By Cyn Gomez
Spirit Day is an internationally recognized day where queer folks and their allies stand together against hate and bullying that countless young LGBTQ+ students endure every day. Some would like to believe that anti-LGBTQ+ bullying and harassment are things of the past as we make certain strides of inclusivity in media, politics, and culture—the reality is that we’re far from that utopian world of queer acceptance. So much so that bullying and further mental and physical illness are common among queer youth.
Spirit Day draws attention to the fact that young LGBTQ+ people still live in fear and invisibility. Data from the Trevor Project’s national survey reflects that “56.7% of LGBTQ students did not report experiences of bullying because they doubted an intervention” and “61.6% of LGBTQ students who reported bullying said school staff did nothing”. These baseline statistics illustrate clearly how we’re failing this generation of queer youth, they are taught to speak out and taught to be strong yet they are unable to be supported by the institutions whose main purpose is to protect young people.
More specifically, LGBTQ+ youth of color experience compounding realities of oppression based on their intersecting identities and oftentimes receive even less support due to the unconscious biases that have been embedded in our education system. This being said, “1 in 5 LGBT students report being bullied due to race, ethnicity, or national origin” entailing that they are presupposed to so much more violence and trauma that we must be cognizant of and take into account when addressing bullying and harassment.
My Experience Throughout High School
Throughout high school, there were many instances when I bore witness to my peers experiencing these same hardships, especially at a predominantly Latine high school where elements of machismo and standard gender roles were everywhere. So for queer kids, this meant that there was a strict social code of conduct we all should be abiding by. Luckily, I was able to be who I am and feel supported by my parents who didn’t want me to have to worry as much about these social codes. This being said, I didn’t do enough to support my peers through their journey of coming to terms with who they are and the lack of familial support they had. When my queer peers were experiencing these horrible things, I was often so worried about becoming the next target myself, making me a complicit bystander. Not only this, but throughout high school, I was still coming to terms with who I was, despite being perceived as an out and proud queer person on campus. There were so many times when my internalized homophobia and transphobia turned into internalized bullying too, so I was completely unsure of how to support my peers whilst I was struggling myself.
Taking this into account, after receiving mentorship from my GSA club advisor I was able to put the bullying I was witnessing into context. I was in a privileged position to be able to turn a blind eye to it and learned that I should be holding myself to a higher standard because I was the GSA president, because I was able to go home to an accepting family, and because I had a strong support system on campus. After learning all of this, I started having conversations with myself on how to mitigate the internalized struggle I was facing and began checking in with my peers and intervening in situations where bullying was occurring. There definitely were times where the hatred spewed at my peers was turned towards me instead but by that point, I was able to recognize that the situation wasn’t about me. What was most important was supporting my peers before, during, and after bullying had occurred.
Around my sophomore year of high school, I was walking home one day when a group of boys was walking behind me. Most days, this wouldn’t have fazed me but this time was different because through my music I heard one of them say, “look at this dirty dyke.” At that point, I knew I wasn’t safe walking home anymore and sped off from this encounter. I went home and called friends for support but after this point, I became aware that I can be targeted by harassment and microaggressions. This put me in a precarious spot of never knowing when people’s words would be used against me and how they would target my identity. Throughout the next two years of high school, I became more involved and took an active role in advocating for queer students’ rights on campus—inherently creating more opportunities for microaggressions. Although I hadn’t experienced many outright forms of hate speech or bullying throughout high school, one thing was for certain: people didn’t like me or the presence I had, and they were going to say something about it. These forms of bullying were torturous because they are impossible to figure out and my mind would race with questions like: did they mean to say that with an attitude? Are they trying to say something else? Why are they speaking with me in that tone? Why are they saying things with double meanings?
Although this is not something new to queer folks and although I still experience microaggressions with great frequency, having a support system that understands what these frustrations and hurts feel like makes it easier to overcome every instance.
Why is Spirit Day Important?
Spirit Day is important this year, arguably more than any other recent year, due to the fact that there are compounding elements to today’s American society that suppress LGBTQ+ youth. Namely, political and racialized hate being taught in various contexts, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, a return to campus (and the fact that some students may be coming out for the first time after self-discovery in quarantine), and the continued prominence of cyberbullying.
There has been a historic surge in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country that has only furthered the political and social ideology that queer people—especially young queer people—should not be treated as equals or valid in their identities. Specifically, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2021. Kids are quite literally being told that they are not worthy of rights, not worthy of space in the classroom, or in the gym or on the field with their peers.
Spirit Day is a time to speak out against current bullying young queer people are experiencing but it’s also a time to act in ways that prevent such bullying. As countless young people return to their in-person interactions, many of them will not be the same folks that went into quarantine. In this time, people discovered things about themselves that they may have not known before, or were afraid to admit,” especially amongst young people who are usually exposed to countless external influences to their identities, quarantine was a time for introspection and self-discovery/self-actualization. This being said, we must use Spirit Day as a time to also prevent the new and emerging generation of queer youth from harassment and bullying in returning in-person spaces.
Young LGBTQ+ folks are in need of support and it is the job of every single person to stand up against bullying with the kids who oftentimes feel the least heard and least seen. The least we can do is share this information on their experiences, uplift their voices, emotionally and socially support young queer people, and financially support the youth and organizations fighting adamantly for a better future for queer people on campuses.
Cyn Gomez is a mental health, gun control, and LGBTQ+ rights activist. Cyn has been a part of Mental Health America’s Youth Leadership Council and is an ambassador for the non-profit Tangible Movement. Cyn currently works for the City of Berkeley as a commissioner on homelessness. They were named to GLAAD’s second annual 20 Under 20 list in June 2021.