Last year, my Facebook News Feed blew up in regal (and surprisingly diverse) purple splendor for GLAAD's first Spirit Day. I was never so happy to see such a garish display of profile pics, which turned my pages into what looked like a sugar-charged Barney-themed child's birthday party on steroids.
But I have to admit, there was not a lot of purple on the streets or subways of New York that day.
It underscored the reality that for many of us, there are virtual worlds, where we feel brave and empowered, and the real one, where bravery is taken in tiny steps, with trepidation and, very often, without a happy chorus of LOLs or thumbs-up Likes to fuel our energies. On the streets, I was still a minority, feeling very exposed in my grape-candy-bright Paul Smith shirt. It felt like a badge of honor, sure. But it also felt like an odd target.
Of the few I saw in purple, I had mixed reaction... excited to see "someone like me" but nervous to make any assumptions, let alone a public acknowledgement to a stranger of what we might possibly be sharing, in common. Maybe he just wanted to wear purple tie, she a purple sweatshirt.
And maybe someone who knew was secretly seething at me in my purple shirt, calling me "fag" under his or her breath (as many did openly on the "Wear Purple" Facebook event page the night before the memorial to honor those who had tragically taken their lives, including Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi.)
That morning, on my way to a job on the east side, walking through crowds in that VERY purple shirt, I realized that that feeling, that wondering about who knew what, felt very familiar.
I was having a flashback: to a time when I felt like I stood out, and was not sure why I did. A time of not knowing who knew, or shared, what I was all about, what I was hiding, and fearing that I was not hiding very well at all. It all flooded back.
I was reminded of those days when I was first coming out... and back to those moments when I thought I was the only gay kid in all of Miami (I sure know better now). I was transported back to when I was terrified people "could tell" I was gay just by looking at me, and seeing brief moments of those same fears in fleeting glances of others... all of us too terrified to risk exposure, even if it meant we'd find reinforcement, friendship, romance or, god forbid, love.
We were reluctant members of an oddly secret society, one for which we were never given the code, secret handshake or Owners Manual. And all of it amid raging hormones, SAT prep, uncontrollable crushes, proms, Phys Ed and Sunday mass.
In those recollections, I recognized the despair that Tyler and others had to have felt, so utterly alone, tormented inside and out, with a secret they thought was as obvious to the world as a bright purple shirt in a sea of beige and black and gray.
I was lucky in those moments of my own, to find something or someone to keep me moving forward... fantasy, art, music, my imagination, movies, museums, supportive art teacher, mom and sister, and the fact that I was fairly popular, and thus spared the worst in grade school and high school, although memories of the picking of sports teams in gym class still effect my confidence to this day.
Sometimes bullying manifests itself in more subtle, and much more organized, "accepted" ways, and gym class seemed to be personal Ground Zero for so many. So it's heartening to see how embracing of Spirit Day and other anti-bullying efforts major sports teams and organizations (even NASCAR!!) have become, and how important it is to have groups and movements like GLSEN's "Changing the Game," Go Athletes and Jeff Sheng's Fearless Project.
Many said Spirit Day, a great coming together of organized groups and grassroots efforts, in memory of the lost lights like Tyler and so many others was an empty gesture.
Naysayers said it was just a bunch of people talking to themselves to make themselves feel better, or worse yet, that it was a slap in the face to the straight kids who've taken their own lives creating equally tragic voids. I assure you for me, no, none of the above.
But it's worth a reminder that kids in the LGBT spectrum take their lives at far greater number than straight kids, even now, while Modern Family and The New Normal play in the living room.
In that moment somewhere between Columbus Circle and the shuttle to Grand Central, in a sea of strangers, when I felt my heart fall so suddenly and deeply, and felt just a tiny bit of that past confusion, isolation, and uncertainty that drives so many, today, to desperate measure, I understood what the day was really meant to be about.
It made me remember that as far as we have come, many are still walking through life in secret fear and terror, sometimes self-imposed, but all too often, outwardly amplified by bullies, zealots, hypocrites, misguided politicians and the generally ignorant. It's also why The Trevor Project, GLSEN, the Ali Forney Center and National Coming Out Day all remain relevant and worthy of as much support as we can afford them, especially as many lose local and federal funding.
For me, because of Spirit Day, purple will never be the same.
All because of a shirt that let me wear my heart, and my gay identity on my sleeve. And all because of a freshman from Rutgers.