I grew up in a very small town in Montana, where very few openly gay people reside. It was immensely difficult learning to accept and love myself in that challenging environment, a place in which diversity was often belittled and begrudged.
I spent most of my childhood days feeling trapped and alone. My days at school were spent longing to move away, to escape the judgment and poor treatment that I endured at the hands of cruel classmates. When I was a teenager, I did not have shows like Glee to remind me that being different in high school, and even being gay, was OK, even accepted. During these formative years, standing up to harassment and bullying, being proud of who you are in spite of the perceived norm around you, can be positively terrifying. I secretly watched episodes of The Real World and Will & Grace, which embraced gay people, but I knew it would be years before I could escape to a community that would accept me. The choices young people have are so limited, particularly for those who grow up in isolated, bigoted surroundings. I quietly suffered, praying that time would pass and I would be old enough and financially stable enough to leave as soon as I graduated.
In spite of the success of shows like Glee, young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but particularly LGBT kids, continue to battle prejudice and the internal struggle between self-acceptance and the desire to fit in. Thankfully, organizations such as It Gets Better and the Trevor Project work daily to provide support systems for LGBT youth. Inspiring projects and organizations are surfacing all over the world, bringing light to a crucial issue and inciting social change. One very special teenager, Brittany McMillan, has gotten involved, working with GLAAD to spread word about Spirit Day (Oct. 19), a national movement dedicated to uniting all supporters of the LGBT community through one very simple act: wearing the color purple. Brittany has said, "Ultimately I want Spirit Day to make just one person feel a little bit better about his or herself, to feel safe enough in their own skin to be proud of who they are."
As a teenager who was once ashamed to be gay and afraid to speak up for himself, I know that an event like Spirit Day can make all the difference for someone. By wearing purple (the color that symbolizes spirit on the rainbow flag), LGBT supporters of all sexual orientations and gender identities can send a powerful message, creating a ripple effect of awareness. In an age dominated by social media, the ability to bring about positive global change has become so simple. To the cynics who believe an act as basic as wearing a purple shirt or tweeting a message of support won't make a difference, I share with you my story.
A few months ago I posted a video on YouTube entitled "It Could Happen to You." In it I told the story of how I lost the love of my life, Tom Bridegroom, and how I struggled against discrimination in the aftermath of his tragic passing.
Tom and I always believed in the power of using social media to deliver a message, but I never could have predicted what would happen shortly after releasing my video. Within days it had garnered hundreds of thousands of views, and then millions. People from all over the world contacted me with displays of support and empathy. I had spent most of my life living in fear, but after enduring such a tragedy and then learning about how so many others have experienced similar trials, the fear lost its power. I turned this fear and pain into an unimaginable opportunity to tell Tom's and my story, which is now being made into a feature-length documentary, Bridegroom. My story proves that one small action, like Spirit Day, can assist others, inspire change and promote awareness.
I challenge you to take the Spirit Day Pledge at glaad.org/spiritday. This is about more than wearing the color purple; it is about being proud of who you are, showing support for the LGBT community and reminding each and every LGBT youth that there are others in the world who believe in their uniqueness, their beauty and their strength. It will get better because it only can get better, so rejoice. Celebrate diversity, equality and, most importantly, yourself.