the politics of getting better

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.

16 Responses

  1. Good post, AZ. Really thoughtful.

  2. I know that the prospect of things “getting better” got me through some dark school days – and that I could barely imagine how much better my life would be once I was able to chose my friends from a larger pool than the 20-30 people who happened to be born in the right time span and live in my neighbourhood (or the few hundred in my high school).

    Isolation and feeling utterly alone and misunderstood were my demons, and those did get better.

    I really appreciated this post; thanks, Andrea.

  3. Very well said! I especially like your final statement. Big problems need multiple voices and multiple resources, and shooting one down for not being the other perpetuates a message that ‘your best isn’t good enough.’ That is the last thing we need to be telling ourselves, our community member or individuals who are struggling to cope.

  4. I like this post a lot better than a lot of the criticism I’ve seen – while there are certainly valid points raised by some of the critics, too many of them seem to be missing the point that it wasn’t just about one video – it was an open call for all kinds of people to share their stories and perspectives. That, I think was the best thing about it. No one person’s story speaks to everyone, but every additional person who shares theirs increases the chance that someone checking out the site will find something they can relate to.

    I get really tired of people who constantly cut down anything they find to be remotely politically imperfect, usually without offering any kind of constructive alternative. If no one ever did anything without making sure it was absolutely 100% politically unassailable on every conceivable level, nothing would ever get done at all. Every individual action is just as starting point, but at least it’s something.

  5. My first wife was also my highschool sweetie.
    When she was a freshman she got busted making out with another girl.
    That sort of thing isn’t a huge deal nowdays… but back then it caused huge problems including physical abuse by other students.
    As she got older things did get better.
    Even then however it wasn’t good.
    She was a bisexual woman before that was okay and both straight and lesbian women for the most part didn’t understand.
    I remember telling her when she was in 10th grade “Don’t worry, when school is over and you won’t have to deal with dumb ass students all will be fine.”
    Later she said that kind of talk was a big help, but it was all a lie.
    Her brother was gay.
    I told him the same stuff.
    He also claimed it helped. He aslo says it was a lie.
    He is an upper class white male with a great job now.
    He still says it was a lie.
    Even if things didn’t turn out roses… it helped them both then.

  6. Ton texte est touchant. Thank you for sharing.

  7. [...] my thoughts about my first asterisk point*. My jets started to cool a bit. Finally I read this post and my feelings became all jumbled [...]

  8. “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.”

    Wow. Eye-opening…struck a nerve I didn’t know I had.

  9. Hey Andrea,

    I like your post. I had mixed feelings about this project too, so I made this video instead of an it’s gets better video.

    I feel like the project in aggregate is great and luckily the people making the videos are not as self-indulgent as the premise.

  10. Thank goodness. I’m glad someone finally acknowledged the actually reality of the situation that these kids are in, in that they are helpless because they are institutionally made so, and that the best solution as of now is to simply tough it out and grow up. Expecting kids and teens to organize and solve their problems rather than getting out of the situation is ridiculous at best. Reading sociologists complain that the movement doesn’t address this or that and doesn’t entail enough action is just offensive and unrealistic to the kids and teens in this situation.

  11. [...] read a blog post, The Politics of Getting Better, in which the author pointed out that a lot of critiques only focus on Dan Savage’s video and [...]

  12. Well written. I’ve been encouraged to upload a video to It Gets Better and haven’t gotten to it yet. My thought was that I am another face that someone might relate to, I did live through horrible homophobic bullying, I’ve survived and made a good life. Your post reminded me that I also enjoy the privilege of being white, of being able to get a college education, of having parents who didn’t approve of my sexuality, but didn’t cut me off.

    And, yeah, it gets better in some ways and not in others. If we do survive, we have the chance to get stronger, to know how to deal with hostility. We have the chance to gain self-confidence and pride through our hard work and accomplishments and we have the chance to find other people who won’t judge us.

  13. Andrea,

    I don’t often comment on your blog, but I wantd to thank you for this entry. You nailed down what’s been rattling around in my head ever since people started shooting down the project. Of course it’s flawed, of course we have to acknowledge that it comes from a place of privilege, but it was a good place to start. The fact that he created the YouTube channel to create a chorus of voices – some of whom chose to say, “It DOESN’T get better, but you get stronger,” or messages to that effect – rather than standing in the middle of the stage as a one-note soloist, makes this a commendable project on a number of levels, in my opinion.

    I also think we should generally encourage folks who have the courage to speak out and make the effort to reach out to continue to do so, even if we steer them toward a more inclusive message.

    XOXO
    Jacqueline

  14. THANK YOU! And ditto everything Jacqueline said.

  15. Just wanted to say thanks to all of you for all the thoughtful comments. I continue to watch the project’s impact as the critical reaction spirals in various intriguing directions and as more and more videos continue to be made and posted. From a heightened interest in front-line queer youth support projects (my partner’s street-involved queer youth drop-in raised $8K more than expected in this year’s fundraiser) to sharp academic critique of the IGBP to groups like the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus and the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert creating their own videos, I feel like this project has tapped into a wellspring of energy. Beyond that, I feel like the media has become suddenly sensitized to queer youth in a way they weren’t even just a few months ago (despite all the awful prom problems in Mississippi and the like). It’s like the “queer question” is now playing out in high schools all over the continent, with stories popping up almost daily – a trans student being stripped of his homecoming king title because he’s registered as a girl (http://www.afterellen.com/people/2010/09/school-strips-transgender-teen-of-homecoming-king-title), a high school board trustee shamed into resignation because he posted horrifically homophobic comments on his Facebook page about hoping that gay kids will get AIDS and die (http://www.truthwinsout.org/blog/2010/10/12320/), and so forth. Let’s keep an eye on all this, shall we? And get our progressive little hands in there in every way we can…

  16. Great post ~ really well thought out!

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