Purple shirt, empty gesture

On (not) making a difference

Recently, hundreds of thousands of students across North American campuses have expressed their intention to wear purple this Wednesday in response to the rise in visibility of gay teen suicide. Although this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Queer McGill (QM) executive, of which I am member, as a whole we have declined to endorse this campaign.

While the sheer number of people, at McGill and elsewhere, showing their support for this cause is gratifying, I fear the movement (at least outside of high schools) is an essentially hollow gesture. In a recent Hyde Park (“No more queer suicides,” October 7), QM co-administrator Ryan Thom wrote that “[we] need to make life better than death for queer youth.” We share a belief in the importance of actions that actually make a difference in the lives of those hardest hit by homophobia, actions that actually fight homophobia. I fail to see how dispersed masses wearing a shirt of a certain colour for one day could pull a depressed teenager in a Midwestern high school accustomed to being thrown into lockers and called “faggot” at all away from the precipice of suicide.

The confused array of different meanings attached to the gesture points to its inherent emptiness. On some of many Facebook event pages, it is in memory of the “six” killed. One explains that purple “represents spirit” on the pride flag. On others, it is in support of the entire “LGBTQ community” or “against homophobia.” People are uncertain what wearing purple should mean because on a fundamental level, it means (and does) nothing.

Meaningful anti-homophobic action is a constant imperative in queer communities, but the use of the internet as an organizing tool has lowered our standards for real change. Last Thursday, Queer McGill facilitated a candlelight vigil, in the belief that our constituents needed a space for shared grieving and to honour the lives lost. The “wear purple” campaign, by contrast, is not about grief or honouring the dead. Will these thousands not merely put a purple shirt on in the morning, momentarily feel connected to a mass movement, and go about their routine, forgetting the shirt and whatever meaning they ascribe to it? Oh, and sacrifice nothing?
The notion that wearing purple will “raise awareness” is equally false: these suicides have been on front pages, all over the internet, “seen” again and again. Awareness has been raised. Those touched by the tragedies have had chances to grieve.

It is time to move to meaningful action that makes suicide a less appealing option for more queer youth. There are many ways of doing so, more effective than wearing purple for a day, including local initiatives like Project 10, Allies, AlterHéros, and the Montreal Youth Coalition Against Homophobia. Contributing to one of these groups will mean sacrificing time and/or money, but will also allow for a direct impact on the lives of youth confronted by discrimination on the basis of (perceived) sexuality or gender performance. The “Wear Purple” campaign would be merely ineffectual yet harmless if it did not threaten to lessen the urgency with which we pursue concrete responses to the crisis of queer teen suicide.

Of course, people are free to wear what they want on October 20. But I hope that those who decide to wear purple will not do so in unreflective compliance with something they saw on Facebook or consider their action an adequate response to the fact that kids around the world continue to kill themselves because homophobic peers made them feel life was not worth living. As students, we need to move beyond proclamations of solidarity and fleeting symbolic gestures, and toward concrete action against homophobia.