Since everybody and their dog is talking about Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, I feel like I should take a break from grant applications and other joys of grad school, and jump into the fray for a few moments.
So. Dan Savage is a well-known gay advice columnist who, inspired by a rash of teen suicides in the States that appear to have been motivated by homophobic bullying, recently started a YouTube channel inviting people to upload videos of themselves assuring queer teens that it gets better once you grow up, so please don’t kill yourselves.
It’s been fascinating to watch the phenomenon develop over the past couple of weeks. Hundreds of people have uploaded videos, and I am struck if nothing else by the diversity of them—men, women, genderqueer and trans folks, big groups, solo people, roommates, entire groups of workplace colleagues, straight allies, old people, young people, people of many ethnic and racial backgrounds and from various countries, people who are all over the GLBQ map in terms of orientation, even one or two leather people. Some of the messages have brought me to tears, some have bored me; some have felt self-indulgent, others passionate and encouraging. Above all, it’s been intriguing to see how deeply the project seems to be affecting people, whether they agree or disagree that it’s a good idea.
On that note, I’ve seen a lot of criticism levelled at the project. This blogger’s critique has popped up frequently this week, and I’ve got some mixed reactions to it—I very much agree with some points, but others I find less convincing. Either way it’s food for thought.
My friend Ishai, who works with queer and trans teens, gives a cogent critique both of the project itself and, in an insightful postscript, the mis/use of the term “gay suicide” (please do go and read it).
He says, for example, “a great many other people have also been disturbed by the project, and the notion that you can make the lives of queer youth better by explaining how great your life is in a smug and self-satisfied kind of way. No need to volunteer, no need to actually listen to youth, no need to build meaningful safe relationships, or otherwise engage with young people, just tell them to sit down and wait until they are older.”
I very much see what he means on this count. The idea that “it gets better” is a platitude—there’s actually no guarantee that anything will get better, and saying so with no further analysis is way too simple. I’m down with that critique, for sure.
That being said, I have a couple of responses. For starters, Dan Savage didn’t create a personal video and end it there; he created a YouTube channel because he wanted other people to contribute too. And contribute they have, and not always with a repetition of Dan’s too-simple message. For example, one of my favourites is this one, in which the speaker, who self-identifies as a gay woman of colour, says “I’m gonna be real. I live this life and I’m brown and I’m not rich and I probably look like most of you. It doesn’t get better, but what does happen is that you get stronger. You learn how to deal with it, and you learn how to love yourself. … If you take your own life, they win.”
I have also seen videos from lots of concerned adults who are very much doing things beyond just uploading videos—they work on (and advertise the contact info for) youth hotlines, they run high school gay/straight alliances, they work as counsellors and therapists, they write books for teens on how to avoid suicide.
So while I appreciate that one video by one well-to-do white gay man and his partner with one overly simple message is not exactly going to solve the problem of teen suicide due to homophobic bullying, the beauty of the medium is that tons of people can add their own far more complex, nuanced messages. And in no way does this project preclude people organizing for change that starts right now, rather than needing to wait for adulthood. People are doing that and have been doing it for years. If It Gets Better suddenly puts the issues of teen suicide, homophobic bullying and the work people are doing to counter these problems on the greater public awareness map, I think that’s awesome.
I’m not saying Dan Savage’s message is the only thing we need, because clearly it’s not; and I’m certainly not saying that I buy into the idea that being a grown-up solves all problems. After all the bullies grow up too, and as grown-ups we see them all over the place. They hang out in, oh, conservative governments, homophobic religious groups, and plenty of other places too. We’re not exactly free of them. In fact one of the defining features of living as an out queer is that you deal with this kind of person all the time, whether they’re making laws to rob you of your civil rights or harassing you online or taking advantage of an undeserved charitable status to “treat” your homosexuality in the name of Jesus.
Beyond that, I have plenty of criticisms to direct at Dan Savage for his unacknowledged privilege and his persistent biphobia, among other things. Sometimes he has great stuff to say; sometimes his point of view makes me feel outraged.
But in terms of creating a forum where kids (and adults) can go to hear a plethora of messages that might instil a bit of hope, and in terms providing ample assurance that real live happy queers do exist out there and you can be one of them, I must say he’s right on the money with this project. Brenda Cossman, a law professor at University of Toronto and director of U of T’s Sexual Diversity Studies program, puts it eloquently: “When a teenager – or anyone for that matter – is in the midst of a dark night of the soul, when they are seriously contemplating taking their own life – they are NOT looking for tools to organize for change. If they are online at all – and luckily this generation often is – they are looking for ways to get through the night. It Gets Better is about speaking to those kids who need to get through the night. And the next day, and the day after that.”
Let me make this personal for a sec.
As a teen I spent two years in a deep suicidal state, and if I’d seen messages like the ones available through the It Gets Better project, they might have helped me a lot. In fact the very idea that it would get better—that as soon as I was old enough and could make (barely) enough money to fend for myself and not depend on my parents, as soon as I could get out of high school and make more choices for myself, as soon as I could get out of my abusive relationship—was exactly what got me through the whole mess. I basically did just grit my teeth and bear it all—abuse at home and in my relationship, a terrible sense of not fitting in at school, a choice to stay in the closet because it wasn’t safe to come out, and the feeling that I really was the only queer person in the world because I certainly didn’t see any others (and we didn’t have YouTube back then). And as soon as I could, I left all of it behind.
And y’know, it did get better. Not because life didn’t throw other challenges at me—it did. I survived another abusive relationship, and many years of poverty and struggle. There was no magic button, and there still isn’t today; fifteen years after the fact, my health is still suffering due to the injuries I sustained as a teen and the years of malnutrition I experienced after I left home. Today I am way better off than I was then; partly because I’ve worked damned hard for it, and partly because I’ve benefited from various forms of privilege along the way (I am white, middle-class, English-speaking, and conventionally attractive among other things). But my past is marked in no uncertain terms on my body and in my mind.
Youth are oppressed for the simple fact of being young. Systems are set up to take away their choices, to treat them as though they were incapable of rational thought; the resources and institutions that are in theory there to serve and protect them are in no way guaranteed to do so, and often in fact perpetuate that oppression; their social worlds are a jungle and there’s little support. All of that is fucking horrific, and for the most part it’s completely socially sanctioned. The layers of misconceptions we have about youth are so deeply embedded in our culture that we don’t even question them, and the power we have as adults to impose a life framework on the young based on those misconceptions is incredibly unjust. This angered me when I was young, and it still angers me today.
But unlike most kinds of oppression, the oppression of being young is the one kind of oppression you can literally outgrow if you choose not to kill yourself. Why? Because you get older. Other kinds of oppression stick around—nobody “outgrows” being a person of colour, for example. But youth is pretty much guaranteed to be temporary. The challenge is for us to remember, once we’re no longer young, that the suffering of young people shouldn’t be seen as a rite of passage that we all have to go through, any more than sexual harassment in the workplace is just something to put up with, or violence against sex workers is just part of the job. It’s profoundly unjust and should be challenged like any other form of oppression. So I’m not saying that the only thing kids should do is wait it out, or that the only thing adults should do is tell them to wait it out. Clearly that’s not enough. What I am saying is that, however unjust this may be, the passage of time is indeed part of the solution.
For me, one of the things that gave me hope along the way was an article I found in a Chatelaine magazine, somewhere around 1989. I was flipping through the mag at my aunt’s place when we were there for dinner when I saw a picture of two girls grinning, arms wrapped around each other, both wearing tuxedos with pink cummerbunds and pink satin high heeled shoes. The article was a sympathetic portrayal of two lesbian teenagers who went to their high school prom together. I remember surreptitiously tearing the article out of the magazine, folding it carefully in half, and tucking it into my jacket, which was hanging in the hall. I still have that article now in my files somewhere. I kept it because when I was a kid, there was no YouTube, there were no GSAs in high schools, there was no Ellen on TV. This was it. This was the sole representation I’d ever seen of queerness, and it told me that even if I couldn’t see it anywhere near me, in my community, at school, at church—it was out there, somewhere. And eventually I would find it.
Now, it so happened that these women were white, able-bodied, gender-bending to a point, English-speaking, and so forth. In other words, the representation I saw was something that, at that age, I was able to connect with because they weren’t so terribly different from me. I have no idea what it might have been like if I’d been a person of colour, if I’d had a disability, if I spoke a language other than English. Perhaps that image and article wouldn’t have spoken to me at all, and perhaps as a result I wouldn’t have had that hope of future possibility to cling to when I felt totally alone. Today, however, YouTube gives kids a chance to see the huge range of possibilities that the future can hold. And while some people may well be uploading smug and self-satisfied videos about how dripping in privilege they are, really, some people are just telling their stories, and I think those stories are incredibly valuable.
The women in Chatelaine were not listening to me or providing support services; they didn’t even know I existed. All they did was tell their story, and for me, that is exactly what I needed. I needed other things too—physical and emotional safety sure would have topped that list, followed closely by counselling—and, aside from a single whispered phone call to Kids’ Help Line one night when I was 12, I didn’t get them. But it wasn’t up to Chatelaine to give me those things and I wouldn’t accuse them, or the lesbian prom-goers they featured, of letting me down. They did their part, and it was only a part, and that was okay. Representation is just that. It’s not a cure-all and it doesn’t pretend to be. It should always be part of a bigger package.
GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is not a suicide hotline; suicide hotlines are not shelters; shelters are not schools; schools are not parents; parents are not therapists; therapists are not legal defence funds. Each of these, and many more, can and should play a part in supporting suicidal teens and in making the world a better, safer place for them to live in as they grow.
In the meantime, while I’m all for critiquing specific aspects of the It Gets Better project, I think we should stop short of cutting it down entirely. It is serving a valuable purpose, as are the many queer youth initiatives out there. If we feel dissatisfied with it, or with the other resources that, fortunately, are available for kids these days, let’s make it our job—young people and older people alike—to change that. There are lives to be saved.