On the same day Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson proclaimed Purple Shirt Day in the city, some 300 people gathered at the edge of the city’s gay village to remember queer youth who have taken their own lives as a result of bullying.
“We are here to remember those who left us too early,” the day’s organizer, Anthea Ballam, told the crowd, which had gathered with candles at dusk at Emery Barnes Park on Oct 20.
Councillor Tim Stevenson read the proclamation again at the park. And then he told the crowd about a gay friend he had as a youth.
“We were attracted to each other,” Stevenson said. “He was bullied. One day he hung himself in the basement of his home.”
Earlier, at city hall, Ballam and Ryan Clayton, the organizer of the Purple Letter Campaign, joined Robertson. The letter campaign was started a few months ago to lobby the BC government to adopt a provincewide sexual orientation and gender identity policy for schools. Clayton said more than 300 letters, in which queers tell their stories, have been received. He expects more.
He said one letter detailed the experiences of a youth who had to go to school in sunglasses to cover black eyes from assaults, while another was from a queer business leader who now generates huge profits yet wanted to take his own life as a youth because he was gay.
“I have shed more than my fair share of tears over them,” Clayton said.
Clayton and fellow activist Kaitlin Burnett will be in Victoria on Oct 25 to meet with Education Minister George Abbott to ask for the creation of a queer-friendly policy for schools.
“For everyone who has written a purple letter, I will hand deliver them into the minister of education’s hands,” Clayton said. “I’m really excited, really terrified, but this is so important I can put that aside,” he said.
Clayton said he’s grateful for the city’s support. “The city is serious about protecting its vulnerable youth, and the City of Vancouver is really going the extra mile on this one.”
Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert also spoke at the rally.
“I read these stories and these letters bring tears to my eyes and hope to my heart,” Chandra Herbert said. “I’m pretty bloody angry that we are still fighting for safe schools.”
In a letter to Liberal Premier Christy Clark and Abbott read by Stevenson at the vigil, Robertson said the response to the Purple Letter Campaign “is indicative of overwhelming desire among British Columbians to end homophobic bullying and ensure that all schools are inclusive and accepting for everyone.
“In 2011, there is no excuse for our youth to go to school and face a climate of fear, intimidation and harassment for who they are. Many of our school boards and municipalities have taken proactive steps, but to make far-reaching progress requires an approach that ensures equal access to inclusion in schools throughout the province,” the letter stated.
Egale Canada, referring to Oct 20 as Spirit Day, said bullying of queer youth, and those who are perceived to be queer, remains a serious national problem.
Egale Canada’s Every Class in Every School survey notes that just over 70 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirited, queer and questioning students feel unsafe at school.
“We all have a role to play in making sure our society is safe and inclusive for youth to express their true identities without fear of violence or bullying,” Egale’s executive director Helen Kennedy said.
“Whether you’re LGBTQ-identified or otherwise, you can make a huge difference for local youth by showing them that they can safely talk to you about LGBTQ issues,” she concluded.