The spark of candles cast a hazy purple blur over a downtown Vancouver park as waves of mourners arrived to commemorate the rash of North American suicides of gay youth from homophobic bullying.
The words are the slogan of a YouTube project designed to reach out to young gay people who may be thinking about suicide. The project captured international attention since it began a few weeks ago in the U.S.
Teenagers, parents, elderly and young adults wiped tears from their eyes and raised candles above their heads. An elderly man in a wheelchair with a purple feather boa followed Clayton with a howling cheer and the crowd responded loudly.
“That was a community that showed up,” said Clayton, who helped organize the Vancouver Vigil for Ending Homophobic Bullying on Oct. 20. “That wasn’t just a group of people who have Facebook. It was a whole community.”
A half dozen recent suicides in the U.S. – all tied to bullying – show that youth who stray from gender norms face real hostility, and gay activists in Vancouver want youth here to know they are not alone.
“For me if one youth showed up and was moved by it, that was worth it,” said Clayton. “I saw hundreds of youth.”
Clayton said there is no doubt that gay and lesbian youth here face special and pointed hostility from their peers and families.
“I don’t think these are uncommon. I don’t think these are new. I don’t think these haven’t been happening for a long time,” said Clayton.
But suicide is only one issue facing queer youth today. Most days are a challenge for many gay Vancouver adolescents, said leaders in the lesbian and gay community.
Compared to heterosexual teens, queer youth in British Columbia face higher levels of rejection, discrimination, and violence, in their families, in school, and in their communities, according to a 2007 study done by The McCreary Centre Society.
It also reported greater stress, anxiety, hopelessness, and lower levels of protective factors such as family and school relationships.
“For me it was mostly the loneliness,” said Richard Rigby, a first-year student at UBC. “Something like this really shows that people are out there for you.”
Rigby attended the rally with a group of young friends all dressed in purple. They discussed the turnout for the event and reflected on their own experiences.
“At first when asked about being bullied, I thought a lot of the same,” said UBC student Amanda Wanner, “but then I realized why should I feel like that’s normal. It’s sort of engrained.”
Taking a stand
The high figures of suicides and bullying targeted at queer youth deserve more attention from local school officials, activists say.
“I think the big thing that is missing is information in schools,” said Ross Johnstone, director of youth education at Out in Schools, an organization that brings queer films to local high schools in order to facilitate discussion with youth on bullying.
Johnstone said there is no mandatory curriculum that deals with queer issues in Vancouver.
“We can make all the laws we want,” he said, “but if the message isn’t trickling down in schools it is not transcending. A lack of understanding is becoming more perceptible to harm.”
Patti Bacchus, chairperson of the Vancouver School Board, said Vancouver has taken leadership in these issues. The Vancouver School Board’s anti-homophobia consultant, Steve Mulligan, has been instrumental in providing support in schools, said Bacchus.
“We still have the only district in the province with a position like Steve’s job and it is a big priority for us,” she said.
‘Gay proud youth’
The event also provided a platform for youth to stand up and share their personal stories.
“I am a youth, I am a gay youth. I am a gay proud youth,” said Jesse Redmond, a youth who has Vardi Syndrome, a rare disability, and hearing impairments.
Redmond spoke about GAB Youth Centre, an organization situated in the Davie Village that provides resources and activities aimed at fostering a community for queer youth under 25.
He stood confidently in front of the stage. “Growing up in school, not only did I get faggot and not only did I get queer but I got freak, abnormal, different, not one of us,” Redmond said.
“I am here today to let you know, and to let the world know, and the people who are against us know, that I am one of them and I will stand here and say proudly that I am a different one of them.”