combat hatred. Some folks may feel like they are “doing their part” just by wearing a color. It’s a start, but having courageous conversations and getting involved with advocacy for safer schools can more directly lead to the change we seek. Instead of organizing to wear a color, I would press LGBTQ advocates to be more angry that often too little is being done.

We must realize the potential ramifications of marketing anti-LGBTQ bullying as a topical issue. The serious plight of youth who suffer from anti-LGBTQ bullying can be easily glossed over with high-fashion fundraising events that fail to address intersectionality and privilege. My mind races thinking of the Purple Walks ahead of us.

“Suicide is now sexy”, is how I’ve heard a friend from New York City regard LGBTQ donor culture today – that more gay male socialites are tending to flock to cocktail parties for the Trevor Project over other groups. Yes, clearly that’s an endgame for social change, when anti-LGBTQ bullying organizations are securing penthouse floors for their Manhattan headquarters by hosting the hottest VIP fundraisers in town.

We need to be angry, because if not, we are complacent.

Join an organization in marching. Help run a community-wide forum on bullying at your local school. We should not believe that sending money at an issue, or wearing a color alone, will entirely shift a cultural stigma – especially when the issue is intricately linked to policy.

A lesson learned from last week: the bigots also went national on Spirit Day. The Illinois Family Institute flooded the East Aurora School District board of directors with emails to strip the protections they recently put in place for trans students. On Spirit Day they voted to remove those policies and discuss firing the staff who proposed them. Imagine, if everyone who wore purple wrote letters to school boards that day, maybe, more communities could preserve and advance protections for LGBTQ students. Absolutely, visibility is needed, but policies and action certainly help.

Before the swarm of non-profits start planning on how to go even more purple next year, let us think critically to ensure that LGBTQ youth and bullying is not just an issue to be bought, traded, or sold. We, the students, are the youth struggling with this violence. We are strong and resilient too.

Please, don’t take wearing purple as taking a final stand. Our boldest moves will come when national safe schools action is driven by the students ourselves.

Jason Landau Goodman is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition. He can be reached at jgoodman@pennsec.org.

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