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When Wearing Purple Isn't Enough: How I'm Learning To Tell The Truth About Bullying

10/19/2012 11:36 am ET | Updated Dec 19, 2012

I'm wearing purple today. I'm sitting at the counter of my small town's diner in Vermont, wearing a purple and white checked shirt, and ordering an omelette. I'm wearing purple as a sign to the LGBTQ youth who are being bullied that someone cares, and that someone is on their side.

But I'm wearing purple for another kid too.

I'm wearing purple for a 14-year-old who entered Winter Park High School one Florida day in 1990 and sat next to a future police officer. I'm wearing it for her because I remember what he said to her every morning in first period for the rest of the year. I'm wearing it because she saw the teacher hear it, blush and say nothing. I'm wearing it because she knew that if she told anyone, she risked bringing more speculation about her sexual orientation in a climate that was anything but supportive.

"Are you a dyke?" he asked every day. "Are you queer?"

From second to sixth period she was safe. But seventh period it started again. This time a girl who would later come out as gay herself.

"Dyke."

One day after school her varsity golf team played a match against West Orange High. Usually a foursome had two players from each school. Today the numbers were mismatched, and it was just her and three from the other team. For the next nine holes they were relentless.

"You're gay, aren't you. Are you a dyke?"

She had been playing that golf course since the age of 8 with her father. She was the second best golfer on the squad as a freshman. When she quit the team before she had to play that school again, he didn't understand why and she wouldn't tell him. He didn't know that she would have quit school if she could.

The bullying stopped after that year, but the effects remained. For the next three years, she hid the truth about her until she could get out of town.

Coming out was a revelation. Wonderfully accepting parents. Friends who stood by her. Even clergy who embraced her.

But one thing remained hidden. She told no one about the bullying. For years she carried the memories, ashamed that she had provoked that response in others. She carried them through college, even when classmates elected her as the first openly gay member of her college's Student Government. She carried them through seminary, where she was too embarrassed to speak with a professor who was trying to recruit seminarians to help stop bullying. She carried them into her ministry at a children's hospital, where she saw kids with that same longing in their eyes for someone safe enough to tell about the bullying.

And then one day over dinner, 19 years after it happened, an acquaintance mentioned that her 14-year-old kid was being bullied at school for being perceived as gay. And her heart broke for the kid. And for the first time she understood emotionally what she had always known intellectually: it hadn't been her fault.

She began to talk about it. And when people started noticing that kids were killing themselves, as they had been for years, because of anti-gay bullying, she heard others talking about it too. And she felt less alone. And she started talking about it more.

Which is why today she is sitting at a diner counter in Vermont, 22 years after the bullying, happy and healthy and about to be married to the woman of her dreams, and wearing purple. And knowing that it's not nearly enough.

Especially for someone who spends her days following someone who said "love your neighbor as yourself." Someone who is called the Prince of Peace.

We can wear purple. We can say "it gets better." We can comfort survivors of bullying one by one. But it's not enough. Our calling demands more.

What would it look like if people of faith helped to lead the charge against bullying? What if instead of complaining about how we are being persecuted for being religious, we opened our eyes to what real persecution looked like? (After all, everything I learned about persecution, I learned not as a Christian, but as a gay kid growing up in the Bible Belt.) What if we talked about our own experiences of bullying, without shame, from the pulpit? What if we refused to settle for just giving kids a promise that the future won't be so bad, and instead worked on transforming the world they exist in today?

Clergy or lay person, LGBTQ or ally, now is the time. When you put on your purple shirt today, or when you change your Facebook status, or send an anti-bullying tweet, you're doing something great. But tomorrow, when your shirt is not purple, and your status has been updated, those kids' lives won't have changed by much.

So what can you do in your local faith community? What can you do not only inside the doors of your congregation, but outside? It's the question I'm asking myself today, sitting at this diner counter in my purple shirt, seemingly years and miles away from that 14-year-old kid. But she's still here with me. And she is demanding more from me.

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