With all the ugliness in the world, Spirit Day — today, October 17 — is a way to spread a message of compassion, specifically for LGBTQ youth. Queer students face unprecedented bullying and harassment in schools (over 70 percent of out youth say they’ve experienced harassment or assault), and wearing purple is a sign to others that kindess is a priority, and that people should be treated with dignity and respect.
So how can we advance the message of Spirit Day beyond the symbolic? We spoke to Jayson Bijak, a recent graduate from the University of Houston, who studied elementary and special education. Bijak, who volunteered at his campus’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center and worked as a student teacher, told us how we all can make the most of this feel-good day.
The Advocate: What does Spirit Day mean for you?
Bijak: Spirit Day, for me, is an opportunity to educate students and school faculty on the issues faced by their LGBTQ peers/students and how to best show acceptance and kindness to those students. It’s a day to be visible for LGBTQ youth, to show them that they have people fighting for them.
What was your experience like in school and college?
My K-12 experience was a very confusing time for me; I had an (at the time) unaccepting family and a school that looked the other way on LGBTQ issues. College was the first place I was really able to come out and be open about myself and my identity as a trans person. I got more involved in our LGBTQ Resource Center, I spoke on panels to educate people on issues faced by the trans community, even wrote an article and ran a workshop in our College of Education on the best ways our future teachers could support transgender students.
Besides wearing purple, do you have suggestions how folks can combat bullying and show support for LGBTQ+ youth?
My number one piece of advice for anyone looking to show support for LGBTQ students is to educate yourself. Learn what being LGBTQ means, practice pronoun usage, make an active effort to include LGBTQ stories and voices in your classroom. Combatting bullying shouldn’t be a once-a-year affair, LGBTQ youth deserve to have someone in their corner every day of the year.
What would you say to an LGBTQ student experiencing bullying?
Being bullied does not make you any less worthy of love and acceptance. You identity and existence is valid, and no one can take that away from you. Surround yourself with people who love you for your authentic self.
How about an LGBTQ student or ally who witnesses bullying?
Stand up for that student and find a trusted adult to tell. Remember that even if you yourself are bullied for standing up for someone else, that you did the right thing and should be proud of yourself.
Do you think the school experience is improving for LGBTQ youth?
It’s difficult to say. Some states have starting including LGBTQ history in their curriculums and have mandatory trainings for faculty and staff on how best to support LGBTQ students; and some have rolled back protections that students didn’t have to begin with. The overall social climate has lead to an increase in acceptance and availability of resources for LGBTQ youth, but experiences vary wildly with each state, district, and school.