Maine Turns Purple
On that day, October 20, people around the country (and I would guess, thanks to the Internet, around the world) participated in a nearly spontaneous display of social consciousness by the simple act of wearing purple.
In case you missed, or were puzzled by, this singular fashion statement, here's a brief FAQ:
Q: Purple? Why purple?
A: Beats me. Maybe because it's half red and half blue, like America.
Q: What's it mean?
A: It's a show of support for and solidarity with gay youth, in the wake of a horrific spate of suicides among young teenagers who were bullied and tormented by their classmates because they were perceived as being gay.
For those of us who are parents, a mere reading off the death roll brings a chill: Corey Jackson, 19; Raymond Chase, 19; Tyler Clementi, 18; Billy Lucas, 15; Asher Brown, 13; Seth Walsh, 13; Carl Walker, 11. That's right, eleven. All in the span of a few months.
For those of us who are also gay, the emotional mash-up is more complicated. But so is our feeling about this viral show of support for gay teens, and for teens who just might be gay, that seems to have sprung up from everywhere at once. Sudden, assertive, stylish, and ultra-hip, the "Wear purple" phenomenon is a thing outside our personal experience. High school gay-straight alliances, diversity coalitions, PFLAG, and the like have been around for a while, but their message has always struck me as preaching to the choir. This is something new.
I was tipped to this purple business a week ago by my twenty-year-old daughter, who pointed me to It Gets Better, a crowd-sourced video project that sprang up on YouTube, caught the eye of The New York Times, and lately has reached the White House. My student Emily at Watershed School commended The Trevor Project to my attention. She also made a public announcement at an all-school meeting, asking other students to join the cause.
These young women weren't going to let it go. "Remember to wear purple tomorrow daddy," my daughter texted Tuesday night. All right, all right, I thought. It's not that big a deal — I wear purple all the time anyway.
But Wednesday I was not alone, and it was kind of a big deal.
One may wonder how much relevance this kind of thing has in Maine, which has always been a fairly tolerant place. The recent wave of suicides, like the biblical Angel of Death, has passed (thus far) safely over us. Kids at the local high school identify themselves as gay on their Facebook pages. "Things are a lot easier now," says Emily.
Are they really, though? Another of my students, eighteen-year-old Jay, recounted an incident at the supermarket where he works on weekends, in a coastal town known for its laid-back, artsy and "alternative" ambiance. The store was having a dress-casual day for employees. Two of them, a young woman and an openly gay young man, showed up in nearly identical V-neck t-shirts. For the gal, no problem. But the guy was ordered by the manager to change into something less, you know, gay. Customers were complaining. More than one reminded the manager — as though this were somehow the issue — "Gay marriage is illegal."
Jay was gobsmacked by what seemed to him a blatant, and homophobic, double standard. He wants to do something about it. Busy and stressed as he is, what with school and work and worrying about college, he's trying to organize a protest.
For myself, I find it difficult in general to come down too hard on a retail manager responding to customer feedback. I'm more puzzled about what was going on in the heads of these righteous Mainers. Does the "people's veto" of a marriage-equality law two years ago mean it's open season on gays now? Or is this a don't-ask-don't-tell kind of thing? You can be gay if you want, just keep it to yourself.
Are things easier now, as Emily believes? I wonder. And I wonder too if the supermarket affair would have happened even a few months ago, before a blustery, anti-everything, Tea Party hero won the GOP gubernatorial nomination and now seems likely headed for the Blaine House. It's not hard to imagine that this turn of events has emboldened those who want to put gay people, and many others, back in their place.
All I can say for sure is, this particular genie will be hard to squeeze back in the bottle. All the hip kids are wearing purple now.