It's hard to believe that almost six years have passed by since the very first Spirit Day. Eleventh grade me seems like a completely different person than the person I am today. However, I can still vividly remember sitting in bed with my laptop, reading story after story about the teens who had died by suicide in September of 2010. I remember how angry I felt after reading their stories and discovering that before they had died, they had all been bullied based on the fact (or the presumption) that they were gay.
If you've heard about Spirit Day, you may have heard my story before. My parents divorced when I was seven. As the older sister of two, the divorce put a lot of pressure on me to be the messenger between my parents when they refused to answer one another's phone calls, emails or letters. Adding to that, nobody in my immediate family got along. We all constantly argued. The result was that my home life was very tense, leaving me with school as a safe place.
I loved going to school as a child. I participated in a lot of leadership activities, I had lots of friends and I was an honor roll student. I had great relationships with my teachers as well and by the end of seventh grade, almost everyone in my grad class was friends with one another. Grade seven was one of the best years of my life but it made coming to high school all the more difficult. Upon entering grade eight, I lost almost three-quarters of my friends. They lived in a different catchment zone and as a result, transferred to a different high school. Those that stayed with me at my school disbanded almost immediately. Many of them dropped out or turned to drugs. Overall, I felt really alone.
Not long after, I became a victim of bullying. A close friend of mine from elementary school started accusing me of spreading rumors about him. His older sister and her friends shoved me into lockers and I was harassed online by my peers. All in all, I was having a really difficult time. My family was constantly arguing at home and now I didn't have a safe space at school either because of the bullying. Unfortunately, my genetics weren't of much help and I was eventually diagnosed with depression.
I've been diagnosed with depression and anxiety for five years now, but I've probably had it for about seven. Throughout that time, there have been many instances where thoughts of suicide weighed heavily on my mind. During the first few years of high school, I made several attempts on my life and though none were successful, I knew just how badly one had to feel to even think that suicide was the only way out.
So, after reading about the young teens who had been bullied based on their sexual orientation and who had eventually died by suicide, I was outraged. Having been bullied and having considered suicide many times before, I could understand how they felt. What I couldn't understand was how their bullies could go on believing they were justified in their actions. When I didn't hear anything about the suicides on my local news stations, I wanted to do something to remember the teens, something that would get people to think about the circumstances of their suicides and say, "Hey! That's not right!"
On October 20th, 2010, I asked people all over the world to wear purple to stand up to homophobic bullying, to show support for the LGBTQ community and to remember the lives of the boys and girls who die by suicide every year because they don't feel comfortable in their own skin. With the help of GLAAD, who found my idea on Facebook, we helped spread the word and over 2 million people wore purple that year. In more recent years, up to 4 million people have participated and "gone purple" in their schools, work places or on social media. Each year I am astounded at the amount of support that comes in from celebrities, TV networks, companies and faith groups. It is amazing to see people from all walks of life coming together to stand up for something they believe in. I have heard so many stories -- everything from finding the courage to come out, showing support for a friend or even finding a reason to give life another chance -- and they inspire me to keep putting everything I have into Spirit Day and its preparation.
For the past six years, Spirit Day has become a huge part of my life, granting me with many wonderful experiences (such as presenting an award to Facebook at the GLAAD Media Awards in San Francisco, placing as one of the top five in Seventeen Magazine's 2012 "Pretty Amazing" contest or being presented the Stephen Godkin Humanitarian Award at my high school graduation). And now, Spirit Day has led to one more incredible opportunity: a chapter in the book 2 Billion Under 20: How Millennials are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World. Our book -- released on July 28th -- showcases the stories of 75 amazing people under the age of 20. Reading the stories and getting to know my fellow 2 Billion Under 20 contributors has been an eye opening experience. I couldn't be more grateful for the chance to contribute to such an inspiring work. All of the stories go a long way towards showing that all it takes is one small person to make a big difference. I hope our readers are encouraged and uplifted by the book and I can't wait to see their reactions!